Recently, I finished reading a book by Gretchen Rubin on habits called, “Better Than Before”. It was a challenging read, if only because it caused me to ponder ceaselessly about myself, and I find the task of self-knowledge to be a very serious challenge indeed.
Every once in a while there comes a real light bulb moment in adult life. It is our solemn duty to take these moments and run with them. While reading the book, I had one of those moments. I experienced the birth of a new idea in my brain. I was happy to be its surrogate. Want to know the big idea?
I’ll tell you in a bit. First, some contextually important information!
In the book, Rubin categorizes people into four different categories, depending on how they tend to deal with expectations. There are outer expectations (such as a deadline for an essay, or helping a friend move) and there are inner expectations (deciding to stop eating ice cream, increasing one’s vocabulary). Outer expectations are those placed on you by other people or circumstances, inner are the expectations placed on yourself by yourself. You are the only accountable party in that case. Rubin demonstrates the four tendencies in a chart like this:
She notes with incredible insistence that these are only tendencies, not wholly governing attributes. People are people and they can’t really be put into boxes. At least not entirely. That being said, she believes that every person tends to fall in one of these groups, and she gives ample explanation in her book, which I leave for you to read, but suffice to say that I found her arguments convincing. Upholders, as she calls them, tend to meet expectations all around, Questioners and Obligers in the middle, and Rebels being the opposite of Upholders.
So, looking at that chart, and reading her wonderful words, it dawns on me that I am a Rebel.
I am a Rebel, who tends to not respond well to expectations of others, or expectations of myself. For example: The more I proclaim what I’m going to do to my friends, the less likely I am going to actually do it. I almost experience a revulsion factor to the expectations of others, as if when people expect me to do something, it becomes incredibly difficult to follow through with it. This, I’d thought for many years, was merely the fact that I was a prideful asshole, whereas Rubin argues that this is a genuine tendency, and that society sometimes needs people like that. If anything, she believes it to be a biological tendency.
Anyway, me being a Rebel was no surprise to my wife, or any other family member I spoke with. I wake up in the morning and think, “What do I want to do today?” A lot of people wake up and think, “What needs to get done?”
Having little prowess when it comes to meeting inner expectations, I also struggle with setting habits for myself, and often have to trick myself into accomplishing things on a daily basis. This is true in many ways. Setting goals and deadlines for finishing my work as a writer has never been an effective way for me to write. It sounds counter intuitive, but I write more when I don’t send goals for myself. Certainly not long-term goals, anyway. I might start writing an article (like this one) with the intention of finishing it, but the thing is I didn’t plan to do it until I sat down twenty minutes ago. Schedule me and tell me I have to do something, this guarantees resistance, whether it was you who scheduled me or myself.
So what’s the big idea?
The big idea was, first off, realizing how true my tendency was, and secondly, what it meant for my approach to life. For so long I have been combating this inner-nature, scheduling work because I’m convinced it is the best method, and then failing to produce the work. I would feel guilty and stupid for not making my goals. I would constantly end the day feeling like I’d wasted it. But now I know what I have to do to be more effective. It all comes down to one phrase:
I do what I want.
This may seem at first like a step into dangerous territory, but allow me to explain. This is not a life philosophy which I endorse, merely a way of thinking that is going to help me be a better person. When I say, “I do what I want,” I don’t mean necessarily what I want to do in that moment. I don’t mean that I fall to every last whimsy my clumsy little heart desires. Rather, “I do what I want” means I do what I really want.
I really want to be a good man.
I really want to be a good father, husband, friend, brother, and son.
I really want to write everyday.
I really want to be a novelist.
The things that I really want tend to be very life-affirming things. I really want to eat healthier. So instead of scheduling and creating accountability for many of those things, being a Rebel, I mentally phrase things in that way. Why am I staying up a tad too late on a Saturday night to write this piece of work? Because I want to write everyday, whether that’s on my novel or for the website or in my journal or whatever. I do what I want. Why do I make myself lunches instead of buying them at the Tim Horton’s across the street? Because I really want to be fiscal and eat healthier. I do what I want.
This system allows me to approach everyday with a sense of freedom. In her book, Rubin gives more strategies for the other three groups of people than she does for Rebels, and I think I know why that is. Rebels like me need to figure things out for ourselves in order to be effective. We need to feel the daily freedom to choose. Framing my thoughts into this way allows me to avoid being accountable to anything or anyone, ostensibly. I don’t have to make expectations for myself, I just have to do what I want. I want to finish my damn novel in the next year or so, but that won’t happen if I’m scheduling time and feeling guilty every time I fail to follow through with it. It won’t happen if I keep telling people that I’m going to get it done this year.
I recommend, Dear Reader, taking the time to read Gretchen Rubin’s book, and using it as a tool to better understand yourself, ultimately finding a strategy that works for you. My strategy of doing what I want, provided that what I want is life-affirming and morally permitted, is what happens to work for me.
See, recently I spent two months scheduling time to write and work on my website. For two months I wrote everywhere but for my website. In this last week since adopting the mentality I’ve written two articles and a flash fiction. Usually I do one thing a week. None of this work was planned and you know what the greatest part is?—I actually enjoyed writing.
I’d say you can expect more from me soon, but knowing myself, it would be stupid and self-defeating to say that. I’ll slap some more onto my website when and if I feel like it.
I do what I want.