Gretchen Rubin wrote a book on forming habits called Better Than Before.
There are a few other good books on habits (I recommend Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit), but Rubin’s big innovation was identifying different personality types. Some habit-building techniques work for some people, but there are very few universal approaches that work for everyone. Rubin divides her readers into four groups and then provides tips specific to each group.
Under Rubin’s framework, I am a Questioner.
“Questioners question all expectations, and they respond to an expectation only if they conclude that it makes sense. They’re motivated by reason, logic, and fairness. They wake up and think, ‘What needs to get done today, and why?’ They decide for themselves whether a course of action is a good idea, and they resist doing anything that seems to lack sound purpose.”
Beyond habit-building, this is a pretty good view into my permanent mindset. I ask “Why?” about pretty much everything, and if the answer is any variation of “Because that’s how we’ve always done it” then I’m out.
This may not describe your personality. I would imagine that I am not very normal.
But whether it sounds like you or not, I think we all could work to incorporate the power of the Questioner into our decision-making.
But Everyone Has Credit Card Debt!
There are a lot of situations where questioning the way things are usually done can lead you to a better life. I want to quickly touch on a few.
First: consumerism and credit cards.
Credit cards are ubiquitous. It often feels like buying with debt is just the way things are. We do it because our parents did it.
But our parents kind of invented it.
For the most part, our grandparents couldn’t buy things until they saved up the money to buy them. Our heavy reliance on debt is a new thing. The baby boomers made it seem normal, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
When Do You Want to Retire?
When you think of “retirement age,” what do you think of? 65? 68?
In a 2015 poll, only 16% of people had an ideal retirement age that was younger than 60.
42% of respondents said their ideal retirement age was between 60 and 65, while 24% aimed for 65 to 70. 2/3 of people wanted to retire in that one decade of life.
Why is there not a wider divergence of retirement goals? Is there something special about your 60s? Or is it that this is just how everyone thinks life works?
Maybe in an era when people relied on pensions for retirement this mindset made sense structurally. But today we fund our own retirement.
We retire as early or as late as we plan and save for.
Obviously there are structural constraints. I can’t retire next year. But depending on how I balance my priorities I could retire anywhere from age 40 to age 90. There’s no longer much structural reason to assume that retirement in your 60s is the “right” answer.
Why Do We Think That Will Make Us Happy?
One example outside the world of money: happiness.
This is an area where the common knowledge misses the mark to an absurd degree.
We see our friends post pictures on social media and know that we’d be happier if we could just have that look, that car, that house. If only we just got the new iPhone or a bigger apartment we’d be happier.
This is the instinct that we’ve been raised with. When we were kids, commercials showed us how much fun we’d have if we just bought the newest toys. In school that turned to outfits and electronics. Once you hit a certain age it became cars and houses.
And everyone else does it. You work harder to make more money to get more stuff because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
But if you stop and think about it, it doesn’t make any sense.
We know more, newer, better stuff doesn’t make us happier.
We know from our own experience. How long did that new toy make you happier? How long until you wished you could get another new car?
We also know because there has been a ton of research on this. Each new thing just raises our baseline and we need to spend more and have more to get our next happiness boost. The hedonic treadmill means that we have to keep running faster just to stay in the same place.
Stop and ask “Why?” Then step off the treadmill and work towards real, sustainable happiness.
Becoming a Questioner
So how can you be more of a questioner?
First, I would advise that you can’t be someone that you’re not. If you are not naturally a questioner, then it is probably too difficult and far too time consuming to try to train yourself to do that all of the time.
From Rubin’s book:
“Because Questioners like to make well-considered decisions and come to their own conclusions, they’re very intellectually engaged, and they’re often willing to do exhaustive research. If they decide there’s sufficient basis for an expectation, they’ll follow it; if not, they won’t.”
I do exhaustive research on everything. I am the type of person that kind of enjoys writing a 4500-word analysis of a tax policy proposal that will be out of date in a month.
You may not. And it would be exhausting trying to be that exhaustive all the time.
Instead, identify the decisions that are most important. Start there.
Ask questions about decisions that involve your health. Stop and think a bit more about what really makes you happy. If that’s working out, ask “Why?” about other decisions that you tend to make on autopilot.
But start slow and don’t try to change your personality.
How to Avoid Analysis Paralysis
I also should add another warning: don’t allow yourself to be taken over by analysis paralysis.
Sometimes when you decide you need more information to make a decision, you hit a point where no amount of information feels like enough.
You end up not making a decision. And not making a decision is making a decision.
Some tips for avoiding this fate:
- Find sources that you trust. There’s a whole lot of information out there. If you are treating every source equally, you will never be able to come to any conclusions. The Flat Earth Society does not have the same level of credibility as NASA. A random article on Facebook does not have the same value as the CDC.
- Think about how important the decision is. Structure your research accordingly. Where you are going to eat dinner tonight does not require as much research as the next step in your career. Recognize when you might be overthinking. Get enough information to make an informed decision and then make a call and move on.
- Think about the worst case scenario. How bad would it really be if you made a wrong decision? Could you recover? Would it ruin your life? Usually our decisions are not as important as we think they are. Recognizing this can give us the strength to make a decision and get on with our lives.
So what about you? Are you a questioner? Where do you think the common wisdom is wrong? Let us know in the comments!