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Psychotherapy tends to focus more on the deeper process and disturbances in people’s lives, but sometimes we also need to need to work on how our day-to-day life helps or hinders us in our attempts to live according to our own values and to reach our goals.

To that end, over the past few years I have been exploring the relationship between freedom and boundaries, partly through experiments in structure.

For example, I like writing lists of things to do but wondered that maybe they were a bit oppressive, so I tried getting along without them for awhile. I forgot stuff, dropped a few balls, and generally hated it.

Then there was the two weeks where I intentionally had no structure in my days and let myself be free to do exactly as I felt in each moment. It was a huge privilege to have those two weeks to do such an experiment, but like the no-list period, I hated it. I had to make way too many decisions and achieved close to nothing.

Turns out I really like structure. More than like it, I thrive in it; it makes me feel really really well. I had to get rid of lists and structures for a short while to check whether they were good for me or not, but I don’t think I need to try that experiment again!

Ironically, being really structured also seems to make me feel more free. When I schedule tasks I would otherwise procrastinate about it saves all that mental energy that procrastination otherwise saps, that I can then devote to the projects I really want to do. Doing what I have to do, helps me feel free to do what I want to do. Scheduling my activities (including so called time-wasters like watching hamsters on Youtube (hamsters are the new cats)) means that I don’t have to miss out on watching those little fur balls stuffing their faces, but that actually I can do it guilt free because I know all my other jobs are under control!

But before this turns into an article espousing the joys of structure (and hamsters), it’s actually about sharing some gems from a book I am part way through: Better Than Before, Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. Which is also a bit about, well, structure (but not hamsters).

I’ve read a few things over the years about habits and there is a fair bit of research on the topic (with many conflicting recommendations). What I love about Rubin’s book is that she isn’t making a recommendation about THE way to change habits or what habits you SHOULD have, instead she elucidates what she calls The Four Tendencies of how different people relate to habits by looking at how we respond to expectations. I’ve summarised it way too briefly, but see if you can work out which one you are most like:

Upholder – meets outer expectations and meets inner expectations. Having limits makes them feel freer.

Obliger – meets outer expectations and resists inner expectations. Do things more easily for others than themselves.

Questioner – resists outer expectation and meets inner expectations. Question all expectations and only meet them if they think it’s justified.

Rebel – resists outer expectations and resists inner expectations. Making choices makes them feel freer.

I generally balk at these kind of personality typing structures but I couldn’t help finding it useful (despite not really being able to decide if I am more an Upholder or a Questioner) because she then goes on to offer up a range of strategies for habit forming that works for the different tendencies.

She also looks at other ways of being that influence the kinds of habit strategies that will work for different people; are you a morning or evening person; marathoner, sprinter or procrastinator; underbuyer or overbuyer; simplicity lover or abundance lover; finisher or starter; familiarity lover or novelty lover; promotion-focussed or prevention focussed; small steps or big steps? All these preferences inform what kind of habit forming strategies will be most useful to you.

I’m only half way through the book but I’m already trying out a new daily structure and habit experiment, using a range of her suggestions, and no surprise, I love it.

If you’re a Rebel type, it might not be your favourite book, although she does have some ideas for how Rebel types can help themselves adopt some useful habit-like behaviours. Better still, the book relieves Rebel types from thinking they should be better at habits!

So if you’re looking for a great book on habits, I highly recommend it. If you are looking for a great hamster video, here’s my favourite to get you started!

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