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BOUND TO PLEASE / Reach into a grab bag of habit-forming advice

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterBetter than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

By Gretchen Rubin

Crown, 433pp

Been to the gym lately? Are you studying a language, keeping your house clean and getting enough sleep?

When this review appears, 2016 will be exactly one week old. If you’ve made a new year’s resolution, you’re probably one week into trying to establish a new habit. You may want to turn to Gretchen Rubin for help if that’s a struggle. Her latest book, “Better than Before,” is full of advice about making (and breaking) habits.

For example, she says, you can try to make a bad habit more inconvenient. If you can’t get unhealthy snacks out of your house, hide them in a cabinet rather than leaving them temptingly visible. If you overuse your alarm clock’s snooze button, move the clock to a place where you can’t reach it from the bed.

The book is sprinkled with memorable maxims such as “Keeping up is easier than catching up” and “Something that can be done at any time often happens at no time.”

Rubin likes to classify people into types, such as Larks versus Owls, Underbuyers versus Overbuyers, and Sprinters versus Marathoners versus Procrastinators. (You can classify her as a Taxonomist.) She recognizes that not all habit-forming techniques will work for all types of people. “In fact,” she admits, “novelty-lovers may do better with a series of short-term activities — thirty-day challenges, for example — instead of trying to create an enduring, automatic habit [at all].”

Knowing what kind of person you are will help you figure out which of the varied techniques she describes will work best for you. Citing a study of the work habits of intellectuals and creatives, she writes, “Some have the habit of getting a very early start (like Haruki Murakami) or working late into the night (like Tom Stoppard).” They stick to what they know works best for themselves.

If your resolution is to cut back on something, be aware that she calls moderation a “potentially dangerous concept.” As evidence, she points out that Americans eat more than five times as much sugar today as they did 200 years ago. “So a ‘moderate’ amount of sugar by today’s standards could be considered excessive by historical standards.” It’s better to set defined guidelines that you can monitor.

For some people, it’s better to give up something like sugar altogether. Others may have more success if they allow themselves to indulge in occasional treats.

Rubin makes a subtle distinction between treats and rewards. A “treat” is an occasional pat on the back to keep yourself going, but a “reward” is like a finish line — after which continuing the habit may be more difficult. Rewards can also skew motivation in other ways: “If I tell [my daughter] she can watch an hour of TV if she reads for an hour, I don’t build her habit of reading; I teach her that watching TV is more fun than reading.”

“Better than Before” is fun to read. And perhaps something in its mix of tips will help this year’s resolutions stick.

Where to read

Any convenient spot where you won’t be disturbed. That way, you’re likelier to make reading there a habit.

Maruzen price: ¥1,600 (as of Jan. 6)Speech

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