The three things I’m finally doing more of

To get habits to stick, I had to trick my brain.

There are three things I’m doing a lot more of this year than in previous years. They’re habits I’ve long wanted to adopt, but hadn’t quite cracked the code on how to do them more regularly. Until now.

One of the reasons I created My Sweet Dumb Brain was because I wanted to write more often; a weekly newsletter forced me to do just that. To help me achieve my goal of reading more, I introduced the “Good job, brain” section at the end of each newsletter, which includes an update on whatever book I’m reading each week. And with the exception of nine days (one spent nursing a nasty cold, and eight recuperating from surgery) I’ve walked 10,000 steps a day since December 28, 2018, a goal I’ve told several friends about and have dutifully documented through a daily habit tracker

The ways I’ve tricked my brain into doing more writing, reading, and walking are slightly different, but the underlying principle is the same. I’ve built in a clear structure: one newsletter and book a week, 10,000 steps a day; and some kind of outside accountability. 

According to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies personality framework, I’m an Obliger — someone who’s great at meeting external expectations and deadlines, but not so great at responding to inner needs and demands. The Obliger’s motto, Rubin writes, is “I do what I have to do. I don’t want to let others down, but I may let myself down.”

This explains why I never fail to meet deadlines that are set by editors and other folks I work with, but will ignore the date on my oil change sticker for an embarrassingly long time. Rubin explains that because Obligers thrive on externally placed structures and goals, we make “terrific colleagues, leaders, family members, and friends.” Unfortunately, we can become too dependent on external accountability, even when it comes to doing activities that we want to do (see: writing, reading, and walking).

The other factor that’s made these habits stick is a consistent schedule and clear expectations. I know exactly how many steps I need to get each day, and that I have a fresh newsletter to deliver each week. For some people, the idea of public accountability and a rigid schedule might seem like a nightmare. For me, it’s a productivity-fueled dream! 

According to another personality test, the popular and controversial Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFJ, which stands for Introversion iNtuition Feeling Judging. I won’t go into what all of the preferences mean here, but in regards to getting shit done the last letter, J, is notable. The “Introduction to Myers-Briggs Type” workbook explains, “People who prefer Judging like to live in a planned, orderly way. They want to make decisions, come to closure, and move on. Their lives tend to be structured and organized, and they like to have things settled. Sticking to a plan and schedule is very important to them, and they enjoy getting things done.”

Whereas I’m more on the fence between Extraversion and Introversion, for example, I relate wholeheartedly to the Judging description. The Myers-Briggs test tells you how strong your preferences are for each process, and I scored as high as possible for Judging. Lists? Schedules? Deadlines? Yes, please! (“Judging,” by the way, doesn’t mean being judgmental, though I sometimes struggle with that, too. That’s another topic for another day!) 

Sometimes it seems like I should be able to do these things without setting very specific goals and parameters, but that’s not how this sweet dumb brain works. For instance, despite not being religious, I’ve voluntarily participated in Lent for years. In high school, I abstained from television, chocolate, and microwave popcorn (I had a problem, OK?) for 40 days at a time. In college, I gave up Facebook — a sacrifice that sounds downright delightful these days. Now, looking back, the whole 40-days, God-is-watching setup was ideal for my structure-loving, accountability-needing self. Talk about going to great lengths for external motivation!

I worried about writing this essay because I know there are plenty of personality test skeptics out there. I get it. How different is Myers-Briggs than a horoscope, anyway? That said, I do see the value of these frameworks as facilitators for self-reflection and better self awareness. By understanding and appealing to my Obliger and Judging tendencies, I’ve been able to trick myself into doing things I’ve always wanted to do but hadn’t been able to achieve in the past. For me, setting up clearly structured systems with built-in accountability means setting myself up for success.

These frameworks can also help people better understand others, too. The way my Obliger-Judging self approaches chores is incredibly different than the way my Rebel-Perceiving partner handles similar tasks. Just knowing our different preferences helps us to further empathize with each other and, hopefully, avoid a few unnecessary conflicts.

“Even if the test isn't perfect, people's infatuation with it shows that it’s quenching some kind of thirst they have for understanding themselves and others,” Ilana E. Strauss wrote in a 2015 article about Myers-Briggs in The Atlantic. “There’s never been a universally agreed upon way to measure personality, and yet, people undeniably have different personality traits that must be taken into account to understand behavior. The test provides one framework to help understand these differences.”

If knowing my personality type better helps me understand myself and others better, I’ll take it. The healthy habits that I’ve adopted lately and my ability to maintain those habits feels good. Writing, reading, and walking more have helped me to feel better about myself this year. Is it that bad if it took some structure and public accountability to get there?



Good job, brain

I'm reading:Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” by Jia Tolentino. This is such a whip-smart book of essays. Tolentino describes many of the unique challenges of our time in such a fresh and insightful way it almost makes me mad. How is she so good?!

I’m inspired by: The conversation I had about grief and life last week with Jillian Anthony, author of the Cruel Summer Book Club. Her interview will publish in a few weeks, and I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, subscribe to her fantastic newsletter!

I'm aiming to: Simultaneously stay chill and come up with some good questions for the one-and-only Nora McInerny. (I’m doing alright with the latter, but utterly failing the former!) North Carolina readers, you should come to this event on October 27 and say hi!

Additional resources

  • The habit tracker I’m using is from Yes and Yes’ Make it Stick Habit School, which I found super helpful. (I shared some takeaways in a previous newsletter.)

  • I’ve done this sort of schedule + public accountability self-trickery before! On my 29th birthday, I challenged myself to make 30 meals before 30. (For some, 30 meals is nothing. For me, it was quite a feat!)

  • Adam Grant is an outspoken critic of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Here’s his take.

  • Wondering whether you’re an Obliger, Upholder, Questioner, or Rebel?Take Rubin’s Four Tendencies quiz.

For your sweet dumb brain

If you’re so inclined, take a new-to-you personality test, and invite a willing partner/friend/coworker to do the same. Two tests that I haven’t yet mentioned are the Enneagram and The Big Five. Once you’ve both gotten your results, talk about the differences and/or similarities. You may learn something valuable about each other — and about yourself!

This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is an INFP and an Obliger. No wonder we get along so well!