In this episode we discuss how to boost your energy, focus, and happiness in 5 minutes or less using a dead simple strategy anyone can apply right away. We explore the power of self knowledge and why it’s one of the cornerstones of success in any area of life, and we uncover several powerfully uncomfortable questions we can ask ourselves to be happier, healthier and more productive with our guest Gretchen Rubin.
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and The Four Tendencies and her latest book is Outer Order Inner Calm. She’s appeared on TV outlets such as the Today show, Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday Morning, and more. She’s also appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and many more!
I finally cleaned out my fridge and now I know I can switch careers.
When we get control of the stuff of our lives we often see big results
Dealing with the little challenges of outer order give us the power to handle huge challenges
American adults spend 55 minutes a day looking for misplaced items
Focusing on order can yield huge benefits VERY QUICKLY with simple focus.
Cleaning up is something so simple, you will feel great, and it will
The “one-minute rule” - if you can do it in less than a minute, do it without delay
How to keep the scum of clutter on the surface of life go away
It’s much easier to keep up than to catch up
So easily accessible - anyone can do this in five minutes to create a massive shift in their energy, focus, and calm
Figure out WHAT YOU NEED to do your best work and then GET IT - create the environment in which you can thrive
There isn’t ONE BEST WAY to set up your environment to thrive.
Self knowledge is the most powerful and fundamental kind of knowledge you can create.
One of the great challenges of our lives is really trying to grapple with - what is the truth about ME?
Ask yourself uncomfortable questions.
Whom do you envy?
It’s a very revealing thing. It shows you that they have something that you wish for yourself.
Whose job or life gives you a TON of envy? There’s information there about what you want to do.
Most useful things involve discomfort - especially when it comes to self knowledge.
When trying to decide - should I ask this of myself or not?
Choose the BIGGER LIFE - what to YOU will create a BIGGER life?
Sometimes it’s worth the insecurity and frustration and anxiety if you’re pursuing what - to you- represents a bigger life. Is it worth the time? The bandwidth?
All reality is one interconnected mess.
That’s why it’s so important to have a multi-disciplinary perspective.
There’s a HUGE difference between “I’m right” and “This is what’s true for me."
In a fight over dirty dishes at the office - that’s the tip of a giant iceberg of psychology that shapes hundreds of complex and nuanced interactions
There are so many ways to achieve your goals, experiment and try different methods
“Don’t break the chain.” Try to keep a chain of successes.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Homework: How do you decide what to get rid of? Do you need it, do you use it, do you love it? Don’t get organized, get rid of things first.
Homework: The one minute rule - anything you can do in under a minute, do it without delay.
It’s not so much WHAT should you do, but rather how can you get yourself to STICK to what you want to do? Experimentation is crucial.
Homework: Ask yourself - how have you succeeded in the past? Ask yourself what you learned from that and model that behavior.
Thank you so much for listening!
Please SUBSCRIBE and LEAVE US A REVIEW on iTunes! (Click here for instructions on how to do that).
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
[Book Site] Outer Order Inner Calm
[Article] Forbes - “NYT Bestselling Author Gretchen Rubin Shares Her Best Happiness Advice” by Zack Friedman
[Article] MIndBodyGreen - “Why The World's Leading Happiness Expert Doesn't Want You To Be A Minimalist” By Emma Loewe
[Article] Thrive Global - “On Outer Order, Inner Calm: An Interview with Gretchen Rubin” By Laura Cococcia
[Article] Daily Stoic - Outer Order, Inner Calm: An Interview With Bestselling Author Gretchen Rubin
[Article] CBS This Morning - Make room for happiness: Gretchen Rubin on how to combat loneliness
[Podcast] Robert Glazer - GRETCHEN RUBIN ON THE FOUR TENDENCIES AND THE SECRET TO HAPPINESS
[Podcast] The Ultimate Health Podcast - 037: Gretchen Rubin – The Foundation For Happiness | Simplicity vs. Abundance Lovers | The One Minute Rule
[Podcast] The Tim Ferris Show - #290: Gretchen Rubin — Experiments in Happiness and Creativity
[Podcast] Art of Charm - Gretchen Rubin | Mastering Happiness (Episode 388)
[Podcast] Jordan Harbinger - 18: Gretchen Rubin | Four Tendencies: The Framework for a Better Life
[Podcast] The Good Life Project - Gretchen Rubin: How to Build Habits That Change Lives
Gretchen’s Youtube Channel
Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin [Book Trailer] (30 seconds)
The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin - Book Trailer (30 seconds)
“Happier at Home" Book Trailer (1 min, 2nd most viewed video on her channel)
Gretchen Rubin: "Better than Before" | Talks at Google (2015)
TEDxNewHaven - Gretchen Rubin - Five Half-Truths About Happiness
Sophia Colombo - The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin | Animated Book Review
Sage Grayson - Book Review: The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
Big Think - Chores cause conflict. Try managing them like this instead. | Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin Shares 8 Personal Rules of Happiness | SuperSoul Sunday | Oprah Winfrey Network
[Book] Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin
[Book] The Happiness Project, Tenth Anniversary Edition: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
[Book] Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
[Book] Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired by Till Roenneberg
[Book] Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life by Gretchen Rubin
[Book] Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide by Gretchen Rubin
[Book] Forty Ways to Look at JFK by Gretchen Rubin
[Amazon Author Page] Gary Taubes
[Amazon Author Page] Gretchen Rubin
[SoS Episode Guide] Decision Making
[SoS Episode] The Epic Mental Framework You Need To Master Any Skill and Defeat Fear and Uncertainty with Josh Kaufman
[SoS Episode] How To Stop Living Your Life On Autopilot, Take Control, and Build a Toolbox of Mental Models to Understand Reality with Farnam Street’s Shane Parrish
[SoS Episode] The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing with Daniel Pink
[SoS Episode] These Habits Will Help You Crush Procrastination & Overwhelm with James Clear
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss how to boost your energy, focus and happiness in five minutes or less using a dead-simple strategy that anyone can apply right now. We explore the power of self-knowledge and why it’s one of the cornerstones of success in any area of life. We uncover several powerfully uncomfortable questions that you can ask yourself to be happier, healthier and more productive with our guest, Gretchen Rubin.
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Sign up for my e-mail list today by going to successpodcast.com and signing up right on the home page, or if you're on the go, if you're on your phone right now, it's even easier. Just text the word “smarter”, that's S-M-A-R-T-E-R to the number 44-222. I can't wait to show you all the exciting things you'll get when you sign up and join the e-mail list.
In our previous episode, we discussed why it's so important to study and understand psychology if you want to master any aspect of life. We looked at the evolutionary science behind how your brain can often play tricks on you. We shared a simple and impactful model from psychology for dealing with stressful and tough situations and we discussed the dangerous illusion of the quest for certainty and how you should actively embrace taking risks in your life with our guest, Dr. Daniel Crosby. If you want to stop your brain from playing tricks on you, listen to our previous episode.
Now, for our interview with Gretchen.
[0:03:14.5] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen is the author of the New York Times best-seller’s Better Than Before, The Happiness Project, Happier at Home and The Four Tendencies. Her latest book is Outer Order, Inner Calm. She’s appeared on TV outlets such as The Today Show, Oprah's Super Soul Sunday Morning and more. She's also appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and many other outlets.
Gretchen, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:42.3] GR: I'm so happy to be talking to you today. Well, we're very excited to have you on the show today and dig into this topic, because I think it's really fascinating. To start out, you've done a tremendous amount of work, tremendous amount of research. There's a million things we could dig into in this conversation, but the topic that has captured your attention recently is this idea of order. I wanted to begin with why has order become something and what – maybe let's start with what is order and why has it become for somebody who spent so much time studying happiness and habits and behaviors, why is order come to the forefront for you?
[0:04:16.7] GR: Well, it's interesting. I have been writing about happiness and good habits and human nature for a long time. Something that has surprised me is there's a disproportionate charge around the subject of outer order. I mean, if I would ask people if they make their bed, an audience would laugh and start chattering and people – a friend I said, “I finally cleaned up my fridge and now I know I can switch careers.” I was like, “I know how that feels.”
It doesn't really make sense, because you think well, in the context of a happy, productive life, something like a crowded coat closet, or a messy desk is trivial. Yet over and over, people reported to me and I certainly feel this way myself that when we get control over the stuff in our lives, we often feel more in control over our lives generally. If it's an illusion, it's a helpful illusion.
It's not just a sense of calm, but there's also a sense of focus, a sense of energy, even a sense of possibility. There’s something about dealing with these little challenges of creating outer order that makes us feel more able to tackle big challenges. I just always thought it seemed disproportionate. Why was everybody getting such a bang for their buck in this area? I decided, instead of writing about something huge like habits, I want to go shine a spotlight on something small, but that seems to be punching above its weight in terms of value, which is creating outer order.
[0:05:41.3] MB: That's such a great approach. I love the 80/20 perspective on what's something simple, very easy to do and yet, has an outsized approach in terms of shaping the outcomes in our lives.
[0:05:54.0] GR: Well, research shows that American adults spend about 55 minutes a day looking for misplaced items. Imagine what you could do with 55 minutes a day? One of the clearest benefits of outer order is that it's easier to find things. It's easier to put things away. You don't buy duplicates of something because you can't find – you have to buy a new tape measure, because you can't find the tape measure that you know you have somewhere.
Yeah. I mean, it really can yield very big benefits and very quickly. Yeah, there's a lot of instant gratification to it. It's not things that are more abstract, or that have a longer timeline. This is something, you can feel better like sent, you can get this boost quick.
[0:06:37.5] MB: That's been my own experience as well. I sometimes will almost – whenever I have a project to clean something up, or whether it's straighten up my desk, or throw things out, or clean up an old closet or drawer that's been full of junk, I sometimes actually save those activities and say, “All right, when I'm going to need a big productivity boost, I know that I need to go clean out this drawer.” Then I spend 15 minutes doing that and then I'm get in the flow, get in the zone and then I go crush out a bunch of productivity for the next couple hours.” It's amazing. I've had definitely had that personal experience of getting that boost from some very simple act of creating order in your environment.
[0:07:12.8] GR: I do exactly the same thing. I actually begged my friends to let me come over and help them clear their clutter, because it's like, you get all that exhilaration, but none of the emotional demand that comes from when it's your own things. I get a huge charge from it. I agree, I will do the same thing. Sometimes it really can be a way to get yourself that energy if you know that you need a little bit of it.
[0:07:35.3] MB: It's funny, even just talking about this, I'm looking around stuff in my office and have the urge to go get up and rip some stuff off the walls and clean up and throw some things away. I'm having to fight that tendency just to stay focused on the interview.
[0:07:47.8] GR: Well, that was my hope for the book. The book is written in this way where it's lots of ideas written in these very bite-sized pieces, because I wanted something that you just be so easily accessible. I was like, this is a book Outer Order, Inner Calm, this has to be extremely streamlined. Also it's a psych up book. It's a book that's meant to get you – you get a third of the way through it and then you throw it over your shoulder and go running to the medicine cabinet, or you go running to your filing cabinet, because you're like, “Oh, my gosh. I can't wait anymore. I have to start clearing clutter.”
After I finished recording the audiobook, the next day my director e-mailed me a before-and-after of her office, because she got so fired up from talking about it that then she spent the rest of the day cleaning at her office. It's really my hope that this is just to get you full of ideas and the sense of possibility to like, this is going to feel great. Let me go do this right now. I'm going to feel great and it's going to be really payoff for me in the future in terms of my focus and my energy and my call.
[0:08:45.5] MB: I love the focus on keeping it just so simple and so easy and so actionable. Anybody listening right now can in five minutes, create a change in their state and as you said, their energy and their focus simply by cleaning something up.
[0:09:03.0] GR: Well, one of the most popular ideas that I talk about is the one-minute rule. This is the idea that anything that you can do in less than a minute, you do without delay. If you can hang up your coat instead of tossing it over a chair, if you can print out a document and put it in the correct folder, anything you can do in less than a minute, just go ahead and do it. This means that you don't have to set aside any time. Some people are so busy they're like, “I don't have the time. If I did have the time, that's not how I would spend the time.”
This is something you just do as part of your ordinary day. Yet very quickly, if you really follow this rule, that scum of clutter on the surface of life goes away. That just makes everything much easier. Also, it's easier to keep up than to catch up. One discouraging thing that happens when people create outer order is they’ll clean out their office. They'll do some big sprints. Then two weeks later, it's like nothing ever changed.
Part of it is the challenge of establishing habits and practices, so that just as part of your ordinary day, you can maintain, so that you can keep up once you have caught up to keep it in that space so that you don't feel you constantly have to dig your way out again. Because that's discouraging and it feels like a waste of time. Pretty soon, it starts to feel pointless and so you never do it at all. Then you just get surrounded by junk and that's not fun.
[0:10:19.3] MB: I've definitely have the personal experience of cleaning something, even something small up and feeling almost a surge of energy and focus. I think many listeners are probably had that experience as well. We've talked a little bit about that. Tell me a little bit more around is there science behind why this happens, or what is the research of the data say around why this is such a powerful phenomenon?
[0:10:41.3] GR: The research in this area is very interesting and spotty. It seems like what people are mostly trying to do is to find what is the best way? What is the environment that makes people most creative? Are people more creative in a messy place, or in a clean place? To me, this is completely misguided, because people are so different and what works for one person doesn't work for another.
You could say on balance, 51% of people are better off doing blah, blah. That doesn't give me any information. I want to know what works for me. The only way we know that is by thinking about ourselves. If you want evidence of this is a book called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. I wish that it wasn't called daily rituals, because it's not really about rituals, it's about habits, it's about when do people get up, when do they go to sleep, how much do they drink? Are they drinking coffee or vodka? Are they with a lot of other people? Are they working in solitude?
These are people who are tremendously high performers; scientists, painters, writers, choreographers, inventors. What you see when you look at this, just this compendium is that people very dramatically, some people work alone, some people work in a crowded studio, some people work from morning to night, some people work a half an hour a day, some people drink tons of coffee, some people drink – they're drinking liquor day long.
What you realize with all these people is they have figured out what they need to do their best work and they get it. If you need to sleep late, you figure out a way to sleep late. If you want to get up early, you get up early. You know yourself and you do as much as you can to create the environment in which you can thrive. I think that the research really goes astray is trying to act like there's one best way. There just isn't one best way.
I mean, we know that from real life. You don't need to have undergraduates eating marshmallows to tell you that some people are morning people and some people are night people. Now there's tremendous research showing that some people are morning people and some people are night people, but the idea that we're going to decide okay, from 10:00 to 1:00 p.m. is the best time for people to work. It just doesn't matter if in general that's true statistically, because it's so individual in how it turns out.
You see this also with clutter. Some people, really they want bare counters, bare desks. I'm like this myself. Some people really thrive on piles. They feel unexpected juxtapositions stimulate their creativity, they can find whatever they want immediately, they're not bothered by looking for things, that's not a problem for them.
For me to say, “Oh, a cluttered desk means a cluttered mind.” You have to have a clean desk, because that's what works for me, or that's what some research shows. It doesn't matter, because that doesn't work for this person. This person feels their creativity is more inspired by this environment. I think really the question is self-knowledge. I know sometimes you can't have exactly the environment that you want, because you have to coordinate with other people. You have to think about the environment they want, or you have to think about the schedule that is practical, so we don't always have max – complete flexibility.
I think we have to start by thinking about well, if I could do anything, what would be my ideal? Then work from there rather than saying, “I need to fit myself into someone else's mold of the best way, the right way, the most efficient way, even if I know from experience this doesn't work for me at all.”
[0:13:57.7] MB: That's a great point. Daily Rituals is a fascinating book. I remember reading that several years ago and it definitely opened my mind. After reading it, I spent a long time thinking about how do I craft my ideal day and work to build and schedule and structure my time, so that I had meetings at certain times and productive time at certain times in a way that was aligned with my own biorhythms and energy levels and everything else.
[0:14:23.6] GR: Yeah, because I think sometimes people are like, “Well, somebody's going to tell me what I should do and I should just do that.” It’s often, it's just not a good fit, because it just isn't what works for you. Yeah, I think self-knowledge is really important, because you might not be able to have your ideal day, but if you don't even know what your ideal day is, then you probably are definitely not going to get it. Your chances are much higher once you know what you're aiming for, or what you would wish for if you could get it.
[0:14:46.9] MB: Another great point. You underscore something that's probably the most single recurrent theme on the entire podcast, which is this notion that self-knowledge really underpins anything. If you don't know what you want, if you don't know what you're capable of, you don't know what you're striving towards, it's going to be really hard to get there.
[0:15:04.7] GR: Well absolutely. It's funny, when I wrote The Happiness Project, I came up with my 12 personal commandments. My first commandment and my most important commandment is to be Gretchen. Now everybody has to substitute their own name obviously, but it's this idea of who am I? You think, “Well, nothing could be easier than knowing who I am. I just hang out with myself all day long.”
As you know, it's very easy to get distracted by the way we wish we were, or the way we assume we ought to be or should be, or what other people expect from us. We lose connection with what is true about us. I think it's one of the great challenges of our lives. We should really try to grapple with what is the truth about me. It's very hard to look directly in the mirror. In fact, I have a lot of questions that I ask myself and other people to say okay, you might not be able to see this directly, how can we indirectly shine a spotlight on something that you've overlooked?
[0:16:01.6] MB: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It's so hard sometimes to see your own habits, or foibles, or weaknesses with perfect clarity. There's the classic example of having a friend or neighbor come to you with a problem and you immediately see, “Oh, you need to do this, this, and this.” Yet, if you have the same problem, suddenly you're mired in confusion and second-guessing and not knowing what you're supposed to be doing.
[0:16:28.0] GR: Exactly. That's why one of the exercises they say is imagine that a friend came and told you this like, “Oh, I did this terrible thing.” It’s like, “Oh, we've all done it.” You would think nothing of it if a friend did it, but for you you're consumed with both remorse and regret. Yeah, it's funny how we just have – it's just hard to think about ourselves in the same way.
Another thing to do is to ask yourself uncomfortable questions. I love to ask people, whom do you envy? These are very interesting emotion, because it means that somebody has something that we wish we had. People don't like to admit envy. It's not an attractive emotion. It's a very uncomfortable emotion, but it's very revealing because if you're like, “I envy that person's travel. I envy that person’s side hustle. I envy that person's time spent on music.” Well, then that tells you that they have something that you wish you had for yourself.
Then somebody was like, “Oh, but couldn’t you just say this is admiration?” Because they wanted it – they didn't want to frame it in a negative way. I’m like, you have to embrace the negative aspect to it, because if you admire something – I might admire that somebody spends a lot of time in exotic travels, but I don't want to do exotic travels. I admire it. I don't want it for myself. Envy tells you something about yourself that maybe you don't always want to acknowledge, or that you've been ignoring.
[0:17:46.1] MB: What a great framework and excellent journal question to put to yourself and spend 10 or 15 minutes thinking about what do you envy, and start to understand that if nothing else, can start to give you some clarity about how do you want to be shaping your activities and desires and goals towards the things that you ultimately want?
[0:18:04.1] GR: This happened to me, because – I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. I was working as a lawyer and I was reading my law school alumni magazine where it has the reports of what everybody in your class – all the different classes are doing. What I noticed is that when I read about people who had very, very interesting legal jobs, I had a sense of mild interest. When I read about people who had interesting writing jobs, I felt completely consumed with envy. I thought, “Whew, this is telling me something about myself, because I don't want any of these jobs that I'm reading about in law.” I can almost barely even stand to read about the people who have writing jobs, because it just upsets me so much. That was like, “Okay, well there's information there.” Uncomfortable information, but useful information.
[0:18:52.2] MB: I feel most useful things are often involved some form or fashion of discomfort.
[0:18:58.0] GR: Especially when it comes to self-knowledge, because I think a lot of times we don't want to admit what's true for ourselves. It's interesting, because there's this tension within self-knowledge, because on the one hand, we want to accept ourselves and the true nature of our temperament and our interests and our values and acknowledge what is true about ourselves, but we also want to expect more from ourselves. We want to go outside of our comfort zone. We don't want to be complacent. We want to be striving. A lot of times, that means doing things that make us feel uncomfortable, or angry, or frustrated, or we feel stupid.
On the one hand, to accept yourself and on the other hand, to expect more from yourself. Only you know the difference. Only you can say, is this something that you should accept about yourself? This is just something that's not right for you? Or is this something where you're like, “You know what? I really can do this.” Like public speaking, is this something that you're going to – you want to add, or is this something where you're like, “You know what? This is just not my thing.” Or bungee jumping. For some people they're like, “I should really do it. I'm going to feel great if I go bungee jumping. I'll be so happy I did it.” Then there are people like me where I'm like, “You know what? That's one thing. I'm just going to let go. I don't need to have that. Be Gretchen, bungee jumping is not for me.”
[0:20:03.6] MB: How do you think about, or what are some useful tools or heuristics you found for weighing that balance between self-acceptance and high expectations? That's something that personally I'm very interested in and I feel like spend a lot of time thinking about.
[0:20:18.7] GR: I don't think there's an easy solution. I'm sure as you say, you spent a lot of time thinking about it too. There's no easy solution. I think it's just rigorous and relentless self-examination. One thing that I do feel is helpful in decision-making, this is when you're trying to decide should I ask this of myself, or not? A very helpful question is to think, choose the bigger life. Often when things are described as the bigger life, it gives you a sort of element of clarity of what in your mind would be a bigger life.
Here's just a very mundane example, so everybody in my family really wanted to get a dog and I didn't want to get a dog. I was like, “It's going to be a big hassle. There's all this work. It's inconvenient. We're going to have a dog, this dog is going to live with us for longer than our own daughters live with us probably.” I was just like, the pros and the cons were very heavily weighted for me. I knew all the happiness research that pets make people happier, dogs make people happier and healthier. There's a lot of reasons to do it, a lot of reasons. For me, it was unbalanced. Then I thought, choose the bigger life.
Now the interesting thing about the question is for some people, the bigger life could be not getting a dog, because they'd be like, “If I don't get a dog, I'll have this money to spend on other things that are important to me, I'll have more freedom to do things that are important to me. This is this is going to lock me into a set of responsibilities that in the end, it's going to be very confining.” For me, the bigger life is not to have the dog.
For me, it was instantly clear that in our situation, the bigger life was the life with the dog. That allowed me to all of a sudden, I was walking away from my pros and cons list and the answer was very clear. I feel with accept yourself and expect more from yourself, sometimes you can say is this the bigger life? I remember when I started The Happier Podcast with my sister, I called her and I said, “This could be a huge flop in public. I'm just saying you need to be prepared that this is going to go nowhere. It's going to just be a giant failure and everyone's going to – anyone who looks is going to see it.”
She's like, “Totally. A 100% I'm in. Let's just do it.” That's the bigger life. Sometimes choosing the bigger life makes you see that it is worth the anxiety and the insecurity and the frustration and all the negative feelings that can come with when we try to push ourselves out of what is comfortable, because if it represents the bigger life, then that really can help shed a light on what's important to us. Because if it doesn't represent a bigger life, then maybe it isn't something that we want to do.
Everything has an opportunity cost. To do this is not to do that. Maybe this isn't the right thing. If it's not the bigger life, maybe in a week you'll discover something else and you'll have the opportunity and the time and the bandwidth to think about something else, because you're not getting distracted by somebody else's idea of what you should do. Because I think sometimes, that's a problem is people say, “Oh, you should do this, you should do that.” You're like, “Okay, I will.” It's like, “Should you do that? Maybe you should, but maybe you should be doing something completely different.” It's a struggle. It's a constant balance.
[0:23:11.8] MB: That's a very useful framework. I think the dog example is such a perfect way to illustrate it, because it shows you that with the exact same choice getting a pet, the bigger life can be completely opposite things for different people. Yet at the same time, that question is such a powerful forcing function to really think about how do you envision your best life and is this choice or decision putting you on a path towards those kinds of activities and things and experiences, or is it moving away from it?
[0:23:42.1] GR: Yeah, absolutely.
[0:23:44.4] MB: So interesting. We've diverged dramatically from the content of order, but I think it was a worthwhile exploration.
[0:23:51.5] GR: All these subjects are so interrelated. I mean, there's happiness, there's habits, there's order, there's the four tendencies which is my personality framework. I mean, what I love about this subject, which I would say it's all human nature. I would say that's what links all these things and unifies them is this question of human nature. Who are we? Why do we do what we do and how can we change if we want to change? Yeah, you can start in one place and end up someplace else, but it all feels it's part of a large unifying concept.
[0:24:22.3] MB: You bring up another really good, point which is essentially that – ctually two really good points; one is the essential notion that all reality is fundamentally interconnected. Whether you're talking about at a hard sciences level, or even in the domains of human activity, whether it's business, whether it's sport, anything that you're looking at, psychology often underpins all of those different things. Even the broader academic disciplines exist maybe within the academy as silos, but actually they're all describing pieces of reality. To be true, they all have to reflect and connect and incorporate the truths from all the other disciplines.
[0:24:59.2] GR: Well, it's fascinating that you say that because one of the things that I study most intensely is the great essayist from the past, like Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, [inaudible 0:25:11.4], because I feel that – William James even, because William James is scientific, but not totally scientific. If you read something like varieties of religious experience, I think that sometimes this thought to me reveals more about human nature, even than the academic research. I love the academic research. I read it constantly, but because of the way that science is done, it's very, very narrow. It's looking at one thing, we have to define all the terms the same way.
You can get distortions and you can also get that people look at things that they can study and they miss as you say, how things might connect. I often find that I will read something in Samuel Johnson and he will sum up in a single paragraph something that I'm like, “I can think of five research papers that are trying to tackle one little bit of something that he's making an observation about and that he's able to make a grand, just based on nothing. I’m Samuel Johnson and I'm here to just tell you what I think.” I'm like, “His insights are more profound.” I feel I've learned more about myself from reading this thing from the 1700s than reading the most up-to-date research.
I think that there's room for both things. I think there's absolutely the research is super important, but then I also think there are great thinkers who have these insights that are very worth pondering. I'm sure that the people doing the research often study folks to see what they're saying, or how they approach these questions from this very different perspective. There's a lot of ways to try to get insight into human nature. For me, that is one of the most powerful sources of insight.
[0:26:54.4] MB: That underscores the essential idea that it's so important to have a multidisciplinary perspective on anything that you're looking at, whether it's any single thing you're trying to study or understand, you have to bring in knowledge from all kinds of diverse fields to truly see the big picture and truly see and get a glimpse of the ultimate reality.
[0:27:16.3] GR: Well, it's interesting on exactly that point. I am a huge fan of the work of Gary Taubes, who wrote the case against sugar and why we get fat, good calories, bad calories. I read the book Why We Get Fat and overnight I changed everything about the way I eat. I mean, except for leafy green vegetables and chicken. I basically changed everything the way I ate and it had the most dramatic positive consequences for me. I was just completely convinced by his arguments, which was all about insulin function essentially.
Then my father did the same thing. I was like, “Oh, my life was completely changed by this book.” Then off my father goes and he did it too and he had even more dramatic good results. Gary Taubes, he's so convincing in his marshalling of arguments. One of the points that he makes in his area which is about basically metabolism, nutrition, hormones, all that stuff is that the specialists are so siloed that a lot of times they don't understand the true consequences of certain things they've discovered, how they might have relevance to someone who's looking at a very different problem.
You need someone who can step back and be like, “Okay, let's try to put all these pieces together and to think about the big system that's at work.” You need to have all the little itty-bitty systems and information about what's happening in these narrow areas. If you don't try to put them together, you often will miss a really important point because you're not standing far enough back. It's the forest for the trees problem. Especially when systems that are very interrelated, because you only focus on one thing; you may come to the wrong conclusion, because you don't understand how it's actually working in a larger system that might have a very different consequence than the one that you anticipate.
[0:28:54.6] MB: That's one of the guiding principles behind why we started Science of Success and why I'm constantly for a long time listeners have heard me rattle on about the importance of mental models again and again, because incorporating all these different disciplines and all this knowledge gives you such a much richer perspective on anything you're trying to tackle, or understand, or achieve.
[0:29:16.8] GR: For me, I think reading is how I try to do that. It’s just constantly reading. Because I feel with reading, it's a good – I just feel I'm often forced to think through something from a different perspective, or to be confronted with people who argue things that I don't agree with, or who are telling stories about characters who have thoughts or impulses that I would completely disagree with, or can't understand and going through that is a constant way of testing my own thoughts and like, have I gotten stuck in one way of thinking, or am I assuming that I'm right when it's really –
This is one of the problems that I found for myself as I've gotten deeper and deeper. Often I would think, well I'm right, instead of saying this is what's true for me. I really now have a much greater appreciation of how – people have vastly different perspectives on the world. You think, oh, the world – this is what you think. The world is the world. We see what we see. You can reframe if you want to whatever, the facts are the facts. No. My gosh, people have vastly different understandings of what's happening; what's right and wrong, what's preferable, what's valuable, even things like who's being polite.
A great way to see this play out is if I – every time I go to someone's office, I always make a beeline for the kitchen and look at all the signs that are posted in the office kitchen. Because if you want to see the variety of human nature, you look at what people have to say about what you should do with your dirty dishes, because people have really, really different philosophies about what the right behavior is. They absolutely do not understand why anybody would disagree with them and they think it's just barbaric, that anyone is deviating from what they think is right.
It's not that they're wrong. It's just actually people have very different ideas about what's right to do in an office kitchen. Unless you sit down and have a two-hour conversation about it, you don't know, you just see a lot of passive-aggressive signs posted on the sink. Because people have different views, they really see the world in different ways.
[0:31:12.5] MB: Dishes is a great microcosm to understand how all of – I mean, as you said, you could spend hours and hours unpacking the histories and the psychological biases and the upbringings and everything that leads to this one little eruption of a clash over how to handle a dirty dish when there's an entire worldview that underpins that.
[0:31:35.1] GR: No. The thing is people don't – they just think, if you don't do what I think is right, you're either dumb, or you're completely inconsiderate. They don't understand, like and I can even go through this because I've talked to so many people about it, like the different worldviews. Like you say, it’s not that they are like, “Oh, ha, ha, ha. You're the sucker.” They have a view about how to do this right. Who's to say who's right or who's wrong?
This is why in my view, it should be someone's job. Anything that people are – people should just pitch in, I'm like, people are going to have very different views about what is right and how to do it and how often and who should do what and what are people's proper roles and contributions, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, this can go on forever. Have it be someone's job. Have it be someone's job. Have them to get paid for it, have them get recognized for it. If you're like, “Oh, it's someone's job to put away the coffee cups, do I feel being nice to this person and doing it myself? Maybe I do,” but no one's volunteering to do this. If I don't do it, it's not – I think it should be a job. Everything if you want it to be done, have it be a job.
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[0:34:19.9] MB: You brought up another really good point a moment ago as well, which is this idea that there's a huge difference between the seemingly truth-oriented, or objective statement I'm right and this is what's right for me. That applies to what we're just talking about in terms of even small situations of social norms, etc., but it comes all the way back to what we're talking about earlier as well with constructing your own daily rituals and habits and routines and understanding that in some cases, it's not necessarily there's one truth, but rather it's about figuring out what is true for you.
[0:34:52.4] GR: Well and one way this comes up very often is morning people and night people. This is a real thing. It's largely genetically determined and also a function of age. There's an amazing book called Internal Time by Roenneberg, which is absolutely fascinating on the subject of chrono types.
I remember a friend of mine said to me, “You know, my resolution for this year is I'm going to get up early and go running before work every day.” I was like, “No, you're not. Because I know you and you're a night person. You're least productive and efficient and creative first thing in the day.” Like, show me pieces of paper that say the best thing to – why this is a good, efficient smart thing to do, I can show you all the research in the world about why you should do it before you go to work, but I'm just here to say you're not going to do that, because you're a night person.
Instead of setting yourself up for failure and frustration, set yourself up for success. Exercise at lunch, exercise at 4:00 in the afternoon. Because the fact that it makes sense on paper, or it might be more convenient, you've just got to – you get what you get and you don't get upset about yourself. Thinking that, “Oh, it's more efficient to do that.” It’s like, yeah, except that it doesn't get done at all. How efficient is that? Not.
I think that making people think that there's one right way, or best way often becomes a hurdle, because if that way doesn't work for them, they just keep thinking, “Well, I need to just work on that till I can make it happen.” I mean, I was giving a talk me guy was saying, “Oh, for years and years and years I tried to be a morning person, but finally I just buckled down and I did it and here itself, well I turned myself in a morning person.”
I was like, “Yeah, how old are you? You're 55-years-old. You're experiencing the morning person stuff that happens with age. If you were 28-years-old, I assure you would not be saying this.” He's like, “You're right. At 28, I couldn't have done this.” I'm like, “Right?” I mean, it's not that it's not a good idea, it's just that it's not practical because it's not going to work at all for some people. I'm always thinking there's so many ways for us to achieve our aims. If one way doesn't work for you, then go on to something else. Experiment, learn. If something doesn't work, you learn something about yourself. That's valuable too.
One thing that works for a lot of people is don't break the chain. Some people love that. If that works for you, that's great. It's a very powerful strategy. If don't break the chain makes you feel choked and trapped, okay then you learn that about yourself. You're not going to use don't break the chain, there's a million other ways to achieving it.
[0:37:12.6] MB: What is don't break the chain? I've never heard of that.
[0:37:14.8] GR: Oh, don't break the chain it's just you're going to keep track of how often you've exercised, or how often you've done meditation, or whatever, how often you eaten less than 50 grams of carbs in a day and you're just going to check it off. You're going to build up a chain of the X marks the spot on your calendar and the chain is the chain of successes. For many people, this is very, very compelling. They'll get up to 465 X's on their chain and then they get the flu or whatever.
For some people, they really love that, but then some people don't like that. It's like, okay fine. This is not the best tool. It might have worked really well for me, I might say this is the best tool, but it's not a tool that's universally useful. To-do lists; in my personality framework, the four tendencies – I mean, there's a sizable number of people who cannot use to-do lists. Fine. They constantly beat themselves up, because they're like, every grown up in the world uses to-do list. I'm like, “No, they don't.” A lot of people don't like to-do list. There's other ways to achieve your aims. If this is a tool that doesn't work for you, just move on. There's nothing wrong with you. You don't need to change, you just need to find a tool that fits you, because everybody's always trying to cram themselves into some model, but that model – there are very, very few universal things. I'm constantly trying to figure out what’s universal. Just about nothing is universal.
I wrote a book Happier at Home. Some people don't even have the idea of home. Not many people. Most people have some idea of home, but some people really don't and that's pretty – you think, well that's got to be pretty universal.
[0:38:51.3] MB: Yeah. So many ways we could we could explore into that. I'll throw a couple – obviously all the links we've talked about today, also throw a couple previous episodes we have. We interviewed Daniel Pink and he talks all about the different time chrono types and everything, we'll throw that in the show notes. We have a couple other episodes around habits and stuff for listeners who want to dig in more.
I think you brought a really good point up, which is the importance of adherence to anything that you're doing and a habit that you actually do is even if it's not the optimal strategy, is a hundred times more valuable than a habit that's the optimal strategy that you do once or twice and then stop doing completely.
[0:39:25.9] GR: Yeah, there's a great line from Voltaire, “Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That's very important to remember. The thing that you do is much more valuable than the perfect thing you never – that you don't do. Yeah. It's the whole, don't get it perfect, get it going. I mean, it is very, very important to remember.
For listeners who want to concretely implement, or apply some of the ideas and strategies that we've talked about today, what would be a couple, or one particular action item, or action step for them to start implementing either some of the ways to create order in their lives, or to implement some of the other themes we've talked about?
[0:40:03.8] GR: Well, when it comes to outer order, I think a very valuable question – because one of the first things is how do you decide what to keep and what to either discard, or recycle, or donate, or whatever? Is do you need it, do you use it, do you love it? Because if you don't need it, use it, or love it, then you probably don't need it. That's the cord to the appliance from nowhere. If you don't need it, use it, or love it, that's something that's really failed to test and probably needs to go.
Another thing to remember is don't get organized. People are often like, “My first thing I'm going to do, I'm going to get organized.” If you get rid of everything, you don't need, don't use, don't love, you may not need to get organized. You may not need to run out and buy a filing cabinet if you realize that you don't need to keep any of that paperwork. I was just talking to a guy the other day and he went through all his paperwork and he realized a huge portion of it, strangely enough, was pet insurance. Paperwork and paperwork and paperwork related to his pet insurance and he realize it's all online. He could just get rid of all of it. It’s not like it didn't have to be organized. Don't get organized. Get rid of everything you don't want and then you may not need to get organized at all.
Another idea that works for a lot of people is the one minute rule; anything that you can do in less than a minute, do without delay, because this gets rid of those little tasks. Then often when those little tasks are cleared out, the big tasks seem easier and they also stand out more. It's like, “Oh, now that I've gotten rid of all this little stuff, I see that I do have this one big pile. Maybe I'll just do a couple things every time I walk by the pile.” Then pretty soon, even the thing that looks like the biggest mess if you really just tackle it little by little, usually it's pretty – it’s something that you can you can get under control, once you really are making a consistent effort to tackle it.
[0:41:44.1] MB: With the example of the pet insurance, that's definitely something I've discovered I had an epiphany probably three or four years ago. I realized all these manuals and instruction booklets and everything that I've been keeping for all my electronics and everything, you just Google what to do and it's all online, and you can even find the actual manual online, but you're probably better off just finding a three-minute YouTube video where someone shows you exactly how to do it. Yet, I was keeping stacks and stacks and stacks of all these things and I threw them all away.
[0:42:10.3] GR: Yeah. I mean, I completely agree. Or you keep travel information. Travel information gets outdated so quickly. A lot of research, it's like – research just go stale, unless you really want to push yourself not to hang on to those things. Or people rip out pictures of, “Oh, I love the way this looks.” Or, “Someday, I'm going to do my dream kitchen.” I’m like, “Look, five years from now when you move and you're going to renovate your kitchen, you're not going to be looking back at this.” I mean, it's just not realistic.
Sometimes people like to just rip things out or hold on to things just I think almost as a way of just claiming it. If you want to do that, that's fine, or bookmarking it, but then let it go. It served its purpose. I think really looking at that color. I mean, one thing to do is to think about how technology creates a clutter that we can get rid of. If you only take pictures and videos on your phone, do you need a camera and a video camera and a charging cable and all that stuff? Probably not. Do you need a scanner? Do you need a fax machine? Do you need a photocopier? Maybe not. Do you need a compass? Does anybody have a compass? I bet some people have a compass. You don't need a compass.
There's certain kinds of things that we just don't need. Alarm clock; do you ever use an alarm clock? Maybe you do. A lot of people say you should use an alarm clock instead of your phone and keep your phone out of your room. Maybe you do that. Maybe you don't, maybe you just use your phone. In which case, why do you have an alarm clock in every room? Sometimes they seem useful and they're there, and so we don't realize actually, I don't even ever – I haven't used this thing in three, four years. Getting rid of it will just open up that space in our lives.
[0:43:44.7] MB: A lot of times and I can almost hear listeners asking me this question, because I get questions like this very frequently, I don’t know, in my e-mail. What we talked about today, this idea that so many things are very context-dependent. It might work in one context, it might not work in another context. It might be right for you, it might be completely wrong for you, can create almost a analysis paralysis. What prescription would you give to somebody who's listening who now feels even more lost or confused, how can they see through the haze or start to get clarity around figuring out what's going to actually work for them?
[0:44:21.9] GR: I would just say, do you need to use – do you love it? Just everything that is in your area, just say that, because that's very clear. I mean, the pet insurance, do you need it? No. Do you use it? No. You don't need it because it's online. Do you use it? No, I never look back on it. Do you love it? Certainly not. Okay, get rid of it. I think that's very clarifying.
One famous question is Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy, I think that that's a much tougher question as I'm like, “Ah, it doesn't spark joy, except that it's useful to me and I guess, everything that's useful sparks joy.” Then that feels it's not really being true to what the idea of sparking joy is. Then I get in caught in this tangle of what is joy anyway and is workmanship enough, blah, blah blah? I'm like, “Do I use it? Do I need it? Do I love it?” Because there's a lot of things I don't even really like, but I use them all the time. It’s like yeah, I use it. I think that is a question we can eliminate a lot of decision fatigue.
With clothes, people often are like, “Ah, I could wear it. I should wear it. I would wear it. Do you wear it? Do you use it? Do you need it? Do you love it?” Now because sometimes we have things that are very useful, even though we don't use them very often. This is why I don't like the one-year test, because sometimes people are like, “If you haven't used it in a year, get rid of it.”
What about heavy ski pants? I don't even ski, but I have ski pants because I'm a super cold person. When it's very, very cold in New York City when I leave, I just wear ski pants all day. Some years it's not that cold and I don't even use the ski pants, but then the day comes and I'm like, “I'm going to get out the ski pants.” I use them and I do – when the need arises, I do need them. Even maybe two years would go by when I don't need them. I think that is the helpful test.
[0:46:05.0] MB: Just adding a tiny bit on to that to extrapolate this idea out beyond even creating order to rituals and habits more broadly and trying to figure out whether they work for you, whether they're right for you, you brought up a great point earlier as well which is this idea of experimentation and how useful that can be for figuring out which habits and strategies are going to work best for you and are going to have the highest adherence rate for you. What are you going to actually do.
[0:46:29.7] GR: Yeah. Now that's a huge theme in the book Better Than Before, because obviously that's the million dollar question. It's not so much what should you do, but how can you get yourself to stick to the things that you want to do? Really, a helpful question in this regard is what have you succeeded in the past? Because a lot of times, people are failing at something now, but they have succeeded in the past, but they're ignoring the information that maybe would help them move forward.
If I said to my friend, was there a time when you exercised in the past? He's like, “Yeah, in college I would always go – I would go for a run right before dinner and I did that very consistently.” It’s like, okay so what are we learning from that? Are we learning that you need to go running before you eat? Are we learning that you need to run with a friend? Are we learning that you need to run in the afternoon? I would say, I think it's the time of day. I think your adherence goes up when it's later in the day, because that's when you have higher energy.
Maybe that's not it. Sometimes people are like, I thought of the class was because I knew I was paying, but it turned out it wasn't the paying, it was seeing a friend. Or it turned out it wasn't seeing a friend, it was knowing that if I didn't come to the class, somebody else wasn't able to take my slot and my feeling of guilt about taking a slot from someone else who would otherwise been able to go to a class, that's what made me go.
Understanding why sometimes you succeed and other times not, often can really guide your experimentation because you'll see, well what are those factors that are coming into play? If you've never succeeded, you've never done, it maybe you've never tried to do it, just to say, “I'll try it this way. If this doesn't work after a good solid try, try it at a different time of day, or I'll try –” Ask around. What’s worked for other people? If something sounds appealing to you. Maybe it's hard for you to exercise unless you're training for the marathon, or training for a big run. Okay, that's a thing that works.
I hate that. I would never do that. I don't like that idea. I don't like games. Competition would make something less fun for me, but maybe for you you’ll pickup basketball game every week, would be much more likely to keep you exercising. Then once you do it once a week you're like, “Hey, I could do this twice a week.” Then, “Hey, maybe I want to go running another night because it's going to help my game.” Once you start, you can start building on it.
You're absolutely right, experimentation is crucial. Sometimes people get discouraged. They're like, “There's one way to do this. I can't do it that way. What's wrong with me?” Instead of saying, “Okay, that's a data point. Let's move on to the next opportunity. What else can I try?” If you look around, you'll see there's a lot of ways to achieve aims. There's a lot of ways to get done whatever you want to get done, so just figure out what works for you.
[0:49:04.2] MB: Gretchen, where can listeners find you and all of your work online?
[0:49:09.7] GR: I have a site, gretchenrubin.com and there's a huge amount of information there. I post frequently about my adventures and happiness and good habits in human nature. There's also tremendous resources, all kinds of discussion guides and one-pagers. There's excerpts and audio clips of my books. If you're thinking, “Oh, I want to see if this book is for me,” you can read free, or listen free there. Just a ton of – There's a quiz. We briefly mentioned the Four Tendencies Framework. If you want to know if you're an upholder, questioner, obligor or rebel, which is very relevant to this, you can take the free quiz there. I think two million people have taken that quiz now.
Then I also have a podcast called Happier with Gretchen Rubin, which I do every week with my sister Elizabeth, where we talk about how to be happier. We talk about a lot of these ideas, but very practical ways. Our first segment has always tried this at home, it's always a suggestion, a concrete idea that you could try at home. It's just part of your ordinary routine. Happiness hacks, like the little hacks that we all find from time to time that can boost our happiness. It's really fun and very concrete.
Then I'm on social media everywhere under the handle Gretchen Rubin and I love to connect with readers and listeners and viewers. If you have thoughts, or insights, or questions, or observations, hit me up.
[0:50:21.3] MB: Well Gretchen, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all this wisdom. Been a great conversation.
[0:50:27.7] GR: I so appreciate it. I feel like we could talk all day. We're interested in so many of the same things.
[0:50:31.7] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the Science of Success. We created this show to help you, our listeners master evidence-based growth. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story, or just say hi, shoot me an e-mail. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s M-A-T-T@successpodcast.com. I’d love to hear from you and I read and respond to every single listener e-mail.
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