How to make habits work for you

Quit beating yourself up about what you should or shouldn’t do

Habits can be a dark topic. Usually they only come up when you have bad ones, or you think you need better ones, or you’re tired of someone else’s.

But the real power of habits doesn’t come from changing yourself to do what you should and stop what you shouldn’t. It’s about working with, not against, yourself and other people to channel your energy to the things that make you happiest.

“Research suggests that up to 40% of our daily lives are shaped by our habits,” says Gretchen Rubin, habit expert author of the books Better Than Before and The Happiness Project. “If our habits work for us we’re much more likely to be happier, healthier, more productive, more creative. If our habits don’t work for us it’s just going to be a much bigger challenge.”


Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin, photo by Michael Weschler


Slack’s own Growth Lead Merci Grace has also thought a lot about how habits should reduce resistance on the way to success, rather than loom as obstacles. With a background that includes an upbringing in a small, ritual-based religion, and then game design, for her whole life she has studied the repeated actions and structures that humans make for themselves.

Her approach to forming habits, she says, is “a little about shaping your so-called personal life around the work that you do. Your mileage may vary: your ‘work’ may not be something that you are paid to do, but it’s finally finishing that novel or healing from an injury.”

When trying to adjust your life for the positive, it can help to let go of common beliefs about good and bad habits, and instead focus on what’s true for the person you are. Here are a few places to start.


Remember that you form your habits, not the other way around

Gretchen Rubin says that when people have a hard time sticking to a habit, it’s often because they’re trying to do something the way they’re told it should be done — exercising before work, cutting out sugar entirely — instead of what might work better for the person they are.

“The fact is, what I’ve found, is that people are very different from each other. If you begin by saying, ‘Well, what’s true for me? When do I do my best work? When have I succeeded in the past?’ If you’re a hardcore night person who’s at your most productive, creative and energetic later in the day, the idea that you’re going to get up early and work on a novel or go for a run before work is not likely to work for you.”


Make things easier for yourself

Sometimes forming good habits isn’t about doing or not doing specific things, but about giving yourself an environment that leads to better outcomes.


Merci and Pixels
Merci and Pixels


“Teach yourself to chill out, and begin your day with a practice in mindfulness, gratitude, and presence,” says Merci Grace. “I like to hike with my dog, Pixels Wigglebottom, in the morning. She’s very engaged with the world around her and playing with her reminds me to be present. I also like to walk and recite out loud the things I’m grateful for.”

Rubin suggests putting both your mind and body in the right place, and understanding that this place is different for everyone. “You might be an abundance lover who likes a work environment where there’s lots of buzz and a lot of stuff on the walls,” she says. “You feel like that’s energizing and it stimulates your creativity and there’s a lot of ideas flowing around. Or, you might be somebody who’s like, no. I like it where there’s bare surfaces and clean walls and not too much going on and I can really focus and it’s quiet.”

If you take cues from yourself and figure out what structures and atmospheres help you do your best work, you won’t need to work as hard to form good habits.


…Or harder

“If something’s more convenient, we’re more likely to do it,” says Rubin. “If it’s inconvenient we’re less likely to do it.”

If you want to break an unhelpful habit, set up a structure that makes you jump through hoops to succumb to it. Keep your phone in another room so you don’t constantly check it, uninstall your lunch delivery apps, block time-killer websites — anything to make those fallbacks more trouble than they’re worth.


“We should plan to fail,” says Rubin. “That sounds fatalistic but really most of us slip up from time to time. The question is how to fail small instead of failing big? How do you learn from your mistakes, how do you get back in the saddle?”


Remember that little positive changes add up faster than stalled big ones

“Write down the first step you need to take on a project, not the overarching problem itself,” says Grace. “In my work, this means writing down ‘Watch user research videos on team creation flow’ rather than something less helpful like ‘Finish user research project.’”

If you do this, not only do you set a path for yourself to accomplish a goal, but you can see your progress more clearly, which is motivating in itself. If you only look at the bigger picture of the things you want to accomplish or the changes you want to make, it might be too overwhelming even to begin.

Rubin stresses expecting and planning for failure, which helps make it temporary.

“We should plan to fail,” says Rubin. “That sounds fatalistic but really most of us slip up from time to time. The question is how to fail small instead of failing big? How do you learn from your mistakes, how do you get back in the saddle?”

And when you do slip up, be kind to yourself. People tend to think that punishing themselves will motivate them to do better, but Rubin says that is actually not true.

“In fact,” she says, “research shows that people who show compassion to themselves are much more likely to try again and to fail small.”

And if you get in the habit of failing a little smaller every time, chances are the success will (eventually) follow.

Hear more of Gretchen Rubin’s advice on habits and happiness on the Slack Variety Pack podcast, and read more of Merci Grace’s thoughts on habits and empathy here.

Evie Nagy is probably eating eggs.

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