This is the full transcript of our interview with Gretchen Rubin. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Habits And Happiness Guru Gretchen Rubin,” click here.
BABBEL: If someone wants to form a healthy habit — whether it be going to the gym more or learning a new language — what would you suggest as a starting point?
RUBIN: I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no magic one-size-fits-all solution, and that just because something works well for somebody else doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to work for you. So, it can be interesting and helpful to think about things that other people have done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would work for you. For example, because we all hear all this advice, “Do it for 30 days. Do it first thing in the morning. Give yourself a cheat day. Follow the 80/20 rule. Start small.”
This is good advice for some people, but not for everyone. And so like one thing, say you’re learning a language, one thing you often hear is, “Get up early and do it first thing.” So, you have to get up at 7:00 A.M.? Get up at 6:30 A.M. and study your language for half an hour. That might be good advice if you’re a morning person. But there really are night people. This is largely genetically determined. It’s also a function of age. And night people are at their most productive and creative and energetic later in the day. And the idea that they’re going to get up early and do something intellectually demanding is just not realistic. So, they’re not setting themselves up for success. So part of it is pay attention to yourself, and say, “Am I at a good mental place? Do I feel like going for a run at 6:30 in the morning?” Maybe you would say, “I will never feel like going for a run.” But, for some people, doing it at 6:30 is a possibility, and for some people, it’s just really unthinkable, and yet they will try to make themselves do it and blame themselves when they don’t succeed.
So part of it is, it’s like, think about when have you succeeded in the past? What appeals to you? Start small. We’re often told, “Start small.” Well, for many people that works well. They like to form a habit in a small way. They get a lot of accomplishments under their belts. They kind of ease into a habit. But some people just aren’t interested in that. They’re not interested in incremental change. They want to do something big. They want to train for the marathon, they want to do something big. And that’s what’s attractive to them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So you could do that, too.
BABBEL: In what ways can habit formation improve people’s lives in the long term? How can it change them for the better?
RUBIN: Well, research shows that about 40 percent of everyday life is shaped by habits. So, if you have habits that work for you, then you’re just much more likely to be happier, healthier, more productive and more creative. If your habits are not working for you, it’s just going to be much harder. If you’re chronically exhausted, if you’re chronically procrastinating, if you spend all your time doing things like playing Candy Crush instead of doing things that really have a bigger happiness payoff altogether, that’s just going to make your life tougher. So habits can really, they can put behaviors on autopilot so we don’t have to go through the exhaustion of making decisions and using self-control. We don’t have to make decisions, we don’t have to use self-control, because something just happens automatically. And so then, that then makes it much easier to follow through on habits that are helping us meet our aims.
BABBEL: In your newest book, The Four Tendencies, you discuss how people generally fit into one of four personality profiles: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels. How do you think people from each tendency might approach learning a language differently?
RUBIN: So, we all face two kinds of expectations: Outer expectations and inner expectations. So, an outer expectation is like a work deadline or a request from a friend, and an inner expectation is your own desire to keep your New Year’s resolution, or your own desire to go running in the morning. So there are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels. Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. So, they meet the work deadline, they keep the New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what other people expect for them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important. Questioners, they question everything. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. So, they test everything according to their inner judgment. If it meets their inner expectation, they’ll do it. If it fails, they’ll resist. They hate anything arbitrary, inefficient, irrational. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. So like, they would have no trouble going exercising with a friend who is expecting them to show up but would have trouble going for a run on their own. And then there are Rebels. And Rebels want to do what they want to do in their own way, in their own time. If you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist.
And so, knowing your tendency is going to have a lot of implications in how you are going to be able to set up a situation so that you can consistently form the habit of learning a language. For instance, if you said to me, “Hey Gretchen, I’m an Obliger.” I would say, “Hey Dylan, it’s not enough for you then to be like, “Oh, I definitely want to learn French. I’ve always wanted to learn French. Since I was a little boy, I’ve wanted to learn French.” I say like, “What you need is outer accountability.” So, maybe you need to meet with a friend once a week and try to speak French. Or maybe you’re going to check in with them every day and say like, “Hey, did you do your work today? Yes, I did too.” Or maybe you’re going to have your kids hold you accountable, and you’re going to say, “Okay kids, you’ve got your homework and I’ve got my homework. And guess what? If I don’t do my homework, that means you don’t have to do your homework.” And so your kids are like, “Awesome. Hey, take a night off.” But you’re going to be like, “No, my kids have to do their homework, so I have to do my homework.”
Or, you could think about your future self. “Oh, I’m going to plan a trip to France in the summer.” And oh my gosh, the future Dylan is going to be so sorry if now Dylan doesn’t study, because future Dylan’s going to have [such a] better time in France, in this trip I’m so looking forward to, if I do this work now. So, there are a million ways to build in outer accountability if you know that’s what you need. And that is what Obligers need. Now some Obligers can be… what they are accountable to is vastly different. Some Obligers can be accountable to an auto-reminder from an app. Like, just getting a reminder from an app might be enough to make them feel like, “Oh, I’d better do it.” But for some Obligers, no. They actually have to get in trouble from a real person. So, if you’re dealing with an Obliger, you have to say, “Well, what actually for you makes you feel accountable?”
There’s a million ways to do it, but just saying like, “I need to put myself first. I need to learn to take time for myself. I have to make my own priorities important. This is my lifelong dream. I just need to put more power behind it. I just need to want it.” It doesn’t work for Obligers.
BABBEL: You read me perfectly. I’m an Obliger.
RUBIN: Oh, are you an Obliger? Well, there you go. It’s the biggest tendency. So, there you go. I mean, so does that ring true for you?
BABBEL: Yeah, absolutely.
RUBIN: So, there you go. And the fact is, sometimes people make Obligers feel bad about that. Like, they shouldn’t need outer accountability. Who cares? It’s the biggest tendency. There’s a million people like this. Like, just deal with it. And it’s easy to solve, so just solve it.
For Questioners, it’s all about deciding that this is what they want, and that this is the most efficient way to do it. So for them, it’s like, “Why would I use your program instead of another program?” Like, “I want the most efficient way to achieve what I want.” Once I decide that this is what I want and this is the best way to get it, they will have no trouble doing it. My husband is going to take a job that’s with a lot of people from France, and he just started taking French lessons. Like, on his own. And he’s just like, “Oh yeah, I want to learn French.” And every night he’s like, “Oh, I’m going to go do my French.” I’m like, “What?”
But once he decided that’s what he needed, he had no trouble following through. But for them, it’s why? Why is this the most efficient? Why does this make the most sense? And they also love to customize. And so, it’s sort of like, this is the program we recommend, but if you want to customize it to suit yourself better, then that’s great. Because you know yourself better, and if something works better for you, then that’s what you should do.
Now, Rebels. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. And it’s interesting. I’ve heard from several rebels specifically about language-learning apps. And what they keep saying is that when they get reminders from an app, it makes them not want to do something. So the mere fact that somebody’s saying like, “Hey, it’s time to study Spanish,” or whatever the reminder would say, makes them not want to do it. And I’m like, “Well, obviously you could just turn off notifications,” and they’re like, “Yeah.” And these are independent conversations. This is not the same person or a group conversation. This has come up a couple of times. Clearly Rebels, for whatever reason, want to learn languages, which ties into their idea of freedom and choice. I bet that’s part of a Rebel idea is like, this other identity, another language. And I could see why that would appeal to Rebels.
But this idea, you might, if you’re dealing with Rebels, say, “Remember, if notifications are making you want to turn away, hey, it’s easy to turn off notifications. It’s whatever works for you. Maybe you like a challenge. Like we could give you, ‘Oh, the ten-day challenge. Dylan, can you man up for this ten-day challenge?'” Because then you might say, “Yeah, that’s cool!” But then it’s like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to do that.” It’s like, “Well, it’s there if you want it. But not if you don’t.”
And also information, consequences, choice. Like you could say to Rebels, “What we found is that people who do X, Y, Z tend to learn a language much more efficiently and successfully in a quicker time. But you can do it any way you want, obviously. This is just information for you to be thinking about. If you did it a different way, you might not have as good a result.” So, it’s information, consequences, choice.
BABBEL: It’s all up to you.
RUBIN: It’s all up to you. It’s whatever you want, whenever you want. And one of the things about Rebels is they often like to do things when they want to do them. And so it’s like, “You want to study Spanish at 2 A.M.? That’s awesome. We’re here for you. Whenever you get in the mood, we’re here for you. You don’t have to wait to take a class in person. You don’t have to show up someplace when somebody tells you to. This is all about when you are in the mood.” But also to remind them of their identity. “You’re a person who loves to travel. You love adventure. You love meeting new people, connecting with new places. And I mean, what’s part of that? Part of that is excitement of learning a new language. Like, that’s what you want. That’s the kind of person you are. You’re an adventurer.” Or like, “You’re a person who loves to engage with other cultures. And so what do people like that do? Well, they speak other languages.” And so then, as a Rebel, I would choose to study language because that’s the kind of person I am. Because I want to be that person. I have this idea of myself as someone who’s fluent, who’s bilingual. Well, then I’m going to do what it takes to get to be bilingual.
And then Upholders, they can do anything, like if they make up their mind to do it, they can do it. So, they’re not going to be the problem for something like this.
BABBEL: That all makes sense. Turning now to happiness, how you can become happier just by learning something new?
RUBIN: Well, one of the elements of a happy life, I think, is an atmosphere of growth. It’s this feeling that you’re learning something, or you’re improving something, or you’re helping someone, or you’re fixing something to make it better. And that even if your life is good, and happy, if you don’t have an atmosphere of growth, you can start to feel kind of stagnant. And the thing about growth is that growth often has frustration, feeling insecure, feeling anxious, feeling dumb. Feeling like things are frustrating. So, the atmosphere of growth isn’t one that’s like, full of non-stop happiness, because there’s a lot of kind of negative emotions that are associated with growth. But then you don’t have all the positive things that come with the feeling of growth, of like, somehow you’re making yourself bigger or better, or you’re improving the world in some way. And so learning is very much like that. You feel like your mind is getting bigger. Your sense of possibility is getting bigger. Your understanding of the world is getting bigger. And that’s exciting.
And for people who are feeling stagnant, too, the atmosphere of growth is something that we have control over. Like, if you’re feeling unhappy because your health is bad, you might be able to control it, but you might not be able to control aspects of it. But something like learning, that’s something that anybody can do. At any time. You can decide, “I want to become an expert in the Red Sox.” “I want to learn how to train my dog to do tricks.” “I want to learn French.” It’s like, I can grow in that way. And that’s exciting.
BABBEL: On one of your podcast episodes, you talk about the benefit of listening to music in foreign languages. Can you elaborate on that?
RUBIN: This was a suggestion from a listener. They were saying that, if they were feeling blue, and they listened to music and there was anything that intensified that negative feeling, it was distracting. So, she liked listening to music in a foreign language, because she could enjoy the musical experience without being distracted by the content of the lyrics.
BABBEL: Is there anything else you wanted to say in regards to language learning or your work?
RUBIN: Just one more thing about habit formation. There are all these individual differences, but no matter who we are, we’re dramatically influenced by how convenient something is. So anything that makes it easy to do something and convenient to do something is more likely to help us follow through.