by Phoebe Farag Mikhail
For me, September marks the new year much more so than January. September is when school begins, when a new season begins, with new schedules and routines … and new resolve to make this year better. The Coptic New Year also falls in September (you can read more about the Coptic calendar here), and so does the harvest in the Mid-Atlantic of the United States, before we settle into autumn and prepare ourselves for winter. Even if I don’t actually resolve to do anything differently, the need will be forced upon me as I, like many families, juggle school calendars with work and younger children. If I want to have calmer mornings and accomplish more in my days, I need to build better habits.
A search on Amazon for books on habits yields hundreds of choices. I decided upon Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits-to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life. I had enjoyed reading her earlier bestseller, The Happiness Project, and this book did not disappoint. Rubin bases her ideas on sound research while also making the book readable and inspiring. I didn’t even finish the book before I placed an order for a fitness tracker, for example, to help me start exercising more.
My favorite aspect of this book is how Rubin does not take a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to building good habits (and breaking bad ones). She instead describes “Four Tendencies” that people fall under when it comes to keeping habits: obliger, questioner, rebel, and upholder. As a tendency, this means that no one is boxed into any one category, but a general trend towards a certain type of behavior. An “obliger” is someone who tends to follow through and fulfill tasks if there are others dependent on them. A ”questioner” questions everything until fully convinced before doing something or meeting an expectation. A “rebel” resists all rules, whether imposed internally or externally, and an “upholder” is able to meet both internal expectations and external ones. For people with each of these tendencies, Rubin offers suggestions for how they can harness those tendencies to best build up good habits.
My tendency, for example, is an obliger. Someone with this tendency would do best with using external accountability to help him or her keep up a habit. One habit, for example, that I am trying to build is to be active and get more exercise. I was successfully able to do this by joining a gym that also had the gymnastics and karate classes my children wanted to take. So I had no difficulty driving them to the gym and exercising while they were in class. In addition, my sister, who is a fitness trainer, follows up with me to help me stay on track. My children are also my motivation- I want to be healthy for their sakes as well as my own. I want to be able to keep up with them now, and I don’t want to be a burden on them when I get older by suffering from a disease that could be possibly be prevented, or delayed, by exercise now, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Armed with this knowledge, I can also consider how my children behave, and try to help them build good habits by using their tendencies to help them. For example, as a questioner, my older son will adopt an activity only if he is fully convinced of it. Regular tooth brushing, for example, came only after he suffered through multiple cavities. My daughter, on the other hand, seems more of an obliger, and may adopt a habit if she sees others doing it or is encouraged by others to do it. Working with her is easier since I have the same tendency.
I highly recommend Better than Before. Rubin bases much of what she writes on solid research, but manages to be approachable and conversational in her writing, drawing from her own experiences and those of others. For her, the purpose for building good habits is simple: to lead a happier life. “For a happy life, it’s important to cultivate an atmosphere of growth—the sense that we’re learning new things, getting stronger, forging new relationships, making things better, helping other people. Habits have a tremendous role to play in creating an atmosphere of growth, because they help make us consistent, reliable progress … When we change our habits, we change our lives.”
I am giving away a copy of Better than Before, as well as an accompanying day by day journal for those who would like to chart their progress. To enter the giveaway, share a comment below on what kinds of habits you want to build this new year, or what strategies you have used or are using to build good habits. To gain a second entry, subscribe to my email newsletter (current subscribers already gain a second entry if they comment below!). The giveaway ends on September 25th, 2016.
Here are some additional resources for building better habits and better time management:
Gretchen Rubin has created a quiz on her website, through which you can figure out what “tendency” you fall under. If you subscribe to her site, she will then send you a free report that explains more about your tendency, and how you can use it to build better habits.
Jennifer Fulwiler has a blog post about the daily schedule of Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity, and how it inspired her to rethink her own schedule. She writes, “I l
ooked at this Rule over and over again, and it struck me how very different this schedule was from my own — and not just because we have different vocations. Unlike my daily schedule, theirs spoke of focus; of calm trust that time with God is time well spent; of not trying to do everything all at once. They allow plenty of time for each activity, not trying to cram meals and cleanup into a small time slot, not staying up a few hours later to get more done.”
Two books on Christian spiritual practices that I recommend are Frederica Mathews-Green The Illumined Heart and Jana Reiss’ Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving my Neighbor. These are great places to start if you are looking for a habit to build!
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(c) Phoebe Farag 2016