Changing habits and the dangers of goal setting – the Lenten blog.

Posted by & filed under Exercise and Training, Health and Fitness.

Do we all have habits that we suspect are rather self destructive?  From a survival perspective, we’ve never had it so good, yet there is an inexorable slide towards becoming a nation of fatties, and many of us drink too much, neglect sleep, smoke, take drugs, don’t exercise, spend too much, gamble, eat too much sugar – oh, take your pick….

For some a little voice within us starts muttering on about maybe we need to change.  And at some point, the mutter evolves into a decision that Something Must Be Done.   At which point action is taken.  How we choose to go about changing a habit can be done willy nilly – I’m going to stop smoking right now; it can be done following the example of a friend and sometimes people can fall into the trap of setting a specific goal – like slimming up for a beach holiday or a wedding or maybe running a marathon as a spur to taking up exercise.  For a few, this can trigger a permanent change for the better, but for many once the goal has been achieved, that’s it and they resume their old eating patterns/lack of exercise.

And then there is Lent – giving up something we love for 40 days.  Could this kick start a habit change? Or, come Easter…

The bad news is that once a new habit has been broken, it’s much harder to restart it since it now tends to feel like deprivation.

I’ve just read an excellent book all about changing habits: Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin.  It’s American, and whilst not quite as maddening as the usual American style of repetition ad nauseam,  I did find her writing style irritating.  Nevertheless I stuck with it and it really is an excellent book – and very honest – impressively honest as you reach the later chapters.  At the end of the book she sums it all up in one short sentence:

We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature.1

Rubin goes through very many aspects to changing a habit, and her start point is recognising what type of person we are – the foundation of our own nature.  She says we fall into one of four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels.  When we understand which overall category we fit into, deciding how we are going to go about changing a habit will be much more successful, plus being easy to see why something that works very well for that friend of ours won’t work at all for us.

For example, Obligers will only do things for other people and not themselves- they come last in the pecking order of  getting good things.  Which means they will do very well when held accountable to others.  If they have to lose weight for their own health, they will always have an excuse; if they have to lose it for the sake of the family, there is a much higher chance of success.  Being accountable to someone else would be an absolute disaster for a Rebel.

Questioners will love the Rubin book – but they will question the validity of these four categories.  For them, they need to find good reasons from expert opinion for the change and then, when convinced, will get on with it.

Upholders like rules and times: Rubin herself says she is an Upholder and at one point says she would be very happy in a monastery, governed by bells and services.

Rebels have the hardest time.  Doctor Cobb is a self confessed Rebel and says not only will he resist doing anything someone else suggests, he’ll even resist himself telling himself.  I once sent him a progress e mail and said I didn’t expect a reply since he’s one busy man!  Of course, saying that meant I got a reply which started ‘I’m replying to you anyway…..

A slight downside with the book is it does make for uncomfortable reading: as the books goes on, there is no where to hide; all our reasons for doing things we think we shouldn’t are laid bare, as are our excuses to avoid changing.  Which raises an interesting philosophical question about what is pleasure?



  1. Better Than Before.  Gretchen Rubin. Pub: Two Roads 2015 []

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