You can do better than a New Year’s resolution (w/ Gretchen Rubin) (Transcript)

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How to Be a Better Human
You can do better than a New Year’s resolution (w/ Gretchen Rubin)
January 2, 2023

[00:00:00] Chris Duffy:
Welcome back to How to Be a Better Human. I am your host, Chris Duffy, and I am so happy to be back with our first episode of season three. I know that I speak for everyone on the show when I say that we are so honored to be starting this new year here with you. And I'll also be honest and say that starting a new year can be kind of fraught, right?

A lot of people talk about New Year New You. But at least for me, I have spent many a January 2nd being like, “Oh God, it is a new year and I am still the same old me. How is that even possible?” Right? I feel this pressure like I'm supposed to be flexing my six-pack while meditating and speaking fluent Spanish already.

Like how did I already fall so far behind in the new year? I think that's because there's a lot of pressure around transformation in a new year, and some of that can be good. It’s good to have a kick in the butt to lose some bad habits and start some new good ones too, to be reflective about what's working and what's not working in your life, and to try and think strategically about how you can get yourself closer to what makes you happy.

All that is really good, but there's a lot of really tough, challenging, negative pressure as well to not make any mistakes. And there's all this judgment around where you’re at. And when I think about a person who manages to walk the fine line of capturing the really good parts of resolutions and habit change while avoiding the pitfalls of judgment and toxic positivity, today’s guest, Gretchen Rubin, is at the very top of my list. She's the best-selling author of The Happiness Project, The Four Tendencies, and Outer Order, Inner Calm, in addition to many other books, and here's what Gretchen has to say about this time.

[00:01:33] Gretchen Rubin:
There really is no magic to January 1st. But at the same time, it is true that sometimes certain periods feel auspicious. And one of the things I like about the kind of New Year New You is the sense everyone is reflecting and everyone is setting aims and sort of everybody's talking about it. There's a little bit of momentum because it, it's sort of out there. So I think it can be very helpful, but I think that if you miss January 1st, you shouldn't feel like, “Oh, well, you know, I missed my shot. I have to wait till the next January 1st or even the next February 1st.”

No need to wait. Now is always the best time. You know, there's that old saying, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.” And the best time to change and to start a healthy habit is now.

[00:02:20] Chris Duffy:
We are going to hear so much more from Gretchen in just a minute, so do not go anywhere.

But first, right now is also the second best time to read you some podcast ads. And the first best time, of course, is 20 years ago. But when I told that to our sponsors, they said, we do not accept that. So here we go:


[00:02:46] Chris Duffy:
And we are back with bestselling author Gretchen Rubin. Today we're talking about how to start the new year off right by thinking critically about your habits.

[00:02:54] Gretchen Rubin:
Hi, I’m Gretchen Rubin. I am an author and podcaster who explores happiness, good habits, and human nature. I'm the author of The Happiness Project and several other books, and I am also the co-host of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast.

[00:03:08] Chris Duffy:
I love your podcast. I, I also love listening to your sister on her own podcast and—

[00:03:13] Gretchen Rubin:
Oh yeah.

[00:03:13] Chris Duffy:
—and hearing the, like, overlap between those two. And it feels like you two really support each other in the changes that you make, right? Like you hear her talk about it on Happier with you. You hear her talk about it in Happier in Hollywood.

So how do you think about, like, working in habits with friends and family so that you're all supporting each other rather than, I think we've all had the experience of like your family kind of undermines you by, like, doing the opposite of what you're trying to do?

[00:03:37] Gretchen Rubin:
Well that's, I mean, you put your finger on a crucial point, which is that we really pick up habits from other people, and this can work for us. Like, if one partner in a relationship quit smoking, the other person's more likely to quit smoking. But they can also work against us because, you know, when one person breaks a habit, they can often sort of, the other person gets encouraged to go along with them. So it's really important to think about other people.

And I do think it's really easy to sort of start thinking about ourselves in isolation and forget how much other people influence us. You have to, like, look around the people in your life and say, are these people, like, helping me? Are they encouraging me? Are they making it easier for me to keep these good habits or are they not?

And I think the sad truth and, and I think we've all seen this, is sometimes people really don't want you to keep a good habit because maybe if you keep a good habit, then they feel guiltier about the fact that maybe they're not following that good habit, or maybe they feel like, well, “I can't do what I want if you're not gonna come along with me. That's gonna disrupt our usual plans, or maybe it's just kind of inconvenient for me.”

Like, yeah, if you wanna get up and go for a run in the morning, that means I'm gonna have to play a bigger role in getting the kids to school. And I don't feel like doing that. And so I think we have to think about this, and if we're gonna set ourselves up for success and think, like, “Well, how are other people contributing to this? Or maybe how do I have to think about the fact that, um, maybe they're not as enthusiastic as I would wish?”

But I would also say, I think sometimes people really want like, “Let's do it as a team”, or “I really need you to cheer me along.” And it's like maybe people aren't interested in doing that, so I wouldn't wait for other people to buy in or to be full of praise and encouragement. I think a lot of times we just sort of have to figure out how to make our own way, too.

[00:05:23] Chris Duffy:
Do you make lists for yourself every year of like what you're trying to do? Or is it like, how do you think about these things for yourself personally?

[00:05:32] Gretchen Rubin:
Well, I mean, you can't go by me because this is like my, this is my work and my hobby, you know what I mean?

[00:05:36] Chris Duffy:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[00:05:37] Gretchen Rubin:
So, one thing I do every year is I make a, like a 23 in 23 list. I’ll do this year. I'm gonna make a list of 23 things that I would really like to get done in 2023. So it's a list that goes through the whole year. Some of the things will be fun. Some of the things will be arduous. Maybe I have many things that I've put off year to year that I'm still working toward.

Um, I always put on a few things that I can do in, like, 20 minutes to get something crossed off the list. Another thing we do is we will, uh, pick a one-word theme for the year, and that's also to kind of like energize a certain kind of attitude or a set of aims.

[00:06:12] Chris Duffy:
I love the theme, like just the idea of like, it doesn't have to be all goals. It can also be like, this is the kind of energy that I want to bring into the year.

[00:06:20] Gretchen Rubin:
Exactly. And then you start seeing how when, like, things will fit into it. Like, okay, my word was salt because I'm writing a book about the five senses, and salt is so important, but salt, the more I thought about it, it had all these layers of meaning: preserving things, and I'm really interested in how we preserve memories. Um, adding flavor and zest ‘cause salt is sort of a universal flavor enhancer. So how can you add that sort of zest? Too much is not good, you know, so it's one of these things where like, find the right amount of the things in my life, not too much, not too little, and it's, it's necessary for life. You know, you have to have it. So, so it had all these sort of metaphoric meetings and I found it to be very thought-provoking as I was sort of going through all my aims.

[00:07:00] Chris Duffy:
One of the big things that I was noticing that I, I had done in the past is I would make these goals that were completely out of my ability to achieve. Like, they relied on other people.

[00:07:10] Chris Duffy:
So it was like—

[00:07:11] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:07:11] Chris Duffy:
—“sell a TV show.” That, there's a lot in that that relies on people that are not me. There's, there’s at least dozens of people that have to say yes to something.

[00:07:21] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:07:21] Chris Duffy:
And, and I started changing things based on hearing you talk about them so that now my goals are like one, I always, I love having an easy one on there. Right? I'm like, “get into the ocean.” Okay, great. I can do that. I can go jump into the ocean.

[00:07:33] Gretchen Rubin:
Yeah. Yeah.

[00:07:33] Chris Duffy:
But then, the other part is I started changing it so that it was more, like, at the end of the year, I could look back and say, like, “Did I do this?” Right?

[00:07:39] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:07:40] Chris Duffy:
Like, did I write a new script? Fine. That is on me. I can do that. As opposed to like, did I convince 17 people who I may never even meet in person that it was a great script? That's out of my control.

[00:07:50] Gretchen Rubin:
You put your finger on something really important, which is that we, it's, it's more helpful to focus on actions, not outcomes. ‘Cause you're right. We can't control outcomes.

I wanna sell a bestselling book. Well, that depends on other people, not me, but I could say, “Write for three hours every morning.” And I think you're right to say that it should be concrete because I think even things like “eat more healthfully” or “appreciate the moment”, it's like at the end of the day or at the end of the year, it's like, did I do that?

Um, a really popular tool that a lot of people use is Don’t Break the Chain. And I think one of the reasons that it works is, like, to do a Don’t Break the Chain, you have to articulate so in a way that you can check it off every day. So it's not like “learn Italian” because you can't learn Italian today. But it's like, learn five new Italian words, memorize them. I know if I did that. I can check it off.

And then you can see yourself making progress. Like if you said something like, every single day, do something that furthers the possibility that I sell a TV show. I could write, I could network, I could go to lunch, I could spend time researching, like, a company that I'm thinking maybe would be good to collaborate with, but I need to like poke around and see if I know anybody there.

So you would be working towards that aim, but in a systematic, concrete, manageable way. And then you'd be tracking it. And sometimes even if you're not consciously trying to change, just monitoring something like how much you spend or how many times a day you lose your temper just by keeping track of it, we tend to start doing a better job. Awareness helps you to be more in line with what you would like to do.

[00:09:19] Chris Duffy:
I found that that happened when I started keeping just a very short journal and now I, now I gotta have like a whole array of journals where I have like my daily like little one and then a longer one where I do thoughts.

But when I first started, just like writing, like, what did I do today? It, all of a sudden, changed where I was having more interesting days. ‘Cause otherwise I'd get to the end of the day and be like, “Well, I sat in front of the computer all day. I can't even fill this small paragraph.”

[00:09:39] Gretchen Rubin:
Right. Right, right.

[00:09:40] Chris Duffy:
I don't want that to be the feeling at the end of the day.

[00:09:42] Gretchen Rubin:
Yeah. Well that's another journal we, I have is the one-sentence journal where you write just one sentence, ‘cause a lot of people have the urge to keep a journal but they kind of can't, like they don't have very much time or energy. And that's a perfect example of, like, just doing that in your one-sentence journal and, and that would actually would be fun to look back like in a year and say, “What was I doing a year ago today?” And it would just be this little thing.

[00:10:02] Chris Duffy:
Sometimes people make these kind of observations of like, like you write in The Happiness Project that the days are long, but the years are short and, and that you felt like time was passing and you're not focusing enough on the things that really matter.

[00:10:12] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:10:13] Chris Duffy:
And I feel like that's the kind of observation that many of us have had some less articulate version of, like falling in our life.

[00:10:19] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:10:20] Chris Duffy:
But most of us just say that. You really have, like, trans—you transformed your whole life. You went from being a lawyer clerking in the Supreme Court to being a writer, which is a, a real transformation and a scary one ‘cause you leave from this, like, certain kind of reliable income. It's a very clear career path to something that's much more uncertain.

And I know you've talked a lot about habits and how other people can do it. But as you continue to think about, like building your own life and evaluating it and, and thinking like, is this what I want to be? How do you check in on that for yourself, and how do you make sure that it is like what you're looking for, and then change it if it's not?

[00:10:53] Gretchen Rubin:
I think that's a great question because I think sort of self-reflection and self-knowledge is so key, and you think, well, “I just hang out with myself all day long, so like what could be more obvious?” But it is, it is really hard sometimes to know what we want. Like I do, I do a lot of different things now and I love it because it gives me all these ways to engage with people about ideas, which is what’s my favorite thing to do.

But at my heart, I'm a writer, and I always say to myself, “You know, I would do this for free. I would do this if no one read it.” This is for me, this is what I love. I feel like I almost don't even have a choice. Um, I feel compelled to do it when I have that feeling of like, “Oh, I, I can't wait to get up outta bed on a Sunday morning and, like, run to my desk because I have, like, I'm working on my aphorisms project.”

Like, that's how I know that I'm doing the right thing for me because I just, I have that feeling of like, I can't not do it. Um, so I feel so fortunate that I'm in a place where I can do what I really love to do and in a way that like, you know, is connecting with an audience because I would still do it if no one read it. But it's a lot more fun when people read it. That is for sure.

[00:11:58] Chris Duffy:
I had a, a moment where I was working as a fifth-grade teacher. It was really rewarding, but it was super intense. I was working very long hours. I wasn't getting a lot of time to sleep, and I was still finding time to go out and perform comedy. I had this similar thing of like, “Well, I'm gonna do this anyway because it doesn't make any sense for me to be doing this now—”

[00:12:15] Gretchen Rubin:
Yeah. Yes, yes.

[00:12:15] Chris Duffy:
And yet I'll still do it. But I think sometimes people misinterpret that idea to mean that it's always fun or that you always feel confident about it. And, often, for me, doing comedy, writing, like they're excruciating.

[00:12:29] Gretchen Rubin:
Yes. Yes.

[00:12:29] Chris Duffy:
And yet I never doubt that I would do this anyway.

[00:12:32] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:12:32] Chris Duffy:
Even though it's not always fun at all.

[00:12:34] Gretchen Rubin:
That is such a paradox. When I was starting to think about happiness, when I was writing The Happiness Project, that was something that was very hard for me to untangle. Like, how do you think about that? And the way I figured it out for myself was to say, well, two things.

One is happiness doesn't always make you feel happy. Like if we were scientists talking about happiness, we would have to, like, use an official term and really define it. But as common laypeople, doing what makes you happy doesn't always make you feel happy. And what I realized is that you can think about happiness in four parts.

There's feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right, and an atmosphere of growth. So feeling good is like love, enthusiasm, friendship, all the things that make you feel good. And then there's feeling bad. So you're like, I, “Are there ways for me to eliminate anger, resentment, boredom, guilt, indignation? Like, how can I bring those down?”

Then there's feeling right, which is, you know, we're happier when our life reflects our values. So am I putting my values into the world? Am I living the life that I feel like I want to live and that is right for me? And then an atmosphere of growth is feeling like, am I growing? Am I learning or am I teaching? Or am I helping oth—you know, others? Do I have that feeling of growth?

So doing standup, you could see like, well, it kind of makes you feel bad. There's maybe fleeting moments of feeling good, but there's a lot of, like, anxiety, insecurity, you know, all that. Um, but it makes you feel right, because you're like, this is the kind of person that I want to be. This is the kind of occupation I wanna be doing.

And then there's that atmosphere of growth, which I'm sure you were like, each time you did one, you were like, “Whew, I did one more. I learned this.”

[00:14:02] Chris Duffy:

[00:14:03] Gretchen Rubin:
“I got this done.” You know you have to fail a lot. It's stand up, bef—to succeed. Sometimes people say to me like that, by t—saying that people should be happier, I’m saying that they're gonna be like skipping for joy 24 hours of the day, every day of the week. I'm like, “That's not realistic and it's not even a good life.”

[00:14:19] Chris Duffy:
You write this in Happier. You say, like, there's no magic one size fits all solution for building a happier, healthier, more creative, and more productive life.

[00:14:25] Gretchen Rubin:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:14:26] Chris Duffy:
But there are some elements that stand out and, and you know, you just listed a ton of those elements, but I think that is key. Like it's not gonna look the same for everyone. It's not gonna feel the same.

[00:14:35] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:14:36] Chris Duffy:
But there are things we can do that bring us onto that.

[00:14:39] Gretchen Rubin:
Well, one thing I mean is relationships. I mean, if you were gonna say, well, what is the key? Like, what is, what's true for everyone? We are social creatures. To be happy, we have to have enduring, intimate relationships. I feel like we can confide, we can give and get support.

And so if you're thinking about how to spend your precious time, energy, or money, um, thinking about how to deepen relationships or broaden relationships is something that's that like, yeah, one size does not fit all. I dare say many people would not think that doing standup would be, you know, a, a, a route to happiness for them, but for just about everyone, relationships, however that might look for the individual, is a key to happiness.

[00:15:16] Chris Duffy:
Since, especially since we're at this time of year, where people are thinking a lot about like habits, it, it does seem like another key to happiness is the idea of doing something repeatedly, right? Like, if you want to write a book, if you just write one page every day, at the end of a year, you've written a lot of a book, maybe a whole book.

[00:15:35] Gretchen Rubin:
Yeah. Yes.

[00:15:35] Chris Duffy:
So if, if forming good habits can make us happier, can breaking bad habits have that same effect too? Like is that just as important as starting a, a good habit?

[00:15:44] Gretchen Rubin:
Absolutely. And really good habits and bad habits are usually just framing of the same thing. So it's likem not staying up too late is really going to bed on time. So I think a lot of times you can think about it either way and, and different things appeal to different people.

So you could, you know, quit sugar or you could eat more healthfully. One thing that has surprised me is how much vocabulary matters to people. How much framing matters, you might say, like an aim is am aim. A habit is a habit. But it turns out that it, like, are you playing piano or practicing piano? It matters to people, but as you say, about 40% of everyday life is shaped by habits. They're like the invisible architecture of everyday life. And so yeah, if we have habits that work for us, it's just gonna be a lot easier to have a happier life.

[00:16:26] Chris Duffy:
So much of, of your book Better than Before is about breaking these bad habits, right? Like the, the full title is Better than Before: What I Learned About Making or Breaking Habits to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life. And—

[00:16:38] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:16:38] Chris Duffy:
Honestly, those are four things that probably many people out there—

[00:16:42] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:16:42] Chris Duffy:
—would love to have accomplished in this new year. So, how do you go about setting manageable goals and, and break up those kind of tasks into smaller steps? Like how do you, if you're, if you think that that's what you want, but you're not quite sure where to go, and obviously one answer could be, “You should buy that book and read it all.”

[00:16:59] Gretchen Rubin:
Oh, yeah. Um…

[00:17:00] Chris Duffy:
Before they do that, what's, what's a step for them?

[00:17:01] Gretchen Rubin:
Well, one thing is to conceive of it in a, in a way that it is a habit, that it's not a goal. What would you do that would get you where you wanna go, but that would be something that could be a habit that you could do day after day? And really the thing about habits is part of what makes them effective is that they reduce decision-making.

So I'm not deciding whether or not to wear my seatbelt, because every time we make a decision, we can decide wrongly. You know, we wanna make it just, it just happens automatically. Now, some habits are more complicated, and they're more complex, and they have to be worked into our schedule more. So they aren't as easy as something like brushing your teeth or wearing your seatbelt, which are very quick and can be, you know, very, very automatic.

But there's a lot of ways that we can, you know, find, well, what is the behavior and how can I think about that automatic quality that will help us to stay on track over the long term?

[00:17:55] Chris Duffy:
I had not thought about this as a habit before, but it's often so hard to find time to spend time with good friends, even ones who I really love.

[00:18:04] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:18:04] Chris Duffy:
And I have a few friends where we just have a time on the calendar where it's like—

[00:18:07] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:18:07] Chris Duffy:
Hey, every Tuesday we have a quick call or—

[00:18:10] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:18:10] Chris Duffy:
Hey, we meet up and take a walk on Fridays. And those people, I find that I see so much more, and we're so much closer because there's never, it takes the decision to not do it rather than to do it.

[00:18:20] Gretchen Rubin:
Yeah. Yeah.

[00:18:20] Chris Duffy:
And I had never thought about that as a habit, but I guess you can have, like, a two-person or a group habit, too.

[00:18:24] Gretchen Rubin:
Absolutely, and I like for that reason, I'm a big fan of groups of joining or starting groups because you just have a set time to meet and you're not making a lot of one, one-off plans. If you're in a group, if you miss one time, well then you can catch everybody the next time. You sort of see a bunch of people at once, so it's more efficient. It's kind of funny to talk about efficiency and friendship.

One of the problems with friendship is it takes time and energy, and a lot of people don't have that much time and energy. And one of the things that's nice about a group, too, is like if we were in a group and you brought a couple friends and I brought a couple friends, well, now I'm meeting your friends and you're meeting my friends, and now we're creating a social network.

And that's like a very easy and kind of effortless way to expand your social circle, but in a way that's like, like building on what you already have. And also, you know, with, with relationships, I think frequency is more important than duration, so it's more important to do a quick check-in with somebody, see them for a day than it is to be like, well, we need to go away for like, a whole week and hang out or like, I need to be able to talk to you for three hours or it's not even worth getting on the phone. It's like there's a lot of value in quick check-ins.

[00:19:27] Chris Duffy:
Speaking of quick check-ins, we are actually gonna do a quick check-in right now on some ads, and then we will be right back with more from Gretchen, including how to figure out how your personal tendencies influence the habits that you form and that you keep. So stick around.


[00:19:51] Chris Duffy:
And we are back. We're talking with author Gretchen Rubin about habits. In her book The Four Tendencies, Gretchen describes four personality profiles that help explain how we behave and act. And when you're looking at building your own habits, knowing your tendency can help you figure out how to succeed in ways that work for you. Gretchen's got a great quick and free quiz on her website that can help you determine your own tendency if you want a preview of what's in her book. Gretchen, can you walk us through what those four tendencies are and how they work?

[00:20:18] Gretchen Rubin:
So the Four Tendencies is a personality framework that I came up with to explain a lot of patterns that I saw in habits, like how people could and could not successfully use certain approaches to like make or break their habits.

The Four Tendencies looks at something that sounds very boring, but ends up being really juicy, which is expectations. So my framework divides people into four categories: upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. And like you say, you can go to and take the quiz, but most people know what they are just from a brief description.

We all face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations, like a work deadline, and inner expectations like “I wanna keep a New Year's resolution.” So depending on whether we meet or resist outer and inner expectations, that's what make us an upholder, a questioner, obliger, or rebel.

So an upholder readily meets outer and inner expectations. They meet the work deadline. They keep the New Year's resolution without much fuss. They wanna know what other people expect from them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important. So their motto is “Discipline is my freedom.”

Then there are questioners. Questioners question all expectations. They'll do it if they think it makes sense. So they're making everything an inner expectation. If it meets their inner standard, they will do it no problem. If it fails their inner standard, they will push back, and they are the people that don't like things that are arbitrary, that are, that are ineffective, unjustified. They love customization. They love reasons. So their motto is “I'll comply if you convince me why.”

Then there are obligers. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. So these are the people who say, “Why can I keep my promises to other people, but I can't keep my promises to myself?” And the lesson for obligers is that they need outer accountability even to meet an inner expectation. If they want to read a book, join a book group. They want to exercise, they need to take a class or work out with a trainer or take their dog for a run, or think of their duty as a role model. There's a lot of ways to create outer accountability, but that's what you need. They're really great at showing up for other people, but they need outer accountability to do it for themselves. So their motto is, “You can count on me, and I'm counting on you to count on me.”

And then the last category is rebel. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They wanna do what they wanna do in their own way, in their own time. They can do anything they wanna do, anything they choose to do. But if someone else asks or tells them to do something, they're very likely to resist. And typically they don't tell themselves what to do. Like they don't make a plan to see a friend every Tuesday at 7:00 PM because they think, well, “I don't know what I'm gonna feel like doing Tuesday at 7:00 PM, and just the idea that it's on my calendar is gonna annoy me.” So their motto is “You can't make me and neither can I.” So those are the four.

[00:23:12] Chris Duffy:
Well, so I am a hundred percent, uh, I am an obliger, like to the core. I am so good if, if I have a boss and the boss wants something—

[00:23:20] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:23:20] Chris Duffy:
—oh, you are gonna get that thing. And yet, most of my life I am self-employed, and boy, do things go from one to-do list to the next to-do list to the next.

[00:23:30] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:23:30] Chris Duffy:
And I always think, like, if there was just another person named Chris who was the head of Chris Enterprises, we would be done with all these things. We would've been done with them years ago.

Thinking about how do you get some external accountability for the internal desires has been helpful for me in that, you know, maybe I make like a, a join a writer's group and then like I have to send my script in. Maybe it's like, I have a person where we're working out together so that I just know like—

[00:23:56] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:23:56] Chris Duffy:
I, I'm not gonna let them down. Right? Those are, those pieces have really helped me to get it to the next step. And for you, what, which one are you?

[00:24:04] Gretchen Rubin:
So I'm an upholder. I'm the first one. That's the one that the most people belong to, the biggest number of people belong to. For a lot of obligers, it, they sort of feel like they shouldn't need accountability. And you know why? It's because upholders, questioners, and rebels are like, “You don't need accountability. You know, do it for yourself. Get clear on your why. Like, you know, if you, if it's important to you, you'll make time.” It's like, no. They need a… Obligers need outer accountability, and there's nothing wrong with that.

I mean, and clearly so many people thrive because there's so many tools to help people get outer accountability because for so many people it's vital. And so I think for an obliger, sometimes it's a relief to realize like, “Oh, this is just a thing. A lot of people are in the same boat. I just like get myself that outer accountability.” There’s… Sometimes people treat it like it's training wheels that you should aim to get rid of, and I'm like, “No, it's not.” If you need other accountability, like you're in great company.

[00:24:54] Chris Duffy:
I’m curious, you know, obviously we don't know each other, but you seem like you have it very figured out. Are there things where you're still like, “Man, I just, I am struggling with this and I ca—I can't quite figure out how to, like, make this work for myself?”

[00:25:09] Gretchen Rubin:
Sometimes I've just sort of decide like, well, that's not me, you know?” Like, I'm just not gonna worry about that. So I think there are things where people might be like, “Hey Gretchen, I think you should do a little work on that.” And like meditation, right? I've tried meditation a couple times. So many people will say to you, like, meditation is like this crucial habit.

Anybody who's trying to get happier, healthier, more serene, more creative, should like focus on meditation. I gave it two tries. I threw all my ammunition at it to like, you know, solidify it. And I did it for months and it was just like, this isn't working for me. So I stopped, and I have many friends who are just the, my, my college roommate meditates like three hours a day and more if she can. So I have all these people in my life who really are advocating for how great it can be, and yet I just sort of decided like, yeah, it's not for me. And so and I don't even try.

[00:25:58] Chris Duffy:
Yeah, it seems like that, that might be one of the crucial parts of, of having a, a satisfied or happy life is to, like, use the tools you have and then when something's not working to be like, “Hey, it's okay. Like I don't need to fit someone else's definition of what I'm supposed to look like.”

[00:26:11] Gretchen Rubin:
Oh, a hundred percent. And I think people really do have an idea, like just take morning people and night people, you know, they have an idea like, oh, all the most creative successful people get up early and like tackle the toughest part of their day. Or that's when the best time to exercise, or that's when you should be writing your novel in your free time or something.

But, like, 30% of the population is night people who are really at their most productive and creative and energetic later in the day. And then some people are kind of in the middle. I think people will say like, “Well, you know, if you can't just get up early and do this, you just have to try harder. You just have to like, just double down instead of saying, ‘Hey, you know what? I'm really at my most creative at 7:00 PM. Let me organize my life so I work from 7 to 9:00 PM.’”

[00:26:54] Chris Duffy:
Well, with that idea of like dropping things when they're not working for you.

[00:26:58] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:26:58] Chris Duffy:
You’ve, you coined this term for one day of the year, determination day.

[00:27:02] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:27:02] Chris Duffy:
Which is that, like, many people have abandoned whatever their New Year's resolutions were by February 28th.

[00:27:08] Gretchen Rubin:
Yes. Yes.

[00:27:08] Chris Duffy:
And that, that's a day that other people could have called something like Discouragement Day, but you call it Determination Day.

[00:27:14] Gretchen Rubin:
Yes. Yeah. And then they start accumulating, well, “I've been so good, I should deserve some time off.” Or things come up, and you find it hard to get back, uh, back in the saddle. And so I think it's good to have a day… Just like, it's good to have a day of January 1st where we stop and reflect and think about, well, what do I want my life to look like and what changes could I make to help that to come to pass?

Determination day is a day to say like, “Hang on. What’s working? What’s not working?” If something isn't working, maybe you keep the same aim, but you try it a different way. So like, let's say you're an obliger and uh, you wanted to get more writing done, so you joined this writing group, but by Determination Day, you're like, “You know what, the thing about this group is like a lot of the people, they're not committed. They're not showing up having done any writing. Some people are, like, not showing up at all. So then I kind of feel like I'm off the hook. And so even though I, I want them to make me feel like I have to work, they're giving me excuses. This isn't working for me.”

I still have the same aim. I wanna get more writing done. But now I'm like, “Okay. This is not working as a tool. Let me try something else.” Maybe I need to do something even as simple as doing it at a different time of day. Maybe I need to make something more convenient. Can I change some of the things around the habit that would make it more likely that I would do it? And Determination Day is a great day to sort of stop, reflect, evaluate, and then pivot if you feel like that's what you need.

[00:28:35] Chris Duffy:
This is a question that I, I want to talk to you about. I'm not sure I'm gonna be able to articulate it exactly right. But there's an idea that I've heard people talk about in relationships that's any long-lasting marriage or, or, you know, long-term relationship isn't just between two people.

It's between many different versions of each of those people because you're not the same person you were when you started and neither is your partner. And so your marriage or your relationship has to change with you because these people are not the same as, you know, my wife and I started dating when we were 19.

We’re, we're very different people than when we were 19.

[00:29:09] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:29:10] Chris Duffy:
And for myself, aside from the relationship piece, I, over the past three years with the pandemic, with everything that's going on in the world, I have this real sense that I am a different person than I was four years ago that—

[00:29:24] Gretchen Rubin:
Oh, interesting.

[00:29:24] Chris Duffy:
I’m figuring out who I am.

[00:29:26] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:29:27] Chris Duffy:
And part of that is, like, this self-knowledge that a lot of the things we've been talking about, right? Like I work better at 7:00 AM. I, I do this. A lot of those things for me right now feel like, oh, well that was true of 2016 Chris, but now the person that I am in 2023, maybe that's not true anymore. Like I, I used to love being out late at night. I used to love, like, going and traveling and touring, and maybe those things don't work quite as well for me because that's not the person I am anymore. Um, so I'm wondering one, if that resonates at all for you and two, what you think about that idea of like, we're not the same people and how do we find new systems for ourselves as we change?

[00:30:08] Gretchen Rubin:
Well, I think that's a very profound point, and I think one of the things that can be hard about it is sometimes there can be kind of a sadness to saying, “You know, that just isn't me. And it just is never gonna be me.” Like, I'm gonna let go of a fantasy self.

I'm gonna be the kind of person who's gonna play guitar. Maybe at some point you're sort of like, doesn't seem like I am gonna be, I always think like I wanna be the kind of person that goes to a jazz club at midnight, and I'm like, that is so not me, like that's a fantasy self, um, to let go of that. Or as you're saying, like sometimes like over time, things change and so you have to let go of these previous identities. ‘Cause I wrote a little book called Outer Order, Inner Calm, and one place this shows up a lot as you say, it can show up in habits. Like I have a habit that worked, but now it doesn't work for me. But it can even show up in stuff. Like I have a friend who like, I don't even know, like 9 tennis rackets or 11 tennis rackets. And ‘cause she played tennis in college, she was really good.

And just to have like the one or two tennis rackets was like admitting that that period of her life and kind of that level of excellence was gone. And so it was very hard for her. And I think sometimes it is hard for people to let go of things that represent a past self even if these things are just no longer necessary. It's like constant self, sort of self-evaluation and self-recognition. It sometimes can be difficult and it can even be painful.

[00:31:28] Chris Duffy:
So I'm curious to hear, right, that there's the Gretchen that wrote The Happiness Project. That was a version of yourself that came out in 2009, so you were writing it before then. How is that Gretchen different than the Gretchen who we're talking to right now?

[00:31:45] Gretchen Rubin:
Hm, in many ways I'm the same, but, so here's what I would say. Like, ‘cause people are always like, “Oh, you wrote the Happiness Project. Are you happier?” And I would say like, I'm basically the same person. Like if I take one of those 1 to 10 things, I'm like a 7, you know? And I, I think that's right. Like I'm, you know, I'm pretty happy and, and that's where a lot of people are.

They're pretty happy. But what I think, having written Happiness Project and then, like, Happier at Home and Better than Before, and then my next book is about the five senses, I’m just m—much better at setting up my day, like and making decisions that are gonna contribute to my happiness, because I now have all these like, if I think, “Oh gosh, my college reunion. I mean, I have to spend money, I have to get a hotel room. It's gonna be logistics, blah, blah, blah. I don't know who else is going. I'm gonna have to send emails. Maybe I should just skip it.” Now I like, I go through my happiness thing, and I'm like, it's deepening relationships and broadening relationships, and these are long-term relationships. They're irreplaceable relationships. Should I do it?

And I'm like, “Yes I should.” Because in the long run, that's something that's gonna make me happier. So I think I'm better at making decisions and sort of saying like, well, you know what? This is something that's really important to me, or maybe something is less important to me now than it used to be, and I'm gonna let it go. So, so I think that's what's changed, is I'm just much better at thinking about what matters to me and how to put that into operation.

[00:33:05] Chris Duffy:
I love that. And, I guess the other thing is, do you ever feel boxed in by being like, “But, people expect me to be happy. Now I'm so sad”?

[00:33:15] Gretchen Rubin:
Maybe I should feel more pressure to like live up to a reputation, but I absolutely do not. I don't feel an obligation to sort of constantly be putting a happy face on it. No, I don’t.

[00:33:25] Chris Duffy:
For listeners who are, are trying to think about like, okay, “I'm gonna put all these things that we've talked about into play. I'm gonna come up with my list of things that I'm gonna do, and I'm gonna have my one word, all of those pieces.” What are some obstacles or mistakes that commonly happen that they should avoid as they're, as they're thinking about what to start?

[00:33:43] Gretchen Rubin:
A big mistake is thinking like, if it works for someone else, it'll work for me. That, I think, that’s the biggest source of frustration for people.

Um, another thing I would say is like, back to this idea of convenience. Really make things as convenient as they can be, or inconvenient. So like, let's say you wanna watch less TV, you know, put the remote control in some high shelf, uh, in another room so you can't just like wander by and be like, “Oh, let me just, you know, I just wanna watch 10 minutes.” It's like, yeah, that's two hours go by.

Or make things convenient. Like, I've heard of people like sleeping in their gym clothes so they didn't have to, you know, get dressed in the morning. Um, a mistake I think is that sometimes people make it too easy to do the thing they don't wanna do and too hard to do the thing they do wanna do.

You know, if you wanna practice violin, like, don't put that thing away. Like, you know, make it really convenient. Leave it out in the middle of the room where you’re, like, tripping over it.

[00:34:33] Chris Duffy:
Yeah, it's interesting too. The, the easier, uh, making things more convenient or less convenient. One thing I was trying to do personally was not take the car everywhere, and instead, I have a bike.

It's, yeah, if it's nice outside, why not ride my bike? And the bike was locked up somewhere very safe around the corner, locked to a fence, but it took like, you know, two minutes to undo the lock to—

[00:34:52] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:34:52] Chris Duffy:
—keep, bring it up to the outside. And I was like, I'm never riding the bike. And then I just said—

[00:34:55] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:34:56] Chris Duffy:
—I would rather have a slightly higher chance of my bike being stolen, but actually ride the bike than a zero chance of being stolen and never ride my bike.So I put it right by the front where I walk past, out, past it every day. And. It becomes just as easy as the car and then all of a sudden, I'm riding my bike so many more places because it's there and I don't have to like, ugh, I gotta go behind and undo and everything like that.

[00:35:16] Gretchen Rubin:
But that's a perfect example because you're like, “What's two minutes?” And you're like, that two minutes is the difference between doing it and not doing it. And I think it's great to say like, it's better to do it and then, like, deal with it than to just never do it because the bike you never ride is the same as the bike that's stolen, ‘cause it's a bike that you're not riding.

Um, another thing, kind of along the same lines, making it more convenient is making it more pleasant. And something that works for a lot of people is pairing. This is what the strategy of pairing is, when you take something that you really want yourself to do or that you have to get yourself to do and you pair it with something that you really enjoy doing or that you really wanna do.

So a great example is like, let's say you have a favorite podcast, like your podcast or my podcast. You say, “I can only listen to this podcast if I'm out for my daily walk.” I can't listen to it in the car, I can't listen to it while I'm brushing my teeth. I have to be out on my walk. And so pairing is something that can often like, it’s kind of convenience ‘cause it's, it's making something more pleasant and kind of something that is less friction.

[00:36:15] Chris Duffy:
If you're listening out there and you pair listening to this podcast with taking your favorite walk, there's a strong chance that I will just call you and be like, you better take those walks. We need—

[00:36:21] Gretchen Rubin:

[00:36:22] Chris Duffy:
The numbers have dropped. You gotta get walking again.

[00:36:25] Gretchen Rubin:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And it just makes it more fun. And then, uh, and then you're excited to do it.

[00:36:30] Chris Duffy:
I, I love that. Um, Gretchen, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for making the time to be on the show.

[00:36:35] Gretchen Rubin:
Oh, thank you so much. I enjoyed it tremendously.

[00:36:39] Chris Duffy:
That is a wrap on the first episode of season three of How to be a Better Human. Thank you so much for listening. Please, make listening to this podcast one of your strongest habits in the coming year, and if you happen to already be on one of your daily walks while you're listening to this show, I applaud you for somehow being able to predict exactly what Gretchen Rubin was gonna say before she even said it.

Speaking of which, a huge thank you to today's guest, Gretchen Rubin. She is the best, and you can find her books, her podcast, the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and the Happier app all at

Our podcast, How to Be a Better Human, is brought to you on the TED side by Anna Phelan, Jimmy Gutierrez, Rithu Jagannath, Julia Dickerson, and Erica Yuen, none of whom will tell me their tendencies no matter how many times I ask.

From PRX, our show is brought to you by Morgan Flannery, Rosalind Tordesillas, and Jocelyn Gonzales, who are all counting down the days to February 28th because for them, Determination Day is the single biggest holiday of the year.

And of course, thanks to you for listening to our show and for making this all possible. Please leave us a positive rating and review and share this episode with a friend, a family member, or a stranger on the bus, whoever you think would enjoy it. We will be back next week with even more episodes of How to Be a Better Human. Until then, good luck with your habits, whether they are old or new.