Even if you’ve been doing your writing at the 11th hour since college or you can’t stop checking your email to save your life, your bad habits are breakable. The key is not focusing on one fix and giving up when it doesn’t stick (for the proverbial 30 days). “We think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, but different things work for different people,” says Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project. In researching her latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Rubin found 21 strategies that are effective—or not, depending on your personality type. Here, her suggestions for shaking five seemingly ingrained habits.
Try scheduling the work you need to do as 90-minute-or-so appointments. “The idea is that you’re not saying ‘I’ll start tomorrow,’ but ‘I’ll work on it from 10 am to 11:30 am, every day until it’s done,’” Rubin says. “For many of us, the process of deciding on a time strengthens our resolve, and then seeing the item on the calendar helps us stick to the plan.” Anxiety, she adds, is often behind procrastination, so if you can just get over the hump of starting, you’ll find your anxiety drops and the work flows. Also, when the appointed hour arrives, make sure you do the actual work—not email, tidying your files or more research. “Either really work or stare out the window, otherwise you can occupy yourself all day and never tackle what is important to you,” Rubin says.
Eating out of stress
As a basic step, don’t skip meals. “When you’re hungry, it’s especially hard to use self-commands,” Rubin explains. If you’re the kind of person who can a have little bit of something and stop, then tell yourself you’ll hit the vending machine—or whatever your stress-eating tendency—only on, say, Wednesdays. “Some people feel panicky at the thought that they can’t have anything ever again,” Rubin says. But if you’re an all-or-nothing kind of person, you’ll probably have more success if you completely abstain from munching at work.
Constantly checking email
For most people, the less convenient something is, the less likely they’ll do it, Rubin says. So when you’re on your computer and need to focus, log out of email or close the window at the very least. (If you’re working at home, there are programs you can download that will block Internet access for set periods of time.) If it’s your phone that you can’t stop checking, Rubin suggests putting it in a zippered pocket in your bag in a closet—or your car trunk when you’re not home. But if not checking your email will only increase your stress when you’re not in the office, say, over the weekend or on vacation, Rubin recommends trying to limit yourself to checking it once or twice a day at set times.
“Often people are late because they’re trying to squeeze in one more thing—one more call, one more email, one more quick question,” Rubin says. “It’s a malfunction of productivity.” So one strategy is to switch your productivity from before you leave to after. “Take whatever it is with you and tell yourself you’ll do it when you get there early,” Rubin suggests. Another strategy to try: Use the worst-case estimate of how long it will take you to get somewhere. “Late people tend to be overly optimistic about their time,” Rubin adds.
Being a workaholic
If work is crowding out other important parts of your life, you may need to change your concept of yourself. “Habits are bound up in self-identity, so you’re never going to get more balance if you think of yourself as a workaholic,” Rubin explains. After all, someone whose career is her first priority isn’t going to put, say, her passion for cycling or a child’s school fieldtrip first. Establishing your new identity (and coming to terms with the loss of the old one) will help you address the conflicts: a serious cyclist would leave work so she can go for a ride before it’s too dark; a supportive mom might delegate some work so she can take a day off and escort her child’s class to a museum.