You are what you repeatedly do… (Part 4: Desire, Ease and Excuses)

…Therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”  Aristotle.


Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

Following on from the awesome foundations in Self-Knowledge, and Pillars of Habits,  the Best time to begin,   Rubin then looks at all the ways that our new resolutions can come unstuck.

“By guarding against excuses and justifications, and by making our habits as enjoyable as possible, we help ourselves succeed.” p.133

Firstly, the concept of ABSTAINING as a strategy for habit-formation is tackled.  Might as well start with the hardest one first, I guess.   Tell me I can’t ever have something again, and I’m sure to obsess about it like I’ve never done before, however, Rubin does make a good case for some to find this easier, citing Samuel Johnson (18th century).

“When a friend urged him ‘to take a little wine’, Dr Johnson explained, ‘I can’t drink a little, child;  therefore I never touch it.  Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult…[Rubin adds]… Like Dr Johnson, I’m an Abstainer:  I find it far easier to give up something altogether than to indulge moderately.  And this distinction has profound implications for habits.” p. 136

She goes on to say that feeling of deprivation in avoiding something for a longer term goal is far less onerous if she follows an all-or-nothing approach.  Abstaining has never been my strong point, and it is with an ironic twist that I have discovered that I am actually an abstainer in some areas. This contrasts with “Moderators” who do far better when they indulge moderately.  Knowing yourself is the key.   The best way to tell?  She suggests is to ask :  “Could you eat just one square of chocolate each day from a whole block?”  (side note:  I went to add a picture of chocolate and even looking at one piece of chocolate next to the whole block made me want to eat the lot.)


I find her insights on this one topic alone could keep me going on habit formation for a whole year.

One good tip that both Moderators and Abstainers can use is “consumption snobbery” to limit their intake.  Such as,  “I only drink very expensive wine” to avoid drinking multiple bottles.  Perhaps I should try this with food?  Except, where do I stop, as pretty well all food is something I struggle to consume in moderation.  With the exception of lettuce.  And carrots.  I can just stop at one carrot.

I did decide to test this out, however, and am now onto Day 5 of abstaining from “WHITE CARBS”.  This means no white flour/sugar/potato/rice/pasta etc.  I have to say that when I abstain from white carbs, I am able to eat in moderation and feel far less hungry.

Moderation is not a choice when it comes to sin, as we all need to be abstainers.  There is no such thing as “a little murder/adultery/stealing/calumny etc.”  So, in the sin department, if the choice is between a good thing and a bad thing, we all need to take the pledge (historically taken by alcoholics to abstain from alcohol), but when you have a choice between two good things it gets more tricky.

I wonder if those who are more inclined to addictions are actually Abstainers, and those who just don’t seem prone to addiction are Moderators?  Or whether you could be an Abstainer in one area of your life eg. with food or alcohol, but a Moderator in other eg. with screen time?  If you would like to comment on this I would love to hear your thoughts about it.

The second section deals with CONVENIENCE.  In a nutshell:

“We’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not.” p.144

One large area this excuse is used is in avoiding regular prayer times.  The inconvenience of it makes it a bigger hurdle when I make it conditional upon a certain place/time/body position etc.  than if I ask myself, “What can I do to make this more convenient?”  I have seen this as the case when I chose to use the “Universalis” app on my smart phone, so that now I do Morning Prayer from the Divine Office before I get out of bed in the morning, and Night prayer when I get back into bed.  Lying in bed is the time I am most able to focus on God at the start and end of each day without other distractions, and exploits the principle of convenience.  Even though there was a small cost involved, I am so glad I made the investment.

This chapter flows beautifully into the next one which centres more specifically on INCONVENIENCE.  This is the mirror image of convenience and assists in overcoming bad habits, particularly when we understand Impulsivity.  

“The harder it is to do something, the harder it is to do it impulsively, so inconvenience helps us to stick to good habits.”  p.155

She then moves on to SAFEGUARDS to assist in maintaining habits that can be resilient and yet paradoxically very fragile.   The best way to ensure habits are kept at times of temptation is to anticipate them before they happen.

“Catholicism includes a helpful concept, the ‘near occasion of sin’ – a person, thing or other external circumstance that’s likely to entice us to go wrong.  If we identify these near occasions of sin, we can take steps to avoid them.” p.161

I love the example she gives for this, and I have often heard the phrase myself, “The best way to avoid sin is to avoid occasions of sin”.. so looking at those people/places/circumstances that may lead to sin and anticipating ahead of time how we might behave, is a major safeguard in living a life of virtue.

And now comes the really fun bit : LOOPHOLE SPOTTING.  (Aka all the excuses we use to stop doing the right thing even when we know we should.)  I have a PhD in excuses, which could fill more than one hefty book.

She identifies 10 ways we rationalise our way out of keeping good habits:

  1. Moral Licensing: giving ourselves permission to do something ‘bad’ because we’ve been ‘good’.
  2. Tomorrow:  We’re going to follow good habits tomorrow so today doesn’t matter.
  3. False Choice:  Posing two activities in opposition, as though we can only do one or the other.  “I can either exercise OR write, but not both.”
  4. Lack of Control:  This one is where we deny personal responsibility, and shift the blame to something we say is out of our control eg. I am never able to resist this
  5. Arranging to Fail:  Sometimes we ironically set out to fail in our resolutions, as deep down the bad habits serve some purpose to us.
  6. This doesn’t count: Actually, everything counts.  Again she quotes Samuel Johnson:  “Those faults which we cannot conceal from our own notice, are considered, however frequent, not as habitual corruptions, or settled practices, but as casual failures, and single lapses.” p.177.
  7. Questionable Assumption:  They seem reasonable, but are they?  eg. “I’ve already showered so I can’t work out.”
  8. Concern for Others: Telling ourselves we are acting out of consideration for others, eg. “I’m not buying this junk food for me, I have to keep it around for others.”
  9. Fake Self-Actualisation:  To justify poor choices by disguising it as a positive philosophy, eg. “Eat the cake! You only live once!” or out of FOMO.
  10. “One Coin”:  The idea with this one is that we only get rich by adding coins to a pile one at a time, so every small coin (good habit) becomes a pattern over time by doing these things repeatedly.  Conversely, skipping our good habits because it’s “just once” actually leads over time to a pattern of robbing ourselves of the goals we set out to achieve.

And now for some great strategies for helping to cement our good habits into our daily life.  Firstly, DISTRACTION.  This is not just random distraction, but a deliberate and purposeful shift of attention towards a greater good, and away from the bad habit.  Next up, is REWARD.  Rubin actually puts forward a good case for why rewards generally don’t help foster good habits, except if the reward is actually to further improve the good habit.  eg.  Rather than “When I hit my goal weight I’ll eat cake”, make it a reward that reinforces the healthy habit, like “When I hit my goal weight I’ll do a healthy cooking course/get a new outfit I can now fit into etc.”  I encourage you to read this chapter in depth to gain some valuable insights into human behaviour.  She next addresses TREATS.  This differs to rewards as they are not linked to attaining a goal, but are nurturing, enjoyable opportunities we give ourselves just for the sake of it.  This actually strengthens our resolve as the task of cultivating good habits can be arduous.  She notes this is particularly important for Obligers who are extremely prone to burnout.   Finally, the strategy of PAIRING is discussed.  This is different to rewards, and involves an activity we don’t like very much with one we really enjoy that we can only do at the same time as the first task.  Things like listening to a particular favourite piece of music/podcast etc. only when doing a household task you generally avoid.

In the fifth and final section Rubin addresses the issues of, “Unique, Just like Everyone Else” in habit forming… stay tuned!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s