Better Than Before (2015)

Gretchen Rubin is perhaps best known for her book, The Happiness Project, where she details the little ways you can actively make yourself a happier person. In line with this idea of being mindful and conscious of improving the quality of your life is Better Than Before, which is about habits.

Why did Rubin focus so much on habits? She talks a lot about how our habits make up who we are, at the end of the day. These are the actions that we do frequently, reliably, dependably. What are we but the sum of our habits, good and bad? Habits are really powerful because good habits help us be the person we want to be and bad ones often are obstacles to us achieving that goal.

I’m going to go into some issues I had with the book before covering what I really liked.

TL;DR – While nothing Rubin says is revolutionary or particularly novel, and her approach to encouraging habits in other people comes off as really pushy, I really admired her thorough investigation and categorization of personality types and how best to form habits for those types.

While reading, it was a little strange to me that Rubin thought her temperament and personality were like everyone else’s. I haven’t even read her first book and I could tell that she is uniquely determined and goal-oriented. As a result, it was not only hard for me to believe that she was so incredulous to discover that she is really rather unique in making new habits (and in self-aware she is), it was also a bit annoying to bear with her trying to convert her loved ones and acquaintances into having habits. This was especially frustrating because she creates a pretty good system of categorizing the tendencies people have when it comes to habits (from her blog):

  1. Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations [Rubin is a super Upholder]
  2. Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense [Rubin’s husband is a Questioner]
  3. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  4. Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

So while it was clear that other people weren’t Upholders, like Rubin is, she sometimes didn’t make the conscious effort to take those tendencies into consideration when encouraging new habit implementation. Still, I found this system really good as far as identifying how best to get yourself to do the things you want yourself to do.

For example, I am mostly an Obliger. This is why a resolution to work out more, for example, is best done by purchasing a set number of group fitness classes; I need to meet both the financial commitment (getting my money’s worth) and also I don’t like looking like a n00b in front of the instructor. When my gym routine (ha!) consists of me doing something like the treadmill/elliptical/running laps and stopping when I’m tired, whereas doing a group fitness class pushes me to work out harder for the entirety of the hour-long class, which means I get a better workout. It’s important to be aware of what your tendency is with habits, as you can more honestly assess how to actually get yourself to do something. I know that when I start a new fitness routine that, unless there is some external expectation placed on me, there is a slim chance of me keeping it for long.

Another good distinction that Rubin mentions that is good to keep in mind is whether you are an Abstainer or Moderator, especially with respect to breaking a habit. I am an Abstainer. Remember when I gave up chips for a year? That’s because I could not do moderation. I had to quit cold turkey because it was much easier for me than trying to limit myself to a smaller number of chips. However, for some people, the idea of giving something up completely just makes them want it so badly that they binge on it. Moderators are much more successful just having a little bit, because then they are able to satisfy the strong desire for something. If a Moderator wants chips, denying him/herself the chips will simply lead to eating the entire bag, whereas taking out 10 chips will perfectly satisfy the craving.

In addition to these characterizations, I really enjoyed some of Rubin’s selected quotations and passages about habits. Successful people are often successful because they incorporate good habits in their lives. They don’t need to waste time deciding on tasks; they automatically do things that lead to their success without having to think about them. These quotes were great reads and make good additions to a quote collection that you might keep for motivational purposes.

I also liked Rubin’s Secrets of Adulthood, which are sprinkled throughout the book and, yes, they’re not revelatory but they’re important, honest reminders of how things usually end up actually going. “Not choosing is a choice.” “Things get messier before they get tidier.” “It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.” Etc. etc. etc. They are good to keep in mind when you want to tell yourself something that sounds good but maybe isn’t true.

All in all, it’s a solid book. You probably won’t learn anything mind-blowing or super life-changing, but I think that the self-awareness you can glean from Better Than Before can help you identify how to make it easier for yourself to be the person you want to be by making it easier for yourself to do the things you want to do.

What habits would you like to start doing regularly? What bad habits do you want to break?
Are you an Upholder, Questioner, Rebel, or Obliger? Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator?
What should I read next?

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

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