Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley. All content and opinions are my own.

You’ve probably heard of Gretchen Rubin. She is the author of two previous books: The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. (I read and enjoyed both of these.) Her newest book moves from happiness to habits.

I liked this book quite a lot. I found the delineation of various habit-forming and -keeping strategies to be very useful. Her main framework is called The Four Tendencies. In her framework, each of us has one (or more) of the following tendencies with respect to how we handle expectations.

  • Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations. (They’re self-directed and have little trouble meeting commitments, keeping resolutions, or meeting deadlines (they often finish early).)
  • Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified. (They decide for themselves whether a course of action is a good idea, and they resist doing anything that seems to lack sound purpose.)
  • Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. (Obligers depend on external accountability, with consequences such as deadlines, late fees, or the fear of letting other people down.)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. (Rebels work toward their own goals, in their own way, and while they refuse to do what they’re “supposed” to do, they can accomplish their own aims.)

While this is obviously not an infallible framework, I did find it useful in considering habits. For the record, I appear to be equal parts Upholder, Obliger, and Questioner and zero parts Rebel. Tip: Take the Four Tendencies Quiz in the back of the book before reading Better than Before. Taking that first (rather than finding it at the end of the ebook like I did) will definitely help inform your reading. Also, check out this more extensive quiz on Rubin’s blog.

The remainder of the book tracks habit points and strategies, keeping the Four Tendencies in mind. The main sections are in bold below, along with a list of the topics covered.

  • Pillars of Habits: monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability
  • The Best Time to Begin: first steps, clean slate, and lightning bolt
  • Desire, Ease, and Excuses: abstaining, convenience, inconvenience, safeguards, loophole-spotting, distraction, reward, treats, pairing
  • Unique, Just Like Everyone Else: clarity, identity, and other people

I enjoyed the organization of the book and found it to be readable, informative, and concise. There is a trove of useful information here. Each topic covered provides a tool or strategy, as Rubin calls them, for making and keeping habits and, more importantly, figuring out whether that strategy would work for you. I will be using this book as a habit reference for a long time.

Which isn’t to say that it is perfect. I had a hard time with the voice. At times, it felt like Rubin was preachy and judgmental, especially when she was relating stories about other people’s habit-formation. She seems to see her own personal habits as superior to those of others. However, it also appeared that Rubin was aware of these issues. She acknowledges that she can be a lot to handle, that she often preaches to others who may or may not want her advice, that she is actually “freakish” in her habits; and that sometimes people do see her as judgmental.

One other quibble: she makes a couple of statements that are contrary to popular knowledge but does not take the time to explain herself. There are footnotes with citations to studies but not additional explanations. Here are two of the most striking examples: “[d]ietary fat, unsaturated or saturated, doesn’t cause obesity or heart disease” and “exercise doesn’t promote weight loss.” These statements may very well be true, but the way they were presented gave me pause.

The above two points notwithstanding, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, and it has helped me as I consider my own nature, habits, and goals.

Here are some of my favorite quotations:

  • Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.
  • There is no magic formula – not for ourselves, and not for the people around us. We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses; we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.
  • I should monitor whatever is essential to me. In that way, I ensure that my life reflects my values.
  • Habits are the behaviors that I want to follow forever, without decisions, without debate, no stopping, no finish lines. Thinking about forever can be intimidating, so the one-day-at-a-time concept helps many people stick to their good habits.
  • Self-knowledge will enable us to use the approach that works for us – which may also mean ignoring the advice of people who insist that their way is the right way.
  • The most important thing I’d learned during my study of how we change our habits? We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature.

Better than Before is a useful and interesting book that clearly delineates a framework for making, keeping, and evaluating habits. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

Publication Date: March 17, 2015

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