Update from last week: So far, so good. With the exception of one morning when I was delayed by a conversation with a colleague, I made it to my office by 9 am. I did not unload the dishwasher. In fact, I even left dishes in the sink until lunchtime. You have no idea how difficult it was to ignore those dishes. I reminded myself, however, that had I needed to catch the commuter rail, I would have left those dishes behind without a second thought. Commuting to the office is no different.
Speaking of developing better habits….(Warning! Psychology Geek Out Ahead.)
Over Christmas break, I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits. (A brilliant read; You can read my review here.) The premise of Atomic Habits is that small changes over time net big results. He then goes on to break down the science of habit forming and using this information to develop better systems with which to achieve your goals.
This emphasis on systems is important. Systems are infrastructure. They are a collection of parts that, when put together, move you forward to a goal. For example: Bob has a goal of losing 20 lbs by Labor Day. His system includes his exercise program, the frequency of exercise, his diet, etc. Systems can be tweaked. For example, Bob could add an extra day of exercise or add more cardio to his workout.
Goals, on the other hand, are static. Twenty pounds remains twenty pounds no matter what scale you step on. When you fine-tune a system, it remains a system. When you change a goal, you have a different goal.
There’s another reason to focus on systems rather than goals. What if Bob only loses 17 lbs? In terms of meeting his goal, he failed. Or he loses the weight but quits dieting now that the goal has been met, and gorges back to gorging on potato chips and beer until the weight returns.
If Bob is system-focused, however, he can’t loose. Even if he doesn’t loose the full 20, he feels good about himself. Plus, he’s developed better and healthier habits that will serve him in the long run.
As much as I loved Atomic Habits, something about Clear’s information bothered me. While Clear makes a point of telling readers to tailor their habits to their personality, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he assumed readers were driven to meet their own internal expectations.
For example, Bob’s goal is to run every morning. Clear would suggest he put his running shoes right next to his bed with the plan to run to the coffee shop. The sneakers would be his cue, his motivation would be to get the coffee. His response would be to go to the Dunks one mile down the road and buy said coffee as his reward. If Bob still has trouble keeping the habit, then he needs to tweak one of the four steps. All of this assumes that Bob will hold himself accountable.
But what if Bob can’t hold himself accountable? What if he wants to run in the mornings, but he sees that the dog needs walking and his kids need a lunch and his wife would like company so he postpones his run?
Enter The Four Tendencies
Atomic Habits is about developing systems, The Four Tendencies is about understanding your personality r in order to create a system that works.
Gretchen Rubin is not a scientist. She does, however, have a keen interest in human behavior, and what she’s discovered is that most people fall into one of four personality types: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger and Rebel. She lays them out like this:
Notice that under each type, there are notes as to whether the personality tends to meet External and Internal Obligations. Through reading this book, I discovered that I am an Obliger. Obligers are terrific at meeting external obligations, but not so great at keeping promises to themselves. We have great intentions, but we always place personal obligations below those of others. (Note: Obligers are one of the most common personality types.)
Hello Lightbulb Moment! No wonder I struggled to make it to the office at 9am. No matter how many times I promised myself, I pushed the promise down the priority list in favor of others’ obligations. And, if I didn’t have an actual external obligation, my mind created one. (Like unloading the dishwasher because the world expected me to have a spotless kitchen.) Know why I hit the office at 9 o’clock this week? Because I knew I had to report to you all! You were my external obligation.
See why I’m geeking out? Because now I know why I can’t seem to be as organized and focused as my bestie. It’s not because I don’t try hard enough. It’s because she’s a completely different personality type. Talk about a load off my shoulders. My new goal is to re-examine my various habits and see where I need to build in greater accountability. I’ll start with promising to report back to you next month.
In the meantime, I highly, highly, HIGHLY, recommend both Atomic Habits and The Four Tendencies. Both are available online or at your local Barnes & Noble. Read both. You’ll be glad you did.