Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Gretchen Rubin (@gretchenrubin), the author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project, and Happier at Home. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO:
You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED:
No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Why, hello there, ladies and gentlemen. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. You may also be listening to this on the, usually, shorter form Tribe of Mentors podcast. The guest, this episode, applies to both equally, Gretchen Rubin. She is in the book Tribe of Mentors and has lots of tactical, practical advice to offer. But we take it a little longer in format this time around. And we really do a deep dive into experiments and creativity, happiness, creative flow, daily routines, etc. Gretchen Rubin, maybe you’ve heard of her. Twitter, Facebook: @gretchenrubin, R-U-B-I-N. Gretchenrubin.com.
Who is Gretchen? She is the author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and most recently, The Four Tendencies.
Her books have sold nearly 3,000,000 copies worldwide – that’s a lot of copies – in more than 30 languages. On her popular podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she discusses good habits and happiness with her sister, Elizabeth Craft. They’ve been called the click and clack or podcasters. Her podcast was named one of iTunes’ best podcasts of 2015. And the Academy of Podcasters best podcast of 2016. Fast Company named Gretchen to its list of most creative people in business, and she’s a member of Oprah’s SuperSoul 100. So, without further ado, please enjoy my wide-ranging conversation with Gretchen Rubin.
Gretchen, welcome to the show.
Gretchen Rubin: I’m so happy to be talking to you.
Tim Ferriss: I have been looking forward to this for some time. Many, many, many, many of my listeners and fans have been requesting that you come on the show, and here we are. So, thank you for making the time.
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, that’s great to hear. And I’m so glad to get the chance to sit down and talk to you.
Tim Ferriss: So, I thought we would begin, actually, with a question that’s been on my mind related to a tweet of yours, which is not scandalous. I’m just hoping to hear you elaborate a bit on where it came from. It’s a notebook with, “I wish I could not wish. Agree or disagree?” Where does that come from? What is the origin of that?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I love koans, which are these statements that Buddhist monks will meditate on in order to free themselves from the bounds of rational thought. So, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” And things like that. And so, I’m always looking for things like that, kind of paradoxical statements that get you thinking, and that was one. “I wish I could not wish” was an idea that occurred to me, then, I was like, “Yeah, I do. Sometimes, I wish that I could not wish.”
It’s one of these things that the more you think about it, your thoughts kind of twist and turn. And that’s what I like about koans.
Tim Ferriss: Now, what prompted the desire to lose the ability to wish? Is it so the expectations minus reality equals happiness type of equation? And not having that forward seeking expectation or desire, or is it something else? What were the circumstances that surrounded you not – or considering the desire to lose your ability to wish?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, actually, I’m sort of deeply within the romantic tradition. So, I’m a big believer in desire and attachment as part of life. I’m not a person who really wants to disengage from desire. But certainly, I have times where my wishing – I wish I couldn’t wish. I wish I wasn’t wishing. But for me, it was really more of a thought exercise than something that passionately rang true for me, personally.
I feel like I wished that I wish – sometimes, I wish that I had more wishes. That I felt more strongly towards things because I think there’s a lot of power and beauty that comes from that.
Tim Ferriss: We’re gonna bounce around a lot since I’m strictly non-chronological.
Gretchen Rubin: Good. Let’s be non-linear. Let’s do it.
Tim Ferriss: How did the law end up entering your life? It seems like you had some family with legal backgrounds, but was there a point where you decided you wanted to pursue that as a profession?
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, I wish that there had been that moment. Yeah, you’re right. My father’s a lawyer. A very happy lawyer. So, I had a model in my life of someone who was very happy as a lawyer. But really, I just drifted into law. I was good at research and writing. I was good at taking tests. And I thought about law school. Well, I’ll just get the LSAT and see how I do. I’ll just apply to law school and see where I get in.
And I can always change my mind later. And it’s a great preparation for a lot of different things. I’ll keep my options open. And I never really sat down and thought, “You know, I would really like to be a lawyer.” And the fact is law school is really great if you’re a person who really wants to be a lawyer. And the people I know who are happy lawyers, they wanted to be lawyers. But I went to law school just because I sort of didn’t know what else to do with myself. And I had a great experience in law school. I’m glad that I went. But I, certainly, just drifted into it because of a lack of any other aim. And it just seemed like something safe to – a safe thing to do that would maybe help me get more clarity.
Tim Ferriss: You were very successful in law, as far as I can tell. I’m no legal professional, but you were the editor-in-chief at the Yale Law Journal. You won some very prestigious prizes. Why were you as good at navigating that system as you were if you were not passionate about it?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, it’s interesting because saying that I drifted into law school kind of sounds like it’s the lazy, easy-going way. And one of the things I found about when people drift is it doesn’t mean that it’s easy or that you’re not working hard. So, I worked really hard. And like you said, I was editor-in-chief of the Law Journal. I went on to clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. I worked really, really hard at it, but at a certain point, I sort of did the obvious next thing. Oh, I’m graduating from law school; I’ll apply for a clerkship. Oh, I got one clerkship; I’ll apply to the Supreme Court.
And then, I got to a point where it was like, “Well, now what are you gonna do?” And I thought, “I don’t really know.” There’s all these law jobs that I could try for, but none of them really appeal to me. And that’s when I started thinking about the fact that, may be, I needed to think about going in a different direction.
Tim Ferriss: Can you place us, in terms of your life, as to where you were, what you were doing? Was there a particular evening or a conversation or dinner or event that catalyzed you thinking, “You know, I don’t want to continue on this path. I want to consider other options.” Was there a particular straw that broke that camel’s back, or moment?
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’m really lucky because – and I think this is true for a lot of writers, but actually, for many people in many different kinds of professions. Something started pulling me very, very hard. And writing began to pull me. And what happened to me was I had the idea – this is probably the most critical thing that happened. I had the idea that eventually did turn into the first book that I ever published. So, I was taking a walk on my lunch hour, and I was looking up at the Capitol Dome, all white against the blue sky. And I thought – and just sort of as a mental, fun game to play with myself, I said, “What am I interested in that everybody in the world is interested?” And I thought, “Well, power? Money? Fame? Sex?”
And all of a sudden, it was like, power, money, fame, sex. And to me this locked into my mind as this unified idea. And I became obsessed with trying to research and understand and analyze and write about power, money, fame, sex. And this is something that happens to me often. I will often become obsessed with subjects and do tons of research. So, that was not something unusual. That has happened to me my whole life. It’s like my favorite thing about myself, actually. But this was unstoppable. I was spending all my free time working on this.
And at some point, I was like, “This is the kind of thing that a person would do if they were writing a book.” I’m just doing this in my free time. But this is the kind of thing somebody would do to write a book about it. And slowly, I began to think, “Well, maybe I should write a book about it.” And I, literally, went to the bookstore and got a book called something like, How to Write and Sell Your Non-fiction Book Proposal. I got the book and just followed the directions.
And part of my thinking was, I’ve come to a point where I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer, and I need to try and fail or try and succeed, but I need to do it. But I think I was lucky because I knew what I wanted. Not only did I want to be a writer, I wanted to write this specific book. And so, there was immense clarity about my purpose. Sometimes, I think when people – and I bet you’ve seen this, too. Where people know they don’t want what they have, but they don’t know what they want. And so, they’re kind of in that what color is my parachute kind of thing. And that’s hard.
And for me, it was almost like; I can’t help but write this book. I feel the compulsion to write this book, so why don’t I see if this is my next thing. And then, that was how I made the switch. It was from that book on.
Tim Ferriss: Writing, it strikes me, at least for me, can be very difficult. Even if you have a deep desire to write about a given subject, the actual process of writing is easier for some.
Certainly, quite hard for many. I would say that I’m a very slow plotting writer. And where I’m going with that, I guess, is when did you actually cut bait and quit your job? Had you already sold the book? Or had you already sold it and you were part way through writing it? Or did you just kind of through caution to the wind and quit before the proposal had been sold? At what point did you actually stop the salary, so to speak, from the legal profession?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, actually, it was like the catalyst was other changes in my life. So, I married my husband who I met in law school. That was one of the benefits of going to law school. And he was working as a lawyer, too. And we were living in Washington, DC. And we were getting ready to move back to New York. He took a class in financial accounting, and he didn’t apply for a law job, he applied for a job in finance. And I didn’t apply for a law job. I was just like, “Now, I’m going to work full-time on trying to get an agent, trying to write this proposal.”
And so, for us, it was like the move from DC was like we’re leaving that behind. And I remember, we got to New York and at one point we got a letter from the bar association of New York – because we were both members of the New York bar – saying, you owe us bar fees, which are quite, quite, quite heavy. And I said, “Jamie, should we pay our bar fees and just keep it up?” And he’s like, “Are you kidding? No” And I’m like, “Yeah, we’re cutting that out.”
And so, it was really made easy for me because this physical move corresponded with everything’s different now. We’re switching total professions. My whole routine is different. My aim is different. My aim now, really at that point, was to get an agent, which is really harder, probably, than getting a book contract. And I had no idea what I was doing. But so, that’s when it was. It was like, I’m gonna work up until this time, but when I’m in New York, I’m not gonna look for a law job in New York. I’m not gonna look for any other job. This, now, is my full-time profession, trying to get published.
Tim Ferriss: And when you published that first book, looking back at it now, what were some of the key lessons learned through the process of searching for the agent to publishing that first book and, I suppose, going on the road and trying to promote that first book? Were there any particular life lessons or lessons learned, looking back, that then informed later decisions for you?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, you know what’s funny? I talked to several people before I ended up with my agent, who is one of the most important people in my life now. Christy Fletcher, who is this huge influence on my career, and it’s this complete love connection. But I talked to other agents before I met her. And one agent said something, at the time, I thought was preposterous. But in hindsight, I have learned that what she meant and why she was right. She said, “You have too many ideas on each page.” And I was like, “There’s no such thing as too many ideas on a page.”
What we want here is lots and lots of ideas. And I thought she was just so wrong. But now, I realize one problem with my writing – and this is something that I fight all the time – is density. I want to just cut, cut, cut, and only have dense. But you can’t read a book like that. You have to have humor. You have to have connective tissue. You have to have pacing. You have to have high – it has to have breath in it. And so, that’s one that I wish that I could go back to her and say, “I understand, now, the wisdom of what you said, and I think about it often. Even now, in my writing, and it’s many, many years later.”
As to the publishing process, I would just say to anybody who’s trying to get published traditionally. Obviously, now, a lot of people can self-publish, which is a whole other route. Getting an agent is hard. That is really, really hard. Don’t thing that that’s just a quick, easy step, and that writing the book is the hardest part.
I think getting an agent and that, I think probably for many people, is the most challenging stage of traditional publishing. I don’t know. What do you think? What do you think is the most –?
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good question. I was turned down by three or four agents before signing with my agent, Steve Hanselman, who is still my agent. And then, I was subsequently turned down by 27 publishers. So –
Gretchen Rubin: You showed them. That’s vindication. Nice.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah.
Gretchen Rubin: You’re right up there with Madeleine L’Engle, right? She had like 32, I think, or something.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think that there are – just because a book is rejected doesn’t mean it’s a good book, certainly. I think there are bad ideas that get rejected. And there’s also an argument to be made that, perhaps, for those publishers, this book was not a good fit. May be, maybe not.
But ultimately, for me, I think the – given my past experiences and professional experience, entrepreneurial experience, before the non-fiction book-selling process – and I think one thing that’s important for people to understand if they’re listening to this and don’t have any background in publishing. Generally speaking, in non-fiction, you can almost treat it like raising money for a venture-backed startup. You got out with this idea and a business plan, i.e. a book proposal. You sell it and then you write it. If you write a non-fiction book and try to go out and sell it, it is incredibly difficult. It is more difficult, in most respects, than going out with a proposal first.
Conversely, in fiction, it’s the other way around, right? If you’re trying to sell an idea for a fiction book, especially if you’re untested, it’s not gonna happen unless you have a completed manuscript. So, the sales process, for me, was easier than the writing process because I had more experience with –
Gretchen Rubin: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: – both. I had a lot of experience with long sales cycles because the job immediately – well, I should say prior to starting my company before that, in which case I was dealing with large retailers and so on, which had extended sales cycles. I had been selling mass data storage systems to organizations like the FBI, American Airlines, and so on, which also met multiple month sales cycles. So, I was comfortable in the realm of working with a proposal to sell a publisher. I was less familiar with the process of actually writing a book.
So, the writing was the hardest process for me. And I was also accustomed to rejection, which I think is not something many people have inoculated themselves against. Whereas, if you are in an external sales position, you’re getting rejected all the time. So, I didn’t view that as a huge blow to my morale.
It was just part of racking up enough no’s that I would statistically get to a yes effectively. But I’m curious to know, for you, after this first book – and we’re not gonna spend the whole time focusing on the book stuff, although, I’m fascinated by it – how did you decide on your next book? Because you mentioned – And I have this challenge as well. I do these deep dives on many different subjects. You could go in a million different directions. How did you narrow all the options down – or if that’s even how it came about – to your next book? How did you end up deciding?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, in retrospect, I didn’t realize this at the time. It took me a while. I was several books in before I realized my own theme. But my theme is human nature. Every book that I’ve written, everything that I’m interested in, in some way, is an examination of human nature from a different perspective. And so, Power, Money, Fame, Sex was actually excellent background for writing about happiness because it’s just sort of the opposite of happiness.
And then so, my next book was Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. And I think I was – I know that I was drawn to Winston Churchill because he’s such a gigantic character. Everything in him is so huge. He’s so studied. He was part of everything in the world for decades. Whether or not you agree with his policies or his statements, he played an extraordinarily important role. And then, he was also a brilliant writer. He’s an extraordinarily gifted writer. He painted. He was just sort of a million things.
And so, for me, I was very drawn to how do you tell the story in a succinct, interesting, accessible way? People have written eight volumes of his life, could I do it in 250 pages in a way that would be honest and be interesting to people? And so, each one of my books has sort of led to the next one. So, I wrote Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Then, I wrote Forty Ways to Look at JFK because I wanted to try this with another character. I wrote this really weird, little book called Profane Waste, which was about why owners destroy their own possessions.
Which is a subject, again, that had obsessed me since law school. And then, I got –
Tim Ferriss: Why did that obsess you since law school?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, it’s hard to explain why it so obsesses me. But if you think about the standard idea, and certainly in law school we talked a lot this, about the idea of what it means to possess. What makes sense is that people who possess things try – owners try to preserve things or control things. Why would someone want to burn their house to the ground? And is it legal to burn your own house to the ground? There was a Japanese business mogul who announced that he was going to bury his impressionist masterpieces with him, and there was huge public outcry. Why do we think that it’s worse for him to bury it with him in his grave than to keep it in a basement in a bank?
If you’ve seen the movie Harold and Maude, there’s that moment when Maude throws the ring into the lake and says, “Now, I’ll always know where it is.” And to me, it was this incredibly powerful and kind of taboo thing to do.
So, I was just trying to understand it. So again, it was just some weird preoccupation that I had. And it turns out that there’s these whole rich, crazy examples of people doing this and why they do and how you would explain it. And then, I got into the whole happiness and habits and sort of what I’m known for now. But it’s all because it’s all related to human nature. And so, for me, they feel very connected and one led, very logically, to the next. I think from the outside, it doesn’t always look like that, but that’s definitely how it feels, to me. I always have things that I’m dying to get to as soon as I can.
Tim Ferriss: When you do a deep dive on something, whether it’s for a book or otherwise, how do you take notes? What is your note-taking system?
Gretchen Rubin: I love taking notes. I’m so glad you asked about it because it’s a huge part of what I do. I always get my ideas – I do everything through reading.
I’m a very unwell-rounded person, and I don’t really do interviews with people or anything like that. In terms of research, I do it all through reading. And I read the weirdest, craziest stuff. Whenever I read a book, I will take extensive notes. So, anything that strikes my fancy, I will take a note of it. So, I have a document that’s just called, Quotes 2006+. And that’s just anything that I think is particularly beautiful. Then, I have subject notes that I take on habits or color or happiness or if I have big subjects, and then, everything gets dumped into there.
Tim Ferriss: Are those separate Word documents? Or what are –
Gretchen Rubin: Those are separate Word documents by topic. And then, there’s no internal structure in these notes. I might tag something. So, let’s say I was gonna take a note about some habits research. I might tag it accountability, tracking, health. So, then what happens is I have these giant documents of notes.
And then, it eventually turns into a book because, at a certain point, I have enough notes on a subject that I have started to form my own ideas and started to have my own viewpoint. My own ideas about who I agree with, what people are missing, what needs to be added or explained that isn’t already kind of out there. And then, I will start moving things from the notes into my own structure. And so, I will use those tagging words to find – like if I’m writing a chapter about accountability, I’d go through and put everything – I would dump it into the accountability section. And from there, then, I would begin to turn it into my own original writing.
And the advantage of this is I never have a blank page because I’m always working from huge amounts of notes. But taking notes is a big part of my workday. It sounds like, oh, it’s very perfunctory, but there’s a lot of thinking that goes into it. And then, just the sheer copying things out. Then, that also helps me remember things because I need to remember a lot.
And so, I find that physically copying things helps me retain information. So, I’ll sometimes copy things just so that I can refer back to it easily, but then, it also makes it easier for me to remember things like, what did that study say? Or what was the definition of ostensive anyway? Or whatever. That helps me.
Tim Ferriss: And when you’re copying things and pasting them, let’s just say, into your own format or –
Gretchen Rubin: Structure.
Tim Ferriss: Structure. Thank you. From a software perspective, are you still using Word for that, and it’s just a separate document? Or are you using a different approach?
Gretchen Rubin: Well so, with one of my books I used Scrivener. And I really, really like Scrivener, but I’m super untechy. And every once in a while, Scrivener would be like, “Now, it’s time to update.” And that made me super scared because I felt like my document was – I couldn’t get to it. And it was so unnerving to me that I haven’t used Scrivener since, even though I had a great experience with it, because I really didn’t like
Because I think if I were very technically savvy, then I would just do it, and I wouldn’t worry about it. But for me, it was always very anxiety producing. Am I going to do it right? Is something going to happen? What if this whole thing goes away, and I have to do some week-long customer service nightmare thing to –? No, because this document is everything to me. It’s so precious. And so, now I just keep it in Word. It was a little bit better, but it’s just not worth the anxiety. And so, now I just create a Word document. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, I have more anxiety associated with Word, in and of itself, so I’ve actually used Scrivener for the last four books in terms of structuring. And I just automatically have developed a schedule and auto backups that, then, drop a zip file for the entire Scrivener file into Dropbox so that I have multiple copies of the entire project backed up into zip files.
I’m always curious about the software. Of course, that’s a tool and there are, perhaps, more higher level conceptual frameworks that are more important. When you are reading these books, are you reading hardcopy, or are you, say, Kindle and then exporting highlights, so that you can copy and paste things digitally?
Gretchen Rubin: No, almost always I’m reading a hardcopy. A lot of the things that I read are old, and they don’t exist in digital form. Because they’re like old random books that nobody cares enough to digitize or to have available commercially. Again, I find – and this is what the research shows is true for many people. It’s certainly true for me – that I retain things more when I read them in physical form. And then, I also feel like if I could just cut and paste something, I would be tempted to do that, but I do think that the actual physical copying – I know people say handwriting is even better, but my handwriting is so bad, I would never be able to read it again. For me, typing does – again, it helps me retain information.
Because so much of what I do is taking a giant subject and then trying to crunch it down. And so, I have to have a lot in my mind at one time. So, for me, just having a lot of stuff in my working memory is very helpful.
Tim Ferriss: I had asked you for Tribe and Mentors, the book that you were kind enough to contribute to, about books that had had a significant impact on you, or that it effected your thinking, or been gifted by you often. And the book you brought up was A Pattern Language. Could you please explain – because you’ve ready so many books – why A Pattern Language?
Gretchen Rubin: So, A Pattern Language is a book by Christopher Alexander who’s kind of this wacky architect in California. And I love many books that he’s written. But A Pattern Language is interesting because it’s non-linear. So, carrying on in our non-linear theme. What he looks at is what makes – the part that’s most interesting to me is what makes spaces most interesting and comfortable for people?
And he’s not saying things like, “Oh, your dining room chandelier should be 30 inches off your dining room table.” Or, “You should have a curved doorway, not a square doorway.” Things like that. It’s much more poetic. And what he does is he’s looking – and he and his team looked all across cultures, all across the world and time to see what were the patterns. What’s the pattern language of what draws people into feeling good in a space?
So, for example, it’s things like a half-wild garden. Terrace overlooking life. Child cave. Secret place. He says everybody’s home should have a secret place that only the people who live there, and the people they tell, know about. When we moved, I’m like, “We are definitely having a secret place in our apartment.” And we do. We have a couple secret places. Or like sleeping to the east. People like to sleep to the east. Here’s one that really showed me why I like certain kinds of restaurants better.
Ceilings at different heights. Look around. When you’re in a place that feels comfortable, you’ll notice the ceilings are at different heights. And if you’re in a place where the ceiling is all the same height, it doesn’t feel as good. Or like cascade of roofs. If you look at roofs from Japanese temples to English manor houses, all across the – Norwegian farmhouses, they have a cascade of roofs, and that’s very pleasing. I’m not very visual at all. I can only see things through words. And so, I felt like reading this book, all of a sudden, I was able to key into my visual environment in a whole new way and understand why certain spaces felt so inviting and comfortable. And then, other spaces just turn me off.
Like light on two sides. If you’re in a room that has only light on one side, it’s not comfortable. You’re far more comfortable in a room that has light on two sides. Pay attention. Living in New York, this is a huge thing. Where is your light coming from? How much light do you have? Huge difference between having light one side and light on two sides.
So, anyways. It’s non-linear. It’s just organized in bits and pieces. So, you could just pick it up and flip through it. It has illustrations, and so, you see the common patterns in a multitude of different architectural styles. And so, it’s very thought provoking. It makes you see the world in a whole way, which is my favorite thing. So, that’s why I love A Pattern Language.
Tim Ferriss: I have to pick it up. I thought I knew that book, and I do not. I think that I was confusing it with a book called The Loom of Language, which is completely different, related to language acquisition and absurdly, absurdly dense. So, I will have to check it out.
Gretchen Rubin: This book has a lot of pictures.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. Now, given all that, I know, or at least based on my understanding, you do a lot of your work in a home office. What are some of the key ingredients that make your home office your home office?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, the one thing that’s missing that I desperately want, but my office is too small is a treadmill desk. I would love a treadmill desk. I gave my sister a treadmill desk. She has a treadmill desk, but my office is too small. One thing that I love that I have is three monitors. And I had, for a long time, thought – and I think a lot of people think – well, that’s just gonna be overwhelming. It’s gonna be too much information coming at me. It’s gonna be distracting. If I need to focus, I can’t have three monitors. But then, I read a study that said that knowledge workers, of which we are, their productivity went up, substantially, when they went from one to two monitors.
So, I got a second monitor as an experiment. And the next day, I bought a third monitor. And I think I would have a fourth monitor if my desks were big enough, but my office is very small. You just can go so much faster. If I’m copying something from the Internet into a document, it takes one second. Or I’m looking up the definition of a word; I don’t have to close out of my document. If I need to look up something in an email – read an email and look up a map or something. You can just do it so seamlessly. So, that’s something I love. I have a headset. Love a headset.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a particular headset or monitors that you like?
Gretchen Rubin: My monitors are just Dell, basic. They’re all different sizes, too. So, it’s not very sleek looking. And it’s a Plantronics headset. All very basic. One thing I got that I didn’t even know I – it was a pain point that I didn’t even realize I experienced until there was a solution for it, was I got a – right now, I’m speaking to you on a headset that is plugged into my hard drive. The headset wire was just always under the rolling wheels of my chair, and I couldn’t figure out where to put my headset so it didn’t get in my way. And then, I found – at the container store – it’s like a hook that you just put on the side of a desk. And then, you hook your headset to it. I was like, “This is exactly what I need.” So, I have that.
It’s a big – I have a book weight. This is a very specific thing. But for people who do take a lot of notes, it’s just a strip of leather that has weights on both ends, so that if you have a book that’s not staying open enough that you can read to copy it, you can book weight on it, and it will hold it open. I got that as a present, and I was like, “What am I going to do with this?” And now, literally, I use it every single day. It’s –
Tim Ferriss: So, it’s a flexible strip of leather with weight on either end.
Gretchen Rubin: Yes. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, if you need to trip a burglar getting away on horseback, you could probably do that.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can whack him on the head with that, too. It’s like, “You don’t break into my home office.” Yeah. I don’t have that much in terms of technology support. It’s just the basics. And my laptop, of course, which is like my puppy, practically. I’m so emotionally attached to my laptop.
Tim Ferriss: In a home office environment, one of the benefits is that you can work when you want to work.
One of the potential downsides is that you can work at all times. What are the rules or systems or parameters, policies, whatever, factors that you’ve set in place so that you are not in there at all hours, or working during family time, or fill in the blank? How do you contain that and structure your days when you’re doing well? If that makes sense.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah. One thing I do is I will say to myself – and it’s a different time every day. But I will say, “Now is quitting time.” And I’ll sort of in my mind think, okay it’s quitting time. And sure, I might check my email. Or I might read a book that is research, not for fun, but just a research book, after that time, but I’m basically not – I’m not working. And then, I also at that time will sort of clean up my office and that also is kind of a signal. Okay, I’m done for the day. I’m sort of setting up for tomorrow. And so, it’s coming to an end.
Tim Ferriss: You will clean up your office?
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah. I’ll carry my coffee mugs to the kitchen. And I’ll file anything and throw away anything that needs to be thrown away. If I got a book off the shelf, put the book the back, put the caps on the pens. That makes it a lot nicer to come in, the next morning. And also, it’s kind of a visual signal. Now, I’m winding down for the day. I’m kind of lucky because I live in an apartment, but my office used to be a water tower. And the people who lived in our apartment before us turned it into a storage room. But a nice a storage room with windows and an air conditioner and heat. And then, when we moved, I was like, “I could make that my office.”
So, I’m sort of lucky because I have to go up a little flight of stairs to go to my office. I think if your office is next to your kitchen, it’s just right there all the time. Whereas, for me, I actually have to open up a door, go out into my service stairs, and go upstairs. And so, I think that also makes it a little bit easier because it’s just – one of the things about – whenever we’re trying to get ourselves to not do something, making it inconvenient, the slightest bit of inconvenience, makes it harder to do something.
Which we can use to try to make our habits better. So, I think, for me, that’s a thing. Once I’m like, “Okay, it’s quitting time.” I’m going down my little staircase. That kind of creates a barrier, which is very helpful.
Tim Ferriss: So, you mentioned habits, or it’s come up a few times. Since that door is open, let’s step into it. Based on what I’ve read, one of the reliable, small changes that people can make, or claim that they’ve made, that makes them predictably happier is making their bed or making their beds. Are there other small changes that you would also recommend for people who are hoping to increase their self-reported well-being/happiness?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, one thing that seems to work for a lot of people is the one-minute rule. This the rule that if there’s anything you can do in less than a minute, you do it without delay. So, if you can print out a document and delete the email and file it, do that.
If you can scan a letter and throw it away, do that. If you can hang up your coat instead of dumping on a chair, do that. If you can put a book back on the shelf instead of just leaving it on the counter, do that. And what this does, for a lot of people, is just get rid of that kind of scum of stuff on the surface of life. Because sometimes, it’s not that there’s any one thing that’s so insurmountable to do, but you just feel like, oh, my gosh, just everywhere I look I see…
Everything’s just kind of out of order and I have to sift through everything to find what I’m looking for. And so, for a lot of people, they say just doing this makes them feel like, well, I’ve got the little things out of the way, and so now I’m readier to tackle the big things. And getting enough sleep, of course. Get enough sleep. That is a huge one. If you’re having trouble getting enough sleep, set an alarm. Most adults need seven hours of sleep. Most adults know what time they’re gonna get up in the morning. Do the math.
Give yourself an alarm. Give yourself a bedtime, so it’s not like, oh, I go to bed when I’m tired. It’s like, my bedtime is 10:30. And then, you might even need a snooze alarm. Just like if you have one in the morning, you might have one at night. It’s like, “Oh, my alarm went off. Now, I have 15 minutes to get myself organized and get to bed.” And then, the alarm will go off again, and it’s my bedtime. And another habit that can help with this is get ready before your bedtime.
I realized that I was staying up late because I was too tired to get ready for bed. I was too tired to wash my face and take out my contacts and change my clothes. It’s, clearly, a very stupid approach. So now, I get ready much earlier. And so, when I’m actually sleepy, it’s easy to turn out the light because I’m already ready for bed.
Tim Ferriss: In other words, you do your pre-bed ritual well before you need to go to bed.
Gretchen Rubin: Yes. Yeah, yeah. So, I’m ready. But I’m a sleep zealot. I’m the sleep zealot. But if you’re looking for a habit that will make you more energetic, more immune to illness, higher focus and function, better temper, and just feel better, getting more sleep.
If you don’t get enough sleep, already, is something that will surely benefit you. And one of the funny – there’s all this funny research that they’ve done. Because we really adjust to not getting enough sleep. And so, people think that they’re fine. They’re like, “Oh, I’ve trained myself to get by on four hours of sleep. That’s no problem for me.” But when scientists study these people, they’re quite impaired. We lose track of how good we feel when we have enough sleep. And so, you might think that you’re fine, but actually, if you had more sleep, you might feel a lot, lot better, have a lot more energy, have a lot more focus.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any particular wind down routines or rituals at night?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, one thing, my daughter, before she goes to bed, often we’ll just sit together and just kind of – it’s meant to be time for her, but it’s actually time for me, too. To kind of unwind and – because then, she’s old enough that we go to bed at more or less the same time because I am a sleep zealot. And so, that’s one thing. But –
Tim Ferriss: What do you guys do when you sit down?
Gretchen Rubin: She just pretty much talks to me about her day. Or we’ll talk about – she’s actually very interested in being a writer, too. And so, sometimes we’ll talk about writerly things. It’s funny, she was reading this book, and we’ve had this long discussion about pacing in a novel. This book was very – the pace of it was very fast. Did we like that? A book that covered ten years versus a book that covers a summer. So, we’ll talk about stuff like that. Which, of course, for me, is tremendously fun.
But mostly, she just tells me about what happened in her day. She’s in seventh grade, so there’s a lot of drama to catch me up on. But it’s just a really nice way to sit down and really connect at the end of the day. And it’s very relaxing. It’s very peaceful. Maybe because I am such a sleep zealot and really do guard it, I feel like I wind down pretty quickly.
Tim Ferriss: And in the morning, do you have any – if you look at the first, say, 60 to 90 minutes of your day, what does that look like? Is it fairly standard from day to day?
Gretchen Rubin: The first hour is because I get up at 6:00am every day, I walk my dog, I get coffee, and then, I sit down and do what all the experts tell you not to do, which is spend the first hour of my day checking my email and social media. Which everybody says, if you’re a morning person, you should do your most intense intellectual work then because that’s when you’re at your best. I definitely am a morning person. But I realize I can’t focus on anything until I check my inbox and see what’s going on. Check social media, see what’s going on there. I’m just too distracted by that until I get it done. So, I do that.
And then, it’s time for my daughter to go to school. So, often I’ll walk her to school. She doesn’t need me to walk her to school, but I do it just because it’s fun. It’s a nice way to get out. And then, I’ll often exercise. So, I will either go for a walk in Central Park, or I’ll go to the gym, or I do high-intensity strength training, or I have a yoga class. So, that’s kind of the beginning of my day. And then, I go into whatever is – am I preparing for a podcast? Am I working on a book? Am I talking to a reporter?
Am I writing an email? Am I planning? Then the rest of the day is much more unpredictable, or it changes day to day, unfortunately. I wish I had the life a Benedictine monk because I would love to have every day be exactly the same. But it’s not.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you could, right? You’ve ostensibly –
Gretchen Rubin: No, I really couldn’t.
Tim Ferriss: No?
Gretchen Rubin: I really couldn’t. No, because it’s like journalists. They’re like, “Well, I’m in the UK, so I can’t talk to you at 5:00 because for me that’s the middle of the night.” Or I have to record a podcast, so that has to happen at a certain time. I would have to work so hard to have that kind of – I just don’t think it’s worth it. I might kind of enjoy it, but it’s not worth fighting for, in my mind. For other people, they might want to really make that a priority.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I guess I just realized, for myself, that there are certain categories of activities, media certainly being one, that make my schedule – or make me create a schedule that is more reactive than it could be otherwise.
So, at least one of my fantasies – we’re talking now for people who might be listening to this later. We’re talking in December of 2017. And one of the recurring thoughts that I’ve had is a three to six-month sabbatical from both media and social media. So, media meaning interviews, and social media just to see what happens when I remove those two categories of inputs that tend to jostle and move things around as much as they do. I don’t know what the outcome would be. I don’t know if it will happen. Although, I would certainly – planning on seeing Star Wars tonight or tomorrow. So, if we’re channeling inner Yoda, I can certainly commit or not commit.
But for yourself, you’ve written so much about happiness. If you were to look back over the last – could be five years. It doesn’t have to be. I’m just arbitrarily pulling a number out. What are some of the changes that you’ve made that have had the greatest impact on either your levels of happiness or – and these may be the same thing – increased happiness or decreased anxiety and other negative emotions?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, one thing that I did was, four years ago, I gave up sugar. Quit sugar and, basically, carbs. So, I don’t eat sugar, pasta, flour, starchy vegetables. I don’t really eat much – I eat almost no fruit. So, the most carby things I eat are green vegetables and nuts. So, I do eat a lot of nuts, which have a fair amount of carbs. And this, for me, was the greatest thing. I had always had a really terrible sweet tooth, and I hated the feeling of like, “Can I have this?” Or, “It’s just a bite.” Or, “It’s for free.” Or, “It’s my birthday.” That whole thing. And I write about this in Better Than Before that I realize I’m an abstainer. It’s easier for me to have none than to have a little bit. And I just gave it up.
I read this book, Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and overnight, I’m completely convinced. I’m changing everything about the way that I eat. And for me, it was just the most freeing, energizing positive change.
And I also used to get super hungry, like shaking, sweating hungry because I was eating a very low-fat diet and with not even that much protein. And so, now I don’t have that. It was super inconvenient. So, for me, that was a huge thing. I’m not saying that would work for everybody, but that was, for me – and it was a very dramatic change. My husband actually gave me a Christmas ornament in the shape of a strip of bacon to memorialize – this was the year of the beginning of bacon because boy, we eat a lot of bacon. So, that was a big thing for me. In the last five years –
Tim Ferriss: It could be longer if that’s helpful.
Gretchen Rubin: It could be longer? Well, one thing that I did that added tremendously to my happiness – So, I am this crazy, raving fan of children’s literature and young adult literature. So, I read it as a child, and I read it now as an adult. And I realized, when I was writing The Happiness Project, that this was something that I love, but I didn’t really make much time for it in my life.
It kind of didn’t fit with my idea of myself that I was very sophisticated. I was a very kind of advanced reader who read very adult things. But I realized I don’t really have that many true passions and interests. And so, I don’t have enough that I can just ignore one of the big ones. And I started a group for adults who read and love children’s literature and young adult literature. And when I started it, I truly believe that were no other adults in New York City who would want to join this group. And now, there are three of these groups.
I just, actually, had my annual Christmas party where I get all three groups together. One day a year, all three of them meet. And I’m a member of all three. But there were so many that there had to be three separate groups. And it’s been amazing because I’ve met all – I’ve met a bunch of bookish people who I love, so I have more relationships. And these are people who share something that I love. I have a way to talk about and learn about something that I truly love.
And the fact is some people like mysteries, some people like sci-fi. It’s like some people like children’s literature and young adult literature. It’s just a different taste that some people have and some people don’t, as adults. There’s nothing to do with children in these groups. But that was something where I’m like, “Wow.” When I look back on changes that I made that gave me a huge spike in happiness, both kind of intellectually and also through relationships because relationships are, probably, the key to happiness. That was a big one. That was a big one.
Kind of acknowledging that and then really bringing it into my – really shining a light on it in my life. Letting it really kind of take its place as a major occupation in my life.
Tim Ferriss: What is the rhythm of the groups look like in terms of meetings and so on? And do you communicate via Facebook groups, email? Could you just paint a picture of, logistically, how it actually works?
Gretchen Rubin: We all communicate through email. So, one of the groups – they’re all a little bit different. One of the groups – well, they all meet every six weeks, and we all take turns meeting at certain people’s apartments.
People will take turns. Some people have apartments that are too small or too far away, and so, it’s not convenient. So, those people just don’t enter the rotation, which is fine. That’s just whatever. Some people host, some people don’t. One person never hosts, so she always brings dessert. That’s her contribution, she brings dessert every time. So, fine. One of the groups, we rotate among classic, modern, and contemporary. So, we might read Peter Pan, and then, Harriet The Spy, and then, The Hate You Give. We would do that. The other ones just pick books – we just pick whatever we feel like reading. So, right now, we’re reading The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman, which is the –
Tim Ferriss: I was going to ask you about Philip Pullman. We’re gonna come back to this, so please continue.
Gretchen Rubin: Okay. You’re like, “Oh, let’s get going on Philip Pullman.” And then, one of the groups had a tradition, but we’ve sort of fallen out of it, is that you would serve something related to the books, which was funny. We read Holes by Louis Sachar and the person served donut holes. Or one time, we read Little House in the Big Woods and it was like cornbread and apple pie and red gingham tablecloth. So, that’s just sort of a little fun thing you could do if you felt like it.
Tim Ferriss: Who decides on the books to read?
Gretchen Rubin: We all work it out. All book groups have different ways, and we just sort of talk about it, and everybody sort of says, “Yeah, that one sounds good.” So, we don’t really have a particular methodology for picking. Usually, though now, we’re trying to pick a book that, at least, everyone is talking about it.
So, it’s a book that’s important to read even if we don’t like it. Or it’s a book that somebody has read and loves. And so, they’re willing to say, “I really love this book.” Because we don’t want to read something that no one’s gonna like. But sometimes, it’s worth reading a book just because it’s sort of the moment, and so you want to know what is working right now, or what are people responding to right now? That’s always kind of interesting.
Tim Ferriss: And when you meet up, what does the meet up look like? Is there it like, for ten minutes, we’re gonna do this. For a half hour, we’re gonna do this.
Gretchen Rubin: The motto if the kid lit. groups is no guilt. So, you are completely encouraged to come even if you haven’t read the book. If you haven’t been able to come for a year because you’ve been too busy, and then, you want to start coming again, we welcome you back at any time, no explanations necessary. We talk about the book as much or as little as we want. Sometimes, we talk about the book a lot because there’s a lot to say. Sometimes, it’s not that much and we talk about other things that we’re more interested in.
So, it’s very loose. It’s not a highly structured – I hear about some book groups and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, it sounds like a seminar.” You have to prepare, and you have to a give statement, and they have an expert come talk. No, this is just a bunch of people. We just love it. So, it’s like everybody sitting around being like, “What did you think?” And people who really know the books. So, it’s like if you want to talk about deep into the Louisa May Alcott canon or – The great schism in the groups is Twilight.
Some people like those books, some people don’t like those books. If I’m ever talking to somebody who’s thinking about the group, I’m always like, “Well, how do you feel about it?” Because you have to have an opinion. You don’t have to agree with my opinion. But it’s like anybody who’s in this area has a viewpoint. It’s like –
Tim Ferriss: On the Twilight series.
Gretchen Rubin: You can’t be like, “What’s that? I’ve never heard of that.” Or, “Oh, I thought those were just movies.” You’ve gotta have a view. That’s how we know you’re one of us. You don’t have to like it, but you have to have a thought.
Tim Ferriss: So, I’d love for you to clarify something for me because this is something that surprised me greatly, and it may be a misconception. But I remember picking up The Golden Compass and – well, I actually bought all of – what is it? His dark materials. Am I getting that right? The Philip Pullman series. And I bought it – I remember I bought a paperback, initially. And it was in the young adult section. And in my mind, that meant easier reading for younger readers.
And then, I got into this book, and I had to constantly look up nautical terms and vocabulary. It was a very, very – dense isn’t the right word, but intellectual demanding book. And I thought to myself, how in the hell could, say, an eleven-year-old read this without a good amount of assistance or a dictionary. And then, a bookseller said to me, “Well, it’s young adult because the protagonist is a young adult, not because the book is for young adults.” And I was like, “Really?” I wasn’t sure about that.
So, could you explain, maybe, your position on that? What qualifies something to be in the young adult genre? Because I loved the Philip Pullman books, but they are, certainly, more demanding, intellectually, than many of the so-called adult books that I’ve read.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah. No, and you raise a very interesting question and one that we talk about a lot and that nobody has a good answer to, which is what makes something YA? And sometimes, it’s just a feel.
And a lot of times, books are put in YA because the protagonists are young adult. Like, Jane Eyre has started drifting into YA. I will often see it in YA. Or Catcher in the Rye. Catcher in the Rye was not written to be a young adult book. It’s an adult book. But it sort of drifted there because the protagonist is a teenager. And I think you’re right, sometimes it doesn’t – I don’t know if you’ve read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.
Tim Ferriss: I haven’t.
Gretchen Rubin: That is clearly an adult book, but the protagonist is a teenager. Someday, somebody is gonna decide that’s a YA book. So, I think you’re right. I think what makes something YA or not is very much in the eye of the beholder. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not sophisticated or demanding. And there’s a lot of books – now, there’s a lot of talk of crossover. Are there books that adults would read? And I kind of wish – as much as I love children’s literature and young adult, I kind of wish that people didn’t see this split. Because I think a lot of times adults don’t read things that they might very much enjoy because they think, “Well, it’s YA, so it’s not for me.”
These are really, really great books on their own terms. So, I’m with you. I don’t think that that’s what makes a YA book because there’s many books that have teenage protagonists that – I’m just thinking of like, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. There are two narrators; one of them is a 15-year-old girl or something like that. That is not a YA book. It’s hard to define what that is. Yeah. It’s so good, right? Aren’t you glad you read it? It’s so good.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s incredible. Yeah, for people – I was so outraged when that movie came out, and it’s just terrible, terrible, terrible.
Gretchen Rubin: I know. [Inaudible], a do-over, a do-over.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it was absolutely horrible. So –
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, swing again, guys. It’s such a good story. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Especially, the first book is so, so good.
Gretchen Rubin: Well, for my kid lit. group, as a thank you present, somebody brought me a Christmas ornament of a polar bear wearing a banner, a royal banner.
And I’m like, “I know I’m in the right group.” Because I showed it to everybody and they’re like, “Look, it’s Iorek Byrnison.” I’m like, “Of course, it is.” This is not just a random polar bear. This is the front of The Golden Compass.
Tim Ferriss: Such a great book. So, I’m gonna switch gears, yet again. And I want to ask you about accountability. You were interviewed by a friend of mine, Chase Jarvis. And I believe I’m getting this right, you can certainly fact check me. But I believe you said a lot of people who are frustrated with themselves just need accountability. And I was hoping you could expand on that and maybe give us some examples of how you or other people have used accountability.
Gretchen Rubin: Well, that’s gonna require me to go into my four tendencies framework, so can I –
Tim Ferriss: Let’s do it.
Gretchen Rubin: – spring this on you at this point?
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Oh, yeah. Totally.
Gretchen Rubin: So, The Four Tendencies is this personality framework that I stumbled on basically when I was writing Better Than Before, which is my book about habit change. Because I kept noticing patterns and how people could and couldn’t form habits that wasn’t really explained by everything else that I was reading.
I was like, “I don’t get –” What’s going on here? It seemed like there was some pattern there that hadn’t been identified. And it almost melted by brain. Figuring this out was definitely the most intellectually challenging thing that I have ever done. The catalyst for it was a very ordinary conversation where a friend of mine said, “The weird thing about me is I know I would be happier if I exercised. And when I was in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice. So, why can’t I go running now?” And I had heard many people say similar things like that throughout my life, but for some reason, when she said that, I was just electrified.
I was like, “I must understand what is going on.” What’s different? Because it’s the same person, it’s the same behavior. At one time, it was effortless for her. Now, she can’t do it. How do you explain that? And that’s what led me to The Four Tendencies. And accountability is a huge – we will get to that. So, The Four Tendencies, it divides people into upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels, depending on how you respond to expectations.
I know this sounds super boring, but it gets really juicy. And it has to do with how you deal with outer expectations, which are things like a work deadline or a request from a friend. And then, also inner expectations, which is your own desire to keep a New Year’s resolution. Your own desire to write a novel in your free time. So, there are upholders, questioners, obligers, rebels. Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. So, they meet the work deadline without much fuss. They keep the New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what other people expect from them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.
Then, there are questioners. Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do it if they think it makes sense. So, they’re turning everything into an inner expectation. If it meets their standard, they’ll do it, no problem. If it fails their standard, they will resist. And they typically argue against anything arbitrary, inefficient, irrational. Then, there are obligers. And that’s my friend on the track team. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. So, they will meet the work deadline, but they’re gonna have a lot of trouble with the New Year’s resolution.
And then, there are rebels. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want to do, in their own way, in their own time. They could do anything they want to do. They could do anything they choose to do. But if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. And there’s a quiz on my site, gretchenrubin.com, a free quiz. And more than a million people now have taken that quiz. But most people don’t even need to take the quiz. They just hear that little introduction and they know what they are. And this ends up making a huge difference in how you most successfully go through life and deal with other people.
Tim Ferriss: Which are you?
Gretchen Rubin: I’m an upholder, which means that I readily meet outer and inner expectations and –
Tim Ferriss: From the – not to interrupt, but I will. It seems like from the description you just gave that it is, by far, best to be an upholder. Are there downsides to being an upholder? Because it sounds great if you’re able to both follow your inner and – intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators.
Gretchen Rubin: Well, there are a lot of great things about being an upholder, certainly. It’s a small tendency. Rebel is the smallest tendency and upholder is only slightly larger. All of the tendencies have strengths and weaknesses. Usually the strengths and the weakness, it’s like two sides of the same coin. And when you look at who’s the happiest, the healthiest, the most productive, the most creative, it’s the people who have figured out how to harness the strengths of their tendency and offset the weaknesses and limitations of their tendency.
And some of the weaknesses and limitations of upholder is, one, upholders can be rigid. They will lock into a schedule or a priority list, and then, they’re like, “What do you mean we have to do something different?” They tend not to do well where there’s a lot of emphasis on being flexible, or where it’s not clear what expectations are, or where it’s ambiguous what’s expected of them. Or when things change rapidly. They can have tightening, which is when the rules get tighter.
Which is like a friend of mine who had a Fitbit and was trying to do 10,000 steps a day. He’s like, “My wife was asleep in bed. I locked myself in the bathroom, and I’m jogging away next to the toilet at 1:00am because I’m going to get to my – at midnight, I’m gonna get to my 10,000 steps.”
That’s tightening. It could be good, but sometimes you can become kind of like the mindless bureaucrat of your own paperwork. It’s something upholders really have to be [inaudible]. Or I was doing physical therapy, and my physical therapist told me to do it twice a day, and then, all of a sudden, I found I was doing it four times a twice. Maybe that’s good, but maybe that’s not good. And then, they can also seem very cold. It’s funny, the other night, I gave a talk and upholder – somebody was like, “Oh, she’s an upholder like you, and I think it’s so great to be an upholder. What’s the downside?”
I was like, “Because they can seem cold.” And this woman leans into me and she goes, “Oh, my gosh, I am so cold.” Because upholders are like, “I know that we’ve got guests coming to stay with us at home, this weekend, but I’ve gotta go on a 15-mile run because I’m training for the marathon. So, you’re gonna be on your own because I gotta go for my run.”
Or like, “Oh, you’re my colleague and our reports are due tomorrow. And you’ve asked me if I could proofread your report, but I don’t have time for that because I’ve gotta finish my report. My report’s due tomorrow, too.” To an upholder, that seems appropriate. I need to meet my inner expectations as well as my outer expectation of handing this in tomorrow.
But to other people, that can seem cold. Because they’re like, “Well, can’t you give a little in order to meet other expectations?” So, those are some of the downsides. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, for your friend who was able to run when she was part of a track team, but now as, I guess, an obliger doesn’t have that external force, what type of action or structure – what type of action could she take or structure could she create given that insight?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, this goes back to your original question, which is about accountability. That is the answer for obligers. And I would say of everything related to The Four Tendencies, this is the most important idea that’s helped the most people figure out the hidden patterns of their nature. Which is that if you are an obliger, by definition, you’re meeting outer expectations, but struggling to meet inner expectations. The solution. The way to fix this. The very concrete and straightforward solution is outer accountability. Outer accountability can work for other tendencies.
It is essential for obligers. If you want to read more, join a book group. If you want to exercise more, join a class where they take attendance, workout with a trainer, workout with a friend who’s gonna be annoyed if you don’t show up. Take your dog for a run every morning. And he’s gonna be so disappointed if he doesn’t go for a run, plus he’s gonna tear up the living room. Some obligers can use things like their future self. Like, well, now Gretchen doesn’t want to go for a run, but future Gretchen’s gonna be so disappointed if I break the chain. I’ve been doing so well. I need to do it for future Gretchen.
Obligers are very dramatic in what kind of accountability structures work them. Because for some obligers, paying for something makes them very likely to feel accountable. For other obligers, it’s almost like it makes them feel like they’re off the hook. Like, “Oh, I paid for it, so it’s the same as doing it.” And you’re like, “No, it’s really not.” But that is the thing. When you’re an obliger, you want to figure out, well how can I create a structure of outer accountability around inner expectations? This is true even for self-care. This is a word that’s a huge tipoff. If somebody starts talking about self-care, I’m like, “Bing, bing, bing. You’re an obliger.”
Or if you’re somebody who’s like, “Well, you know, I don’t have time to exercise because I give 110 percent to my clients.” You’re an obliger because you’re saying, “I can’t meet an inner expectation because I’m always meeting outer expectations.” Now, you might pride yourself on that and think, “Oh, I’m such a badass. Of course, I’m always seeing patients. I’m always at the hospital. I never have time to have a healthy meal because I’m always eating out of the vending machines because I work so hard at the hospital. I do everything for my patients.”
It’s like, “Okay. Well, you’re an obliger.” So, given that, if you do decide that you want to exercise or eat healthfully or write a novel or practice meditation or whatever, how could you – imagine systems of outer accountability that would permit you to follow through with that inner aim that you have for yourself. And sometimes, obligers don’t like the fact that they’re reliant on outer accountability. They feel like somehow, it’s weak. Who cares? It’s the biggest tendency. It’s the one that the most people belong to for both men and women. A lot of people are in the same boat. Who cares what you have to do to get there? Just figure out what works for you. Outer accountability works, use it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally. It doesn’t have to be depressing. It could just be useful, if you look at the psychology and the incentives involved. For instance, I’ve seen people who have used, to great effect, services or sites like dietbet.com where you’re putting money into a betting pool. Or Stickk, S-T-I-C-K-K.com or others where you’re provided with a framework for holding yourself accountable. Whether that results in financial loss if you don’t hit the goals, or if you have people who are effectively referees who hold you accountable. You mentioned New Year’s resolutions, a few minutes ago, do you set New Year’s resolutions for yourself? Is that a practice that you have?
Gretchen Rubin: Kind of my job is to have resolutions. I feel like I’m resolving constantly. So, I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions in the same way. On the Happier podcast, Elizabeth and I did this thing called 18 for 2018. And that wasn’t really like resolutions; it was more like 18 things you want to get done in 2018.
So, that was a different. One thing I’ve done many times is pick a one-word theme for the year, which is, again, a different take at the New Year’s resolution. This year my word is delegation. And I’ve it, in other words, be like repurposing, where it’s setting a theme for the year. My sister’s, one year, was hot wheels because she wanted to get a new car. But I don’t really make traditional New Year’s resolutions anymore, partly because I do make so many resolutions as part of my ongoing experiment in happiness and good habits. If something occurs to me, I usually try it right away because – just for the fun of it.
Tim Ferriss: So, delegation is your – I like this idea of a one-word theme for the year. So, delegation is your theme for 2018?
Gretchen Rubin: Yep. Yeah, I realize I need to delegate more.
Tim Ferriss: So, I was gonna ask, how does that, then, get translated into sort of actions, things with deadlines, next steps, and so on? What is your process from the point of identifying that and naming it to starting to implement it and make sure that it’s translated into real life? What does that look like?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, for me, it’s asking myself the question, what is it that I do that someone else can do? There are many things that I do that no one else could do, but there are some things that I do that other people could do. And I need to be more disciplined in identifying that and delegating it. Partly, it’s just that at any one moment, it’s easier to just do it myself. It’s faster to just do it myself than to sit down and figure out, well who could do it instead? And how could I delegate it? Or maybe I shouldn’t do it at all. And that’s part of being an upholder.
It’s easier for me to just execute than to step back and be like, well, why should I do this? And is there a better way? That’s what questioners are good at. And so, I want to do that. And then, last year, my theme was repurposing, but I realized – and I did a very bad job living up to that theme.
And I’m like, “That’s because I need to delegate repurposing.” Which is I need to find someone who I can ask to go through – I have a tremendous archive of stuff, but I always want to just be creating a new thing. But I have all this stuff that I could make something cool out of it and say to somebody, “Go through, look at all my stuff, and pull out everything related to self-knowledge. And put it in some kind of form, and then, I’ll go through it and polish it and tinker with it and make it into something really cool. But if you would just go through and do that, then my work would take a fraction of the time.”
And it would just be the fun part that only I can do. Instead of me thinking – keep thinking, oh, I should go through and cut and paste, and that would sort of be fun, but somebody else can do that. So, I’m trying to figure that out. How exactly that’s gonna – what form that will take. It doesn’t come naturally to me. So, it’s gonna be a struggle.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any particular low hanging fruit, or first candidates, that you’re thinking of experimenting with delegating?
Gretchen Rubin: See, that’s a very good question because I feel like I could do all these sort of little books, and I need to sit down and decide well, which one would be the most fun for me and for others and for readers. I have all these one sentence aphorisms, which I love one sentence aphorisms, and they’re sort of sprinkle – like secrets of adulthood and they’re sprinkled all over the place. But I have sit down and think, “Is this something that would be a good book? Is this a book? Is this not a book? Is there something else it should be?” That’s the work that only I can do. But then, once I decide, well what’s that priority, then I can start thinking about it.
So, it’s a whole – it’s a big thing. It’s not like pick up my clothes every night before I go to bed instead of leaving them in a giant pile at the chair, at the end of the bed, which is another one of my resolutions. But that’s easy to execute. This one, there’s lots of moving pieces that are very uncomfortable for me to ponder. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Well, how will you go about making that process easier for yourself? I think that a lot of people listening, certainly, will feel a similar pain in terms of their historic lack of delegation. Are there any people or systems that you’re going rely on to help you with the getting better at delegation?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I think it has to come from my own mind. So, I think it’s about examining my work process and thinking, “Well, what is it that I can do – what is it that I should do that no one else can do?” And thinking about that. That’s what I need to sit down and think about. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything from handling email to all that stuff. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, I know we don’t have too, too much time left, but I’d love to ask you some of my, suppose usual, kind of rapid fire questions because I’m really curious how you would answer some of them.
And one is related to failure. Is there any particular failure of yours, that you can think of, that set the stage for a later success? Or a favorite failure of yours, so to speak, that you learned a lot from or steered you in a different direction?
Gretchen Rubin: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, I wrote a book, which I love – I love all my books – called Forty Ways to Look at JFK. And as they say in the industry, it did not find its audience. That’s what they tell you when a book bombed. So, nobody bought this book. Nobody was interested in this book. But what it taught that was – so, it was a failure. They didn’t even make it into a paperback, so that was my only book that only exists in hardback form. But what I learned was I had this incredible feeling of helplessness that here I was, I had poured my heart into a book, I really thought it was good, and I was totally dependent on others to shine a spotlight on it.
There was nothing I could do to try to let people know that the book was there. Now, maybe they weren’t interested, but I couldn’t even try to interest them in it. I had no tools. And it was just at this time that everything was – all the tools that now exist online were just becoming accessible enough to people who are very untechnical, like me. Things like having a blog. And I had already started working on The Happiness Project, and the idea of The Happiness Project is I was test driving all these things that people tell you about how you can be happier.
And one of the things that the research keeps showing is that novelty and challenge make people happier. And I thought, “Well, that’s not true for me. I like mastery and familiarity. But I have to do something because the whole the point of the book is I’m gonna do this experiment.” So, I’m like, “Well, I’ll do something novel and challenging. I’ll start a blog.” Well, I quickly realized that the blog, which I started thinking that it would be like gratitude journal, and I would quickly abandon it because it wouldn’t work, which I did with my gratitude journal. But I really enjoyed the blog
It did well. And I realized that it was solving this problem that I had felt before, which was I have no way to connect directly to readers. And so, I feel like if I hadn’t had that failure, I don’t think I would’ve had as much excitement and interest in the blog because I wouldn’t have understood how valuable it is to connect with readers. It’s one of the reasons that I love having a podcast. It’s one of the reasons that I love using social media. I love connecting with listeners and viewers and readers about the subjects that I’m interested in. I get immense value from it because I get all kinds of examples and questions and illustrations.
And people are like my research assistants. They’ll send me links to research and anything they think connects to the things that I’m obsessed with. So, it’s enormously valuable to me. But I don’t know – if that book had done fine, I don’t know that I would have realized the value of it. Because I would’ve been like, “Oh, I’ll just write a good book and people will just naturally know about it.” But now, with shrinking coverage in traditional media, now it looks indie book stores are kind of coming back, but for a while it was really scary for indie book stores.
I thought, “I really do want to be able to connect with people myself.” Just with my own steam rather than depending on gatekeepers. If I don’t get a book review, then this book, essentially, doesn’t exist in the public mind. Or once it’s not in the front table, then no one will ever see it again. Or it will never be heard from again. So, that was a failure that had enormous consequences for me. It did not feel like a helpful failure, at the time, but looking back, it was a lucky failure, for sure.
Tim Ferriss: What software or platform do you use for your blog?
Gretchen Rubin: WordPress.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. WordPress is interesting for a host for reasons, right? Both email, podcasting, and platforms like WordPress are really – I’m also on WordPress and have been since day one, even before I became involved with Automattic, later, the company that handles wordpress.com.
But the benefit in, say, an open source platform or something that can be ported from one place – in the case of email, from one email service provider to another – is that your audience travels with you, right? This makes me think of a conversation that I had long ago with someone who had a multimillion dollar business based on Facebook. And I think Facebook is incredibly valuable for a lot of things; however, when your access and reach to your audience is dependent on an algorithm that is 100 percent outside of your control, I asked him what it was like to have a business based on Facebook. And he said, “It’s like owning the most profitable McDonald’s in the world on top of an active volcano.”
Gretchen Rubin: Ow, yeah. Wow. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And this is something, certainly, with books – the vast majority – this is changing, but many authors and, certainly, most publishers have no means of communication with their readers whatsoever. It’s really, really important. So, this then is a follow up question, and you might have to pick something else because I think what you just said could be an answer. But what is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? It could be money, time, energy, anything at all?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I just keep thinking laptop, but that’s so basic and so long ago it doesn’t even really count.
Tim Ferriss: What about skill development? Is there any particular –
Gretchen Rubin: Learning how to podcast. That’s a whole separate skill. Yeah. That was huge. Entering into that world was a huge, huge thing. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How did you learn? Because you have a popular podcast, and then certainly, you were coming in with an advantage as I did with an audience for your books. But how did you think about learning to podcast?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I did something which is one of my favorite things to do, which is, I was like, “I’m gonna have a manifesto.” I’m really into taking ideas and trying to distill them. So, I went around and talked to as many people I could find who either created a podcast or worked in podcasting or just loved podcast.
And I asked them, how do you even think about it? And would hear what they would talk, and then, whenever they would say something that I was like, “Okay. It makes the manifesto.” And so, one thing that made the manifesto, which I think about all the time, is to be consistent and also surprise. And I think about all the time. There has to be consistency, but then, you also have to break it up. Let the outside world into your podcast. You don’t want it to become too insular. You have new people in your podcast all the time, but for us, it’s mostly me and my sister. So, you don’t want it to start feeling claustrophobic, so how do you get the outside world in?
Tim Ferriss: Just to hit pause for a second. How do you do that? Because it could quickly become just all inside baseball for long-term listeners.
Gretchen Rubin: Right, right. Well, one thing is we have interviews, but very sporadically. So, it’s like every, maybe, fifth episode, if even that often. So, that’s one way to get in. Sometimes, our producer will come in and just make a comment, so you’re like, “Oh, yeah, there is other people around.”
Often, we try to have clips from television or movies if those are relevant. Or music, if there’s something like that. Or even sound effects, just something so that the sound is changing. So, that’s one thing. And so, for me, that’s very helpful. It’s sort of like, okay, I’m not just having coffee with somebody and having them tell me about their podcast. I’m looking for those gems are the takeaways. Or one thing is fans are great, but a community is better. So, how do you change fans into a community? That’s a question that still are thinking about all the time. This is an aspirational manifesto. It’s not what we do; it’s what we try to do
Tim Ferriss: How have you thought about your turning your listeners into a community?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, one thing that we do a lot of is we have tons of listener content. So, for the holidays, for instance, we were like, “Okay, send us your best holiday hack.”
Some quick, easy thing to make the holidays easier. Whether that’s about entertaining or your Christmas card list or buying gifts or dealing with your difficult relatives or traveling. Whatever it is. And then, we would go through and have like, “Oh, here are all these things from our community.” Or I did this thing, which worked out really well where someone had emailed to ask if I had any – because I love quotations so much. I have a quotation newsletter where I send out a quotation every day, a happiness quotation. Said, “Do you have any good ideas for funeral readings or memorial readings because I have to go to a funeral, and I need readings.”
And I was like, this is a great question for everyone. And so, it was a whole community project. People would send in their favorites, and then, I made a PDF. And then, it’s just something that people can ask for. Do you want the readings for funerals, or –? And when you need that, it’s really helpful to get a 20-page document. And it’s from everybody. Or we did a thing on Spotify about – you know how when you’re feeling blue, most people have a song that they – there’s their go to song to make themselves cheer up?
So, we asked people to submit their songs. And now, there’s dozens and dozens and dozens of hours on Spotify of everybody’s – this is my go to song. So, it’s the happiest, most energizing playlist. But everybody built it together. And so –
Tim Ferriss: How did they make those submissions?
Gretchen Rubin: By email. Just by email.
Tim Ferriss: I get it.
Gretchen Rubin: Or voicemail. We had a meetup – we’ve only had one meetup – and it was really great, but it’s a thing to pull that off. Where do you do it? How do you organize it? How do you get people to RSVP? So, we need to work on that. We’ve done a couple live events, those are super fun. We want to do more of those because we do feel like that’s the great community thing because everybody’s there together.
And my sister has a podcast of her own, and they have a very active Facebook group, Happier in Hollywood. We have not done that with Happier, but I know that that’s something that can be really, really effective, too. Again, it’s like everybody would have a different answer depending on what they’re interested in, what they’re good at, what their audience is interested in, what their content is. But it’s a good question, which is how do you turn fans into a community? And it’s fun to talk about.
Tim Ferriss: Is the manifesto written out sort of like Jerry McGuire?
Gretchen Rubin: Mm-hmm.
Tim Ferriss: So, you have – how long is it?
Gretchen Rubin: It’s like 15 items, I think, now.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, okay. So, it’s really like the 15 commandments of sorts.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah. I feel like a manifesto has to be one page. Yeah, it’s like a resume.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Gretchen Rubin: Part of it is to keep succinct. No, it’s like 15 one liners.
Tim Ferriss: Have you shared you anywhere?
Gretchen Rubin: More banter. That’s one of ours. Yeah, yeah. No, I gave a whole talk about it [inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you did? Oh, okay, great.
Gretchen Rubin: You know it’s public. If anybody wants it, just email me and I’ll send you my podcast manifesto. I love a manifesto. I have a habits manifesto, a happiness manifesto. I like distilling things. For me, that’s so – it’s like how some people like to write haiku. I like to write manifestos.
Tim Ferriss: Now, I don’t want to destroy your inbox, which is entirely possible. Maybe you have some system for avoiding inbox deluge, but when you said people can email you. If they wanted to find or read the habit manifesto or the podcasting manifesto, how would you suggest they find it? Certainly, they could search your name, and then, fill in the blank, manifesto on Google or elsewhere. But –
Gretchen Rubin: Right. Or on my website. They’re there on my website under resources, if they wanted that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. So, you mentioned quotations. So, if you could have a giant billboard anywhere, metaphorically speaking, right? Getting a message out to millions or billions of people. So, it could be a few words, it could be a paragraph, it doesn’t really matter. It could be a saying of yours, or it could be another quote from someone else. What might you put on it?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I think, of everything that I have ever written – If it was gonna be a quote from me. Of everything that I have ever written, there’s clearly one sentence that is the sentence that is the most meaningful to people. And that is, “The days are long, but the years are short.” That is, I feel like, for many people, that’s the thing that’s quoted back to me the most.
Tim Ferriss: I like that.
Gretchen Rubin: And it’s just this idea that, sometimes, getting from morning to night feels interminable, but then, you’re like, “Where did 2017 go?” Do I even remember March 2017? What even happened? It just flashed by. So, to remember that.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any quotes that you use as routinely? I have certain quotes that I revisit often, or that I have in my home somewhere that I will see them often. Are there any quotes that you might put on a billboard for yourself?
Gretchen Rubin: One is from Robert Louis Stevenson, “There is no duty we so.And then, there’s one from Thomas Merton, and I’m not sure I’m gonna get it 100 percent accurate, but he said essentially, “I am finally coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I like that. I like that a lot.
Gretchen Rubin: I might now have that word perfect, but that’s the gist.
Tim Ferriss: That’s the gist of it. Yeah. How did you find an interest – and we only have – we’ll take a few more minutes. But in koans, and these types of thought provoking statements or questions, perhaps, without an answer, right? That’s kind of part of the exercise in some respects. For instance, one of my favorite quotes, which is certainly at times, or most of the time, quite a head scratcher, which is Rumi, which is, “That which you seek is seeking you.”
Gretchen Rubin: Yes, yes. Oh, well, that’s very much like one of my favorite koans, which is Samuel Johnson quoting a Spanish proverb that said, “He who would find the wealth of the Indies must bring the wealth of the Indies with him.” Same idea. So, yes. Yes, very powerful.
Tim Ferriss: What itch do those scratch for you, or why the interest?
Gretchen Rubin: I guess I like the sort of escape from logic, or the way – they’re usually like the perfection of the idea, or the elusiveness of it. Right now, one of my weird obsessions that I’m into is color. I’m really, really obsessed with color. And I have a ton of color koans that are koans that are only about color. Oh, here’s one that somebody actually said to me in real life. Wait, what was it? Okay, she said, “I walked into a store and I said, ‘I want to buy this blue chair.’ And the clerk said, ‘Oh, everybody says it’s blue, but that chair is actually brown.’ Is this chair blue or brown?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Gretchen Rubin: Right. What color do you use to paint an object that’s transparent?
Tim Ferriss: Hmm. Why the interest in color? How did this come about?
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, so the way it came about was – So, on the Happier podcast, we always have a try this at home, which is a small concrete thing that you can do in your every day life to make yourself happier. And so, our try this at home one week was to pick a signature color. And ironically, neither Elizabeth nor I have ever been able to pick a signature color, but we put it out there anyway
Tim Ferriss: You said sinister?
Gretchen Rubin: Signature.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, signature. Sorry.
Gretchen Rubin: Like your signature color.
Tim Ferriss: Got it, got it.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, not a sinister color. And I thought this was sort of a fun, playful thing. And again, it’s a way to tap into the power of the moment and your environment. But we got so many impassioned, delighted responses from people. And also, so many pictures and there were crazy stories. Like a woman who said that her mother had really been into the color red and also kind of the Southwest look, that when she died they got a red, southwest designed urn for her ashes.
These are people really taking it all the way. And it just got me thinking about color, and as I said before, I’m not a visual person. I can only get to the visual through words. And so, I started reading more and more about color. It turns out, there’s this giant literature about color. There’s a French historian of color who’s slowly working his way. He had a book called Black. He had a book called Green. He had a book called Blue. Red just came out this year. I’m eagerly awaiting Yellow. And then, all these kinds of crazy, interesting philosophical books about it. Anyway, once I got into it, I could stop.
And now, I’m doing some weird little thing. Writing kind of a weird, little book called My Color Pilgrimage, which I have no idea what that’s even gonna be, but I couldn’t help myself. I just had to do it. I felt that compulsion, again, to write it. And so, part of it is these koans like, could a painting include a light yellow that’s lighter than a dark white? Can light yellow be lighter than dark white?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I like that.
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, here’s an interesting question. Now, this is like color questions. Do you think dragons are green or red?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I would probably go with green, personally.
Gretchen Rubin: Interesting. That is, historically, the color of dragons. I would always say red. But this is like, what color are unicorns? They can be any color we want because they don’t really exist. But it’s interesting, to me, it’s like, of course they’re red. I didn’t even know that was a question that anybody would have. How can a color be achromatic? Black, white, and grey are considered achromatic colors. They’re non-color colors. How can you have a non-color color? Is black a color? I’d say yes, black is a color. But a lot of people say no. So, anyway.
Tim Ferriss: So, on the theme of black, since you’re going down this rabbit hole, I have a recommendation for a very short and exceptionally weird book that may have a few paragraphs you would fall in love with. But it’s something you could read in an afternoon really easily. It’s called In Praise of Shadows.
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, okay. Who wrote it? I’m writing this down right now.
Tim Ferriss: It’s an essay on Japanese esthetics by Jun’ichirō –
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, I read that.
Tim Ferriss: – Tanizaki.
Gretchen Rubin: This is the one that opens – and it opens with his brilliant invocation of the outhouse.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. Yeah. And talks about how Japanese esthetics, and also color, the use of gold was designed to reflect light in very dim environments. So, in contemporary design, when you have traditional Japanese color palettes in brightly lit rooms it doesn’t work and it seems very gaudy, just as one point. Hence, the title, In Praise of Shadows.
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I’m so glad that you mentioned it because I read it and remember thinking there’s a lot about that book that is very deeply weird, but I wasn’t obsessed with color at the time, so I didn’t read it through the lens of color. And so, now I want to go back and reread it. It’s a controversial book in many ways.
Tim Ferriss: Super, super weird. Yeah, definitely.
Gretchen Rubin: Super weird. But sometimes, you read something and you’re just not in the same place to – I bet, now, I would read it with a whole different eye. So, I’m so glad that you mentioned it because I will be checking it out of the library tomorrow. I’m going to the library tomorrow and, yes, I know exactly where it is because I checked it before. I know they have a copy. So, that’s great. Yeah. Now, the Japanese are interesting because they have four basic colors: black, white, and a particular blue and a particular red. That’s their core color, which is not – it’s a different approach.
Tim Ferriss: Japan, I remember, that was one of the first places I realized. My first extended trip abroad was in Japan as an exchange student for a year. So, I really went from zero to 60 very, very quickly in terms of culture shock. And I remember one of the conversations that just made my mind sort of tilt its head like a confused Labrador was the fact that the – well, what we would consider the green go signal at a sidewalk, Japanese people call blue. Even though they have a separate word for green. And I would ask them –
Gretchen Rubin: But only recently. That’s a very recent introduction into their vocabulary. That’s part of why. It came in recently.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I don’t know when it was introduced, but they have a clear delineation. If you look at it on paper, you could say, this is green, this is blue. And then, you would have agreement. And then, you look at the crosswalk sign, and you say, “It’s green.” And they say, “No, you mean, it’s blue.” And that was really a trip for me. Just a mental trip to realize how socially conditioned even are perception of color is, which you would expect is sensory input converted by these rods and cones at the back of the eye into this objective, fill in the blank, color. But it’s just not the case, it doesn’t seem.
Gretchen Rubin: In Russia, they have a word – just like we have a word for light red is pink. And we don’t really say things are light red, we would call it pink. They have a word like that for light blue. They have a whole separate word for it. And it’s interesting – actually, when you look at the brain function of people who speak Russian and their color identification, it’s different. Because when you have a distinction like that built into your language, it does change the way – the speed, particularly, with which you could perceive these things. And I just was reading, today, that the word orange didn’t exist until, literally, oranges came into the marketplace in Europe. Because they just said yellow, red.
They didn’t have a special word for it because there just wasn’t enough need for it. And then, when the oranges came, they were like, “Oh, we’re gonna –” And that’s why it’s called orange. Because it’s literally from oranges because that’s when they began to identify the color. Yeah. So, there’s all sorts of crazy color history things. What I’m gonna do with this? I don’t know. That Japanese – it’s a very different way of perceiving color.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll give you one more recommendation that is going to make sense to a fraction of 1 percent of people out there, but that’s okay.
Gretchen Rubin: That’s my favorite kind.
Tim Ferriss: Which is look into the experimentalists who are creating hardware devices for sensory substitution experiments. So, if people want to hear colors or feel sight, there are hardware devices that have been created to help people experience this in various experimental designs. My friend Ed Cooke, who is a memory champion and very fascinating guy, has done a lot of experimentation with this. But that could feed into your rabbit hole of color exploration.
Gretchen Rubin: So, it’s basically hardware synesthesia?
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. Yeah. It’s using computers and hardware to enable synesthesia in non-synesthetes – person, so to speak. I’m curious, though, on a completely separate note, what try this at home has had the strongest response to date of any that you’ve done with your audience?
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, my gosh. So many. I don’t know. We’ve been going for more than two years, so –
Tim Ferriss: Or any that come to mind that had huge responses from your audiences.
Gretchen Rubin: Well, this 18 for 2018, people are really responding to. That has been super fun. What are some other big ones? Oh, I’m just going blank.
Tim Ferriss: That’s okay.
Gretchen Rubin: There’s just so many. You know one thing, though? We didn’t do it as a try this at home, but it’s something that we keep hearing about over and over and over again as something that people really respond to. So, Elizabeth and I – well, we’re sisters and our parents live in Kansas City. And my mother made this suggestion. She was like – you know how it is and everybody has remarked on this. That if you see somebody every day, you have tons to talk about with them, but if you see people once every six months, it’s like, “How are you?” “Fine. How are you?” It’s hard to make conversation. So, my mother said, “Let’s just email each other with just like the boring details of everyday life.”
And we instantly realized that this was a genius idea. And so, in our family, my sister and my parents, the four of us, we will send these periodic updates, say, maybe every four or five days that just says, “Update,” that’s the title. And it’s just like the most boring thing. My mother will be like, “I’m getting my hair colored, later today.” Or I’ll be like, “Eleanor’s really annoyed because Barnaby tracked snow all over her bed.” It’s the most mundane things. Or like, “I’m leaving tomorrow for London. It should be really fun. I’m seeing my friend Delia. Do you remember her? She was my roommate after college.” And it’s okay to be boring. That is the motto of Update. But what we find is that it dramatically increases our feeling of connection with each other. Because when you know that mundane stuff – and then also, it’s good if there’s kids because my parents can say, “Oh, I heard that you had a Halloween party at school.” They know what’s going on in a much more kind of day to day way. And some people do this as a group text.
Tim Ferriss: I like that. That’s cool.
Gretchen Rubin: People have set up private groups on Facebook. People do it all different ways, but the idea is it’s better to have frequent, boring, mundane communications than to save it up for when there’s something big to report. Because that’s not how relationships work. Relationships really thrive on really being in touch with people. And also, nobody ever responds to Update, so there’s no guilt. There’s no like, “Oh, now I have to craft a witty response.” Or like, “Now, I have to do one, too.” You just put it out there and, usually, nobody even responds. Because it’s like, let’s keep easy so we can do it.
I think, sometimes, people want to have like, let’s start some beautiful thing where we write handwritten letters on parchment and mail to each other. No, I’m not gonna do that. So, that’s something that’s interesting because it worked really well for us. And we thought it was our idiosyncratic family, but over time – that’s the thing where people are like, “Tell me again, what was that thing with Update? Because I want to do that.” That’s something that really did –
Tim Ferriss: I love it.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So, two more questions for you. This is, I suppose, pretty self-explanatory. When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or feel like you’ve lost focus, temporarily, what do you do?
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, I reread a children’s book. For sure.
Tim Ferriss: Is there a go to?
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, I’ve got a million go tos. In fact, Harry Potter, I have to hold back Harry Potter. Do not let myself reread it, reread it, reread it. I have to hold it for a moment of need. And so, when I got the edits back from my editor for my book Better Than Before, I’m like, and now I’m gonna start rereading Harry Potter. I need it now. This is the time. Because I’m processing all of this stuff. I have like a thousand books that – Edward Eager, Elizabeth Enright, Philip Pullman. I’ve got a million. I’ve got a huge library full.
But I love rereading. I love rereading adult books, too. I reread adult books all the time. But there’s something very comforting about children’s book, particularly. C.S. Lewis. How many times have I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Easily could be 40. Could be more.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Gretchen Rubin: And in fact, it’s almost a tell. It’s funny that you ask that because it’s almost like sometimes I know I’m feeling overwhelmed without really – I’m like, “Oh, I’m reading The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, again. I wonder if I’m feeling a little bit stressed out.” Sometimes, my reading choice tells me more about my emotional state than I’m even aware of.
Tim Ferriss: That’s your divining rod.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s like my psychiatrist.
Tim Ferriss: Do you read the entire book? For instance, you get your edits back on your own book, do you just need a minimum effective dose, like a vein hit of – two chapters and you’re good? Or do you end up reading the whole book? How does that, typically, run its course?
Gretchen Rubin: It kind of depends. Sometimes – And some of these books are so short, you can practically read the whole thing – if you’ve read it 40 times before, you can whip through that thing pretty fast.
It depends. Sometimes, I’ll just reread a couple favorite parts that are comforting. Or if it’s a really good book or a book that I haven’t read in a long time, I might read the whole thing. Some books are complicated. But I do try to be careful not to read them so often that I wear them out. Because you can do that with a book and kind of lose the pleasure of it because it’s too familiar. I wore out Roald Dahl early. So, I don’t reread Roald Dahl very much now because I just know his books so well that they kind of don’t have any pleasure for me anymore.
Tim Ferriss: What is a short children’s or young adult book that you would recommend almost everybody give a shot? Something that could be read in a day or a weekend?
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, my gosh. I would say The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars. That’s like a middle grade book. Are you talking about a middle grade book or more like a YA book? That’s a middle grade book, but it is a masterpiece that anybody, male or female, adult or child, it’s just a perfect book.
Tim Ferriss: Great.
Gretchen Rubin: It’s funny. It’s thoughtful. It’s got great characters. It’s a great book.
Tim Ferriss: So, The Midnight Fox. And then, for YA, for young adult, what would your nomination be?
Gretchen Rubin: YA gets trickier. YA gets trickier. What is a YA –? One Day This Pain Will Be Useful to You is an amazing character and a beautifully written book. I would highly recommend that. Let’s see, what is another one? Then, there are ones that everybody knows about like, Wonder. That is an amazing book. But maybe that’s even middle grade. I don’t know what they consider that. I would say The Golden Compass, for sure. The book that we were talking about earlier.
Tim Ferriss: It is such a good book.
Gretchen Rubin: It’s so unbelievably good. And the characters are so unbelievably compelling. And the world is so unbelievably interesting. And it’s like nothing you’ve ever read before. And it’s connected to the deepest core of thinking and philosophy. That is a towering masterpiece. Yeah. So, I would say, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. But it’s scary and it’s challenging.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah.
Gretchen Rubin: It’s not for you to read out loud to six-year-old, for sure.
Tim Ferriss: Especially, the later volumes. What adult book or books have you reread the most?
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, interesting.
Tim Ferriss: Or reread a lot? Because you mentioned there are some adult books that you’ve reread a lot.
Gretchen Rubin: I’ve reread a lot of non-fiction. A book that I love that I have read so many times is Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Selected Essays by George Orwell. Or I have my favorite essays that I will go read. Some of them are in the short collection, some aren’t. Samuel Johnson essays I read and reread, a lot. I love Samuel Johnson.
I love Virginia Woolf. She kind of blows my head open. So, it’s hard for me to reread it. I’ll often reread her non-fiction. Same thing with Flannery O’Connor. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is so kind of – it really is so mind blowing that I almost can’t take it. I have to be in a very particular emotional [inaudible] where I can reread something like Wise Blood. But I reread her non-fiction a lot because I love her non-fiction. I love her voice. And it’s a lot easier to take. So, for rereading, I probably reread non-fiction a lot. And then, I love Robertson Davies, Jane Austen. Sometimes, if I want to reread a novel, I’ll read something like that.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. So, you have a very, very impressive level of output in terms of creation in the world. How many hours a week or day or month, however you want to slice it, do you spend reading?
Gretchen Rubin: You know, I don’t know. And that is a great question because every week on Facebook, I post a picture of the books that I read that week. I don’t do any editorializing or any explanation, but if I’ve read it, I put a picture of it.
And if I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it. So, if I finished it, it means I liked it well enough to finish it. And every week, I have read books. But I feel like I spend no time reading. And I’m constantly thinking to myself, how can I find more time to read? How can I find more time to go to the library? How can I find more time to – I have 457 books in my library list in my phone. I just need to make more time to read. And yet, I must have reading – and then, I do a lot of research. I’m always taking notes off things I’ve read.
So, to me, it is a mystery. And I know I should do time logging, like Laura Vanderkam says, and really write it down like a lawyer and figure out where is my time – when am I reading?
Tim Ferriss: Sounds stressful to me.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t know how much time I read. It probably varies tremendously. Oh, but here’s a great tip that somebody told me and this has really changed my reading. She said to me that if you’re a person who travels a lot for work – as Tim, you and I both do – her rule is she only reads for pleasure when she’s traveling for work.
So, from the minute that she gets to the airport to the minute – but she’ll work in the hotel room – to the minute that she gets to the hotel, she will only read for fun. On the plane, in the airport, there’s no expectation that she’s gonna work. And to me, this has dramatically improved my experience of travel. And I’ve got an amazing amount of reading done. Because it wasn’t even like I was getting that much work done, but I felt like I should be working.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Gretchen Rubin: But now I’m just like, you know what – I read Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan – I had a flight from London, plus I had all the time in Heathrow. I read the whole book. From the time that I left to the time that I landed, I think I only had a few chapters left by the time – Because I just read the whole time. It’s so satisfying. And now, I like traveling so much better because I really look forward to having that really concentrated reading time. And I wasn’t getting much work done, anyway. Honestly, I just wasn’t. I think some people can really, really work on airplanes.
And if you do, then maybe you want to do that because it’s a really good place for you to work. But I was not getting quality work done on the airplane.
Tim Ferriss: Well, we could talk for hours and hours and hours, but we’ll save that for round two. Is there anything that you would like to – well, first and foremost, where can people learn more about you, what you’re up to, where would you like them to say hi, and so on?
Gretchen Rubin: If you go to gretchenrubin.com, that’s R-U-B-I-N.com, there are all sorts of information, resources, videos, contact info – if you contact me through my blog, it really does come straight through to me. You can see my podcast, learn more about my books. There’s way more there than you would ever want to know. Read about color. Yeah, yeah. Go to gretchenrubin.com. Or the podcast is called Happier with Gretchen Rubin if you’re looking for a podcast.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. And is there anything you would like to close with? Any parting comments, suggestions, next steps, try this at home? Anything that people can do to change their behavior, change their thoughts? Whatever you want to wrap up with. Any final thoughts?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, can I do – Instead, can I ask you a question?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, of course.
Gretchen Rubin: Do you know what your tendency is? What do you think your tendency is?
Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right.
Gretchen Rubin: So, I was hoping that you would mention it, and we moved on before you –
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, I didn’t want to make it – I feel like this entire podcast is pretty self-indulgent. And so, I was hoping – I wasn’t gonna take it there. But I will say –
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I think everybody is gonna want to hear what you have to say.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So, I definitely was questioner – or questioning. Was that one of them?
Gretchen Rubin: Questioners are the ones that they’ll meet inner expectations, if they think they make sense, they’ll meet an expectation. But if they think it doesn’t make sense, if it’s arbitrary or inefficient, they push back.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think that’s me. Now, I’m curious to know, what are the downsides of that, and how can one mitigate against the downsides?
Gretchen Rubin: The downsides for questioners is sometimes they can drain and overwhelm people with their questioning. Everybody else is like, “Why are we still talking about this?” And you’re like, “But what about this? And what about this? And what about this?” So, to the questioner, this is like, of course, we can’t move forward until all these questions are answered because why would we waste our time and our energy if we don’t think it’s the right thing to do? But to other people, like if you’re in a team or something, sometimes people start getting exasperated and exhausted because they feel like it’s too many questions.
Some questioners experience analysis paralysis, which is when they want perfect information. And so, it’s hard to make a decision or move forward because they’re like, “What’s the best email service provider?” I could do more and more and more research on that. Maybe I should do this, maybe I should do that. Or, I want to buy a bike, what’s the best bike? And so, it can be hard. My husband’s a questioner. He never really experiences this, as far as I can tell, but for some questioners it’s something where they need to figure out how to contain that so that they can move forward.
And funnily enough, often analysis paralysis seems to be about little things, not big things. A person might not have any trouble deciding to switch careers, but if they were trying to decide what kind of tent to buy, that could really hold them up. It seems to be something – those kinds of things seem to be the things that become the stumbling block. And then, also for questioners – and this is something, really, about a problem that questioners have with others is that if you’re a questioner, they can sometimes be perceived as, by others, as being disrespectful, insubordinate, undermining of authority, questioning someone’s judgement, not a team player.
So, if you’re a questioner child, and you say to your teacher, “Why should I have to memorize the multiplication tables if I can just look it up on my phone just as quickly and more accurately?” And the teacher’s like, “Because I say so.” Or, “Because all ten-year-olds have to do it.” Or, “Because that’s what you do in fourth grade.” The questioner is gonna be like, “Well, that’s ridiculous and that’s no answer and I’m not gonna do it.” And so, they’re perceived by the teacher as being disrespectful or uncooperative. But to the questioner, this makes perfect sense.
Or you get a thin-skinned boss. And the boss is like, “Your questions make me feel like you’re rejecting my authority. You’re undermining my judgement. You’re not a team player. I don’t want to work with you.” But to the questioner, they’re like, “Well, this is how I add value to the team. How can I be a better team player, but then to say to everybody, this is a crazy idea? Why would we ever do this? It’s big waste of our time.” But to the boss, they’re like, “I don’t like that.” And so, partly it’s for questioners to realize how they can ask questions in a way that seem constructive rather than making other people feel sort of defensive or exhausted because there’s huge value to the questioners questioning.
And in some places, some work environments or whatever, it’s very rewarded and praised. But then, some places it’s like, “Hey, listen. We’re here to do what corporate says. And it’s not interesting for us to hear you complain about why you don’t think it’s a good idea. Get with the program, stop interrupting the meetings. You’re keeping –”
So, if you’re questioner, you maybe want to know, well, what kind of environment are you getting into because one might suit you better than another. I don’t know. Does this resonate with you? Does this strike a chord?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Totally. I got in so much trouble in school, consistently. I was actually put at the bad table in kindergarten, which my teacher, then, forgot –
Gretchen Rubin: Was it called bad table?
Tim Ferriss: It was called the bad table. I was put –
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, my God. You can’t do that today. Holy cow. That’s crazy.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, well, she did a lot of things you couldn’t do today. She made me eat soap in front of the class because I refused to learn the alphabet because she never explained why I had to memorize these arbitrary shapes. Until Mrs. Vinski, in first grade, then redeemed me, and she was amazing and told me I could actually read books if I learned the alphabet. And that’s all I needed to know. But yeah, Mrs. Bevin was a tough, old bitch who was very, very rough on the class. But –
Gretchen Rubin: Can I say, that is what’s so poignant to me about questioners. I heard story after story, exactly like the one you told, where if somebody had, literally, taken ten minutes and sat down with the child and spoken to them in a reasonable way and been like, “This is why we’re asking you to do this.” The child would’ve been like, “Cool. I get it.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, ten seconds.
Gretchen Rubin: All I need is for somebody to just explain why this isn’t just a big waste of my time. And all it would take is such – instead of you having this whole kindergarten experience, which is just – the simplest response, respectful response to your question would have solved this. It’s just, to me, so poignant. And such a waste.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Ten seconds. Literally, like, “Tim, you realize –” This is what Mrs. Vinski said to me – because by that point I was really digging in my heels because I was so imbittered by the experience with Mrs. Bevin. And Mrs. Vinski just very calmly said, “Tim, do you realize, if you learn the alphabet, you can read any book that you want to read?” And it was just like my head exploded. Because I was like, “What? Why didn’t anybody tell me this?” And then, I was off to the races.
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, my gosh.
Tim Ferriss: But yeah, I’ve –
Gretchen Rubin: Also, as an entrepreneurial type, a lot of people I know who are questioners, they’re like, “I don’t want to work for anyone else because I don’t trust anybody’s judgement the way I trust my own. If I’m telling myself what to do, I know there’s a good reason.
If other people are involved in this, it’s hard for me. Maybe there’s a few trusted people that I can rely on, but I don’t want to be part of a big system where I’m like, I don’t know why people are making these decisions. I want to be the one making the decisions.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I can follow decisions as long as I have the latitude to ask questions in such a way that I understand the rationale. But not everyone responds well to that. So, that’s another thing of – but to offset the highly logic-oriented framework, I’ve had to – or I haven’t had to, but I’ve chosen to counterbalance that with other things. So, for instance, one would be, you mentioned the koans as a way to – I’m using my words, not yours – but get a repris from logic almost.
So, there’s a quote from, I think it’s Novalis. I’m not sure if you pronounce it that way, but – “Poetry heals wounds inflicted by reason.” So, if taking time to try to embrace art forms or entertainment that is not driven by logic as a way to medicate myself so that I’m not purely over weighted in the reasoning faculty.
And I’ll give you another example of that. For instance, I interviewed Bozoma Saint John, recently, who’s the chief brand officer at Uber. She was at Apple Music and Beats and worked with Spike Lee prior to that. Really incredible woman. And she said, when I was chatting with her, that her advice to her younger self would be, do away with pro and con lists, by and large. And I asked her why. And she said, it’s because usually if you’re creating a pro and con list, you’re either trying to talk yourself out of a bad idea – I’m sorry, talk yourself out of a good idea or talk yourself into a bad idea. Wait? Did I get that right? Yeah. Out of a good idea or into a bad idea. And it made so much sense to me.
And I realized that I’ve spent a lot of my – I’ve used my power of questioning, in many cases, to try to impose an analytical framework on things that are actually best answered with a gut reaction. If I meet somebody and I just get the heebie-jeebies and I really don’t – if I really don’t like them for an unclear reason.
This is important, right? If it’s like they have this weird tick and it bothers me, so what? It’s very explicit. But if I get the spider sense going off, and I can’t pinpoint why, that’s 100 times out of 100 something that I should have paid attention to. So, for instance, trying to pay more attention to listening to that as a way to offset, maybe, the blunt force use of the analytical questioning mind for all situations, which I think has been my default. So, that’s –
Gretchen Rubin: But you know what’s interesting is that both you and I have talked – and I had not put my finger on this until I heard what you just said. We’ve both kind of done things to try to explicitly offset very pronounced parts of our personality. You’ve been trying to use this to offset your questioning side, and I’ve been trying to use color to bring me into the visual world, which is hard for me because I’m so verbal.
And so, I’ve been trying to counter that by making a study of color. So, maybe it is kind of this – the opposite of a profound truth is also true. And that you need to kind of figure out, well, if you’re too yin, how do you achieve your yang? And maybe both of us are trying to get some kind of balance. And I hadn’t thought about that as kind of a pattern, but now I’m thinking, maybe, there’s a big lesson here. I want to study how do people do it? It’s a pretty subtle thing. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until you said that. But I wonder how other people – how you offset that. If you’re too physical, how do you tap into spiritual? Or if you’re too now focused, how do you – I don’t know. There are a lot of things people could try to –
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think that – and we’re gonna go squirrely and all over the place here. But from what I’ve observed is that if someone has the luxury of having achieved some degree of success.
And that doesn’t mean a lot of success. But they have enough of a toehold in professional success that they don’t have to worry about, say, where the rent check is coming from, or where the mortgage payment is coming from, and they can put food on the table. At some point, they realize, not everybody, but many people realize that the super power or the strength that enabled them to get there, when used in excess, creates other problems. Everything in excess because it’s opposite to an extent.
Gretchen Rubin: Every medicine becomes poison.
Tim Ferriss: Right. The dose makes the poison. So, it’s like, okay, great. This hyper analytical OCD focus on whatever has helped you to achieve a certain degree of financial success and this, that, and the other thing. But then, put into a context of an intimate relationship, you’re driving everybody fucking nuts. Or whatever it might be. And then, you realize, oh, shit. I need to figure out a practice that can offset this, not just dominant, but almost metastasized tendency to apply this one tool to everything.
So, I’ve certainly seen that. That would be kind of – I will let you unleash your own deep dive on this, but it’s certainly something that I’ve seen. A lot of people trying to figure out how can I take what comes unnaturally to me, that I recognize as necessary, and create a practice of some type? So, for me, the last thing – if you had told the Tim of 20 years ago that I would be reading poetry before bed, he would’ve vomited on himself. And nonetheless, here I am and I find it incredibly relaxing for whatever reason. And part of me is totally okay with not understanding the how of it or the why.
But reading something like the Tao Te Ching, which is not necessarily designated as poetry. Or Hafiz or Rumi, in the beginning of the day and at the end of the day to bookend – sort of right before I turn on my hyper analytical mind, and then, when I want to turn off my hyper analytical mind, which has, historically, caused quite a bit of insomnia. Dosing myself with something I never would have used in the past, I find really, really helpful.
Gretchen Rubin: Well, it’s interesting because I have this – I said I have this – it’s called Moment of Happiness newsletter where every day I send out a quotation about happiness or human nature. And a lot people say they like it because – I think, for you, you’re seeking out poetry, but for some people – and you can even go with the Poetry Foundation, I think, will send you an email with a poem every day, if you want that. People like to have that practice of some kind of transcendent reading first thing in the morning or right before bed where it’s curated, it’s something that’s more beautifully expressed or a more interesting idea than you’re gonna read in the newspaper or whatever.
It’s some kind of timeless thing that for whatever reason is gonna put your brain in a different place as you start your day or end your day. And I think it’s a great thing. I’m a big believer in things – just have something be a small thing that you can take in and kind of let fill your mind in a bite size piece rather than thinking, okay, I gotta sit down and read odes to – Intimations of Immortality and get this thing done.
Or, I’m working my way through Paradise Lost. Okay, one page a day. Just do one page a day, and then, that’ll be enough to kind of reset your brain in a positive way.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. We could keep going, but if I’ve learned anything about creating – let me rephrase that. Developing habits that I have somehow failed to develop in the past, do less than you think you can, I think is the biggest takeaway for me. It’s like, oh, you think you can go to the gym for an hour a day and that’s your resolution, to go for five days a week? Try like ten minutes a session; three days a week, so that your pass/fail mark is low enough that you don’t abandon ship because you feel like you have failed. Especially, if you’re a competitive person, as I am. Or with poetry, it’s like, okay, don’t choose a poet that has ten-page poems. Go with someone like –
Gretchen Rubin: Robert Frost.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Robert Frost or Hafiz or Hafiz, depending on how you want to say it, and The Gift. These are one page or 50-word poems that happen to, very often, be hilarious. Start there. And make it easy. And what I found is – for me at least, if you want to do things that are really big – this is something new for me, certainly. The path being hard doesn’t indicate that you’re doing something virtuous, always.
In my case, at least, it’s like, okay, if I am really loath to do – I’ll make something up. But it’s like, lower leg, ankle pre-habilitation so I don’t get injured later doing skiing or whatever. It’s boring as fuck. It’s really – pardon my French. But it’s really monotonous and not interesting at all. But if I tell myself, okay, I’m gonna spend 30 to 60 seconds, every other day before I brush my teeth doing that, and that’s it.
That’s enough. That’s a pass. Then, I’m setting the hurdle so low that I’m more inclined to do it. And then, I can always do extra credit. But if I set the pass/fail mark too high, I’m never gonna do it in the first place. Or I’ll put it off for whatever reason. So, in any case. Yeah, diatribe complete.
Gretchen Rubin: That’s like the whole thing in my book Better Than Before, which is all about habit change. That’s a big theme. Start small, start big, how do you think about that? If you have a habit like that, how might you analyze yourself to know what’s gonna work for you? Because that’s a perfect example, the kind of habit that – it can be, in a way, it’s not hard. In a way, it’s extremely hard. And how do you get yourself to succeed? That’s what [inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. How can I make this easier? How can I make this easier is a question that sits –
Gretchen Rubin: That’s the whole inspiration for Better Than Before. What do people do? And it turns out there’s 21 strategies people use. And some work better for some people, and some work better for others. And some don’t work for some people – some people, some don’t work at all. And some, you can use it sometimes in your life and not at other times in your life. But it’s good to know the whole panoply of them because then you can say, “Okay, these three sound good.” Because you said, pairing, which is doing it before you brush your teeth. That’s what I would I call the strategy of pairing.
Scheduling, which is putting it on the schedule. Like I have an idea of when I’m gonna do this. And safeguards, which is the strategy of thinking, how might I screw up? How might I abandon this habit? I’m gonna think about what is likely to make me not do it, and I’m gonna figure out a way to solve for that. And you’re like, if I make this too much, I’m gonna put it off or not do it. So, taking into account how I might fail, I’m gonna figure out a way to do it so I don’t fail. So, again, it’s not that hard when you know what to do. But at the same time, it can be very challenging, especially, if you do it in a way that’s not right for you.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. For me, it’s make it easy to pass and make it really expensive to not do it. If I can be shamed by, let’s say, a friend of mine who’s gonna bust my chops endlessly if I do it, or somehow try to embarrass me in front of other friends because we’re on a group text where I committed to A, B, and C. And it’s already on the calendar, so I have the sum cost of having paid for lessons on A, B, and C and someone is gonna show up or be on Skype at a given hour. That social accountability will be very helpful and so on and so forth. B.J. Fogg has done some really cool stuff in this space, as well. F-O-G-G. But Gretchen –
Gretchen Rubin: He’s a big believer in small steps.
Tim Ferriss: He is, yeah. The micro steps. Flossing those front teeth as he would have somebody do.
Gretchen Rubin: It’s interesting that some people don’t like a small – they want to go big or go home. They’re not interested in incremental change. They like radical – they like big things. And again, it’s not that there’s one way that’s right or one way that’s wrong. It’s just whatever works for you. If small works for you, that’s great. If small is boring to you and you’re not gonna stick to it, do something big and bold. There’s a lot of ways to do this, it just depends. There’s no magic one-size-fits-all solution, I think. It’s just whatever works for us as individuals.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure. Well, yes, it is not one-size-fits-all, but part of the, I suppose, excitement if you can look at it that way, is figuring out which tools to put in your toolkit, over time. Well, I appreciate the experimental nature that you bring to bear in your own life, and then, in your work that you share with the world. So, thank you for that. And thank you so much for the time today, also.
Gretchen Rubin: Oh, it’s so much fun to talk to you. I so appreciate it.
Tim Ferriss: And for everybody listening, you can find links to everything we have discussed in the show notes along with the show notes for every other episode at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, as always, thank you for listening. Hey, guys. This is Tim, again. Just a few more things before you take off.
Number one, this is 5-Bullet Friday. Do you want to get a short email from me? Would you enjoy getting a short email from me every Friday that provides a little morsel of fun before the weekend? And 5-Bullet Friday is a very short email where I share the coolest things I’ve found or that I’ve been pondering over the week. That could include favorite new albums that I’ve discovered. It could include gismos and gadgets and all sorts of weird shit that I’ve somehow dug up in the world of the esoteric, as I do. It could include favorite articles that I’ve read, and that I’ve shared with my close friends, for instance. And it’s very short. It’s just a little, tiny bite of goodness before you head off for the weekend.
So, if you want to receive that, check it out, just go to fourhourworkweek.com, that’s fourhourworkweek.com, all spelled out, and just drop in your email, and you will get the very next one. And if you sign up, I hope you enjoy it.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.