Know Thyself

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Image credit: Jan Lakota

I wrote a bit on Wednesday about shifting my perspective from employing willpower to setting myself up for success by reducing the number of decisions I have to make substantially. Doing this required a change in thinking – beyond a simple shift, it required a change in how I think about myself. Like many, if not most, people, I like to think of myself as disciplined and in control of my behavior; this whole paradigm sort of changes the script. With this approach, I’m kind of creating fences around my behavior, like I might for a toddler or untrained dog. I’m taking away my own choices. This is not an easy thing for me to accept! It feels a bit undignified.

The key skill that I’m using here is self-monitoring – another executive function, by the way. I’m becoming aware of my own self-talk and the unique type of resistance that my mind puts up against change. Everyone is slightly different in how they resist change, but I do think that the fact that we resist it is universal.

The Strategy of Distinctions

Ultimately, I think that to change a behavior or habit, you have to know yourself. One of my favorite books about habit change is Better Than Beforeby Gretchen Rubin (she also wrote The Happiness Project, which you might be familiar with). In it, she shares 21 strategies for habit change – I highly recommend the book. But the one I’m going to focus on today is one that I know she happens to be writing another book on currently – the strategy of distinctions, and particularly, her “Four Tendencies” framework. She presents a lot of good questions to ask about yourself when trying to figure out the best strategy for changing a habit in the book. Her Four Tendencies framework is the first and perhaps most helpful in understanding our psychology as it relates to habit change: namely, how do you respond to inner and outer expectations?

You can take a free quiz on her site to see where you land, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll recognize yourself right away in the descriptions. She breaks the options out as follows:

  • Obligers meet outer expectations but resist inner expectations
  • Questioners resist outer expectations but readily meet inner expectations
  • Upholders meet both inner and outer expectations
  • Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations alike

I quickly identified myself as a Questioner. I don’t do anything unless it makes sense to me. I don’t like people putting expectations on me; in fact, I have an active tendency to push back on that (see, babe, it’s not “stubborn,” it’s my tendency). Turns out most people who take the test are either Obligers or Questioners, with a smaller proportion aligning with the Upholder or Rebel categories. Rubin emphasizes in the book that it’s best not to try to change your tendency, but to work with it. For example, if you are an Obliger, rather than beating yourself up over not being able to meet commitments you make to yourself, add external accountability to habits you want to keep – a personal trainer, or an accountability buddy, or joining a group with an expectation of attendance. As a Questioner, it’s important for me to thoroughly convince myself that a particular behavior or habit is well-supported, efficient (I hate inefficiencies), and valuable to me personally. Kind of makes sense that I would want to write a series of research-based blog posts breaking down the reasons and strategies behind my weight loss efforts, eh?

“Everything in moderation, including moderation” -Oscar Wilde

Another distinction Rubin raises in Better Than Before is identifying as an abstainer or a moderator. Here’s the difference: abstainers have an easier time if they don’t have any at all of a particular food or habit; it’s actually harder for them to have just little bit of it. Moderators feel deprived if they can’t have a little bit of indulgence and are easily able to stop. I love this distinction, too – maybe even more than the Tendencies. I love it because it’s one of those insights that explains a paradox. There’s a lot of paradoxical advice when it comes to dieting, and so much of it has to do with this distinction! Should you have “everything in moderation” (like Weight Watchers)? Or is it better to cut out problematic foods entirely (like the Whole30 advises)? Rubin points out that abstainers and moderators tend to be very judgmental of one another. “Why can’t you just give it up?” ask abstainers. “Why can’t you just exercise a little self-control? It’s not good to deprive yourself,” opine moderators. Besides helping to identify what approach will be most successful for me in a given behavioral change, knowing that this distinction exists makes it easier to be understanding of others. Not everyone needs to turn their phone off and hide it from themselves to reduce their Facebook time, but it’s OK that this is what works for me.

I think it’s possible to be an abstainer about some things and a moderator about others, but in general, I’m an abstainer. I do really well when I just don’t think about a particular temptation at all – dessert comes to mind. “I’m not eating that right now,” is much easier than, “Oh, just one bite,” or “I guess this is a special occasion,” or, “One cookie won’t hurt.” There’s no decision! The difficult part is making the commitment up front, because it seems really terrible when you eat a lot of sugar to give it up. But time and again, I’ve found that dropping it entirely frees up a ton of mental space that I had been using to try to exercise self-control.

This particular distinction probably helps explain my weird dietary history (upcoming post on that), in which I’ve undertaken long stints as a vegan, vegetarian, and eating along strict Paleo rules. I’ve given up any kind of dietary abstention at the moment, because pregnancy and I just can’t agree on that point, but this is a really important strategy that I plan to incorporate into my approach once I have the baby.

What do you think? Would these distinctions help you figure out a better way to change a habit?

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