Author Gretchen Rubin: More than 400 turn out to hear about forming habits

A “sell-out” crowd of more than 400 filled the gallery at Wilton Library Thursday evening, Jan. 28, to hear author Gretchen Rubin give an entertaining talk on habits — how we make them and break them, how they can liberate and sometimes defeat us.

Rubin was in Wilton to promote the paperback release of her best-seller, Better Than Before, in which she discusses how good habits can be made and how they can enhance our lives.

She greeted everyone by saying “nothing makes me happier than being in a library.”

Then she got to the heart of the matter by saying the key strategy in successfully beginning a habit “is to know what works for us.”

Knowing oneself, what kind of person each of us is, is essential to getting into a groove that either helps us get up early to exercise, give up sweets, or embark on a major personal project.

In her book, Rubin outlines 21 strategies for making or breaking habits.

One she spoke about was the difference between those who must abstain from a temptation and those who can moderate their behavior.

“I’m like an all-or nothing person,” she said. “I can have no cookies or I can have seven cookies. I can never have one cookie.

“It’s really powerful to know when you’re an abstainer — this is when you’re facing strong temptation — if you’re a person who finds it easier to have none rather than a little. You have none.

“Moderators get panicky and rebellious if they’re told they can’t have anything. They do better when they have a little bit.”

“It’s not that one person is right and one is wrong. They are just different approaches of dealing with strong temptation. And this is not just with food.”

A favorite coping mechanism is the strategy of treats. “This is the idea we have to load ourselves with healthy treats.”

When you do that, she explained, self-mastery rises “and this is what helps us stick to healthy habits in the face of temptation.”

Treats are not the same as rewards, which must be earned. A treat “is just because you want it.”

“When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves, so these treats really arm us to go forward.”

She suggested “healthy” treats such as window shopping, doing crossword puzzles, watching a favorite TV show or listening to a favorite podcast, as opposed to “unhealthy” treats that ultimately make you feel worse, such as food or drink, shopping, or excessive screen time. They may be OK for some people, but not all.

Rubin also explained why some people may succeed at achieving a goal, such as losing weight, only to regain it. This is because they see the weight loss as a finish line.

“When you hit a finish line, you’re finished,” she said. “They weren’t building a habit, they were working toward a goal. And working toward a goal is a great way to achieve a goal but it’s not a great way to give yourself a habit. … A finish line says you’re done and then you have to start over. And starting over is harder than starting.”

Instead, she said, it is much more helpful to think of a milestone that you can pass but have many more milestones to come.

Rubin also spoke of the “four tendencies” of hard-wired personality traits she believes everyone falls into to some degree.

They are:

•        Upholders — who respond readily to outer and inner expectations. They avoid making mistakes or letting people down, including themselves.

•        Questioners — who are motivated by reason, logic and fairness. They respond positively to an expectation only if they conclude it makes sense to them.

•        Obligers — who are motivated by external accountability. They meet their responsibilities to work, family, and friends but find it difficult to do things for themselves.

•        Rebels — who resist all expectations, outer and inner, in favor of freedom of choice. They will only do what they choose to do.

Knowing where you fit in not only helps you plan a successful means for building a habit, but also helps you get along with other people.

“When you understand how other people see the world differently, how they’re reacting to things in a different way, when you see the patterns in how they’re responding, the things that they are hearing or not hearing, and you can understand how to speak their language and give them what they need and give yourself what you need, well, then everyone can just get along much better,” she said in conclusion.

“It’s not that one person’s right and one person’s wrong. Let’s figure out how we can set things up so we can all thrive. This can be a really powerful tool, both for self-management and working with others.”