Gretchen Rubin: In trying to tackle our bad habits, has the author developed some of her own?

Gretchen Rubin's practical approach made her a self-help success. But can it help Genevieve Roberts?

What do you when you've taught the world – and yourself – how to be happy? Sit back and bask in the glow of good feeling radiating from the people you've helped? Recline in well-earned repose as a beaming acolyte peels you a grape? Not if you're Gretchen Rubin, the US author of the best-selling book and successful blog The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, published in 2010.

Having challenged herself to find out why she wasn't as happy as she could be and practise her findings (getting up earlier to not be stressed in the morning; doing annoying tasks right now, as quickly as possible), her practical philosophies were adopted on both sides of the Atlantic. But rather than retire, Rubin decided her next project was to make us even happier, the result of which was her 2013 book Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life.

This month Rubin's back with more ways to gee us up, in the form of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Now, it's fair to say that I'm a fan of self-improvement in the form of regular stints of vegetarianism, quests for ultimate fitness and spiritual equilibrium, and I'm sorely tempted by her latest title but isn't Rubin in danger of pushing the whole happiness bandwagon over? She thinks not: if we're working to be the best, happiest versions of ourselves, we're also making the world a better place.

"We're not worried about hunting or failing crops," she says. "So it seems right to be asking questions such as: 'Am I fulfilled at work?' 'Do I have meaningful relationships?' In the opposite way, many people feel high levels of anxiety about the world, so work on their own universe. As people become happier, they become more altruistic, and that's a positive thing."

Rubin's appeal is that her books are about her own experiences and what she's learnt. Unlike a lot of self-help books, she shows her readers what to do instead of telling them. And she has adopted many new habits in the course of her latest research. "I stopped finishing reading books I wasn't enjoying, run down stairs instead of walking, stand up while I'm on the phone and write shorter emails," she says. But what distinguishes Better Than Before from her previous works is that she is turning her attention to the details of our lives – not so much their architecture as the fabric that promotes, or hinders, happiness. Rubin quotes Virginia Woolf's diary entry from 13 April, 1929: "Habits gradually change the face of one's life as time changes ones physical face; and one does not know it."

I'm game. I'd like to give up sugar, do more exercise and, yes, be happier. Rubin explains some habits are more important than others. Sleep, movement, eating and drinking and uncluttering do seem to be "foundation habits [which] tend to reinforce each other. For example, exercise helps people sleep and sleep helps people do everything better". But from here on in, the idea that Rubin deals in straightforward solutions starts to unravel.

Apparently, the first step to improving my habits is to understand my "tendency". Rubin splits people into four types – according to their attitude to outer expectations, such as a deadline or favour for your family, and inner expectations, including writing a novel or keeping resolutions. She explains that "upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations. Questioners question all expectations; they'll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense, so they make everything an inner expectation. Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike". Eh?

Rubin asks whether I find it hard working on my own projects. I think a deadline helps, and she confirms I have Obliger tendencies. Picking my way through the jargon, I work out that I'm an early riser, prefer novelty to familiarity and am motivated by praise and pleasure. My attitude to work is closer to a sprinter than a marathon runner, as I'm spurred on by deadlines.

However, in order to attain good-habit nirvana, it's not enough to know what I'm like, I have to keep writing it down. Rubin is a big fan of monitoring our habits: simply by recording what we eat, she says, we are more likely to eat healthily. This works for me with food but I wasn't particularly concerned about my sleep before I start recording it and am now surprised to see how often I get by on six hours. Now I have something new that I need to improve. Still, peel away some of the terminology and there are some good ideas. Declutter things, question yourself, make it harder to weasel out of things if that's what you do.

But then comes the bombshell. Even if I stick to a plan to improve my bad habits, I have to be aware of doing it for a set amount of time because of the "dangerous effect of finish lines". "It's important to have plan for the week after," she says. "See any kind of finish line as an episode in a long journey. Plan what you're going to be doing and make fewer decisions around behaviour so there is less opportunity to screw it up: choose once and make it a habit." I'm beginning to wonder why she keeps churning out books about making us happier. Could it have become a bad habit?

'Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives' (Two Roads) is out now

Comments