Book Review: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Michael and I generally avoid the mall, but last week we found ourselves in the mall-iest mall of them all: Chinook Mall in Calgary. After (finally!) finding a parking space, we made our way to the entrance, and were greeted by the mall’s promotional material asking us, “Who will you be this year?” Back-to-school season is upon us, and students are asking themselves that very question. I know this, because it’s a question I asked myself from elementary all the way through high school, and probably into university, if I’m honest. Every year I wanted to reinvent myself, and September – a new school year – seemed like the best time for it. New pencils, new notebooks, new jeans, oh – and I’ll have a new me too, please.

While I am thankfully no longer desperate to reinvent myself for the purpose of fitting in with the cool kids (who decides they’re cool anyways?), September always feels like a new year and a fresh start for me, even though I’m not starting a new grade. By pure coincidence, I read Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin’s latest bestseller, the week before the start of this “September new year,” a book which really is about reinventing one’s self – at least, reinventing one’s habits.

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Author of the wildly popular The Happiness Project, in a lot of ways, Rubin’s latest book seems almost to be a new chapter in her desire to discover what makes people happy, and how to increase happiness in her own life and in other lives. The formation of habits, it turns out, is hugely important to one’s everyday happiness. Habits allow us to move through life with minimal decision making; when it is ingrained into our daily, weekly, or monthly routine to do something without thinking about it, whether good or bad, we will naturally rely on our habits to dictate our behavior. Think about it: if you have a habit of biting your nails (which I had for many years), you don’t make a decision to bite your nails – you simply do it. In fact, to not do it, you must make a very deliberate decision to move in the opposite direction of your habit. A positive example from my own life is my habit of working out on weekday mornings. I started this habit about six months ago, and now without much thinking about it, I get up early enough to work out on weekday mornings. I no longer have to “decide” whether or not I’m going to work out, I just do it, because that is my habit. Better Than Before is all about how to cultivate habits based on personality type, and successful strategies for reinforcing the habits we want to keep, and altering the habits we want to change.

As Rubin studied habits, she discovered several frameworks for identifying personality traits that help or hinder us from establishing habits, the most foundational of which she calls “The Four Tendencies.” Rubin found there are basically four types of people: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Upholders are motivated from internal and external expectations: they want to know what is expected of them, and they have high expectations for themselves. I am an Upholder all the way, often to a fault. I have ridiculously high expectations of myself, but learning that I am an Upholder has helped me to make sense of why certain strategies, such as scheduling and to-do lists, are so helpful for me. A Questioner, on the other hand, resists outside expectations, while meeting inner expectations. The Questioner must be convinced that an expectation is worthwhile before following through on it. While an Upholder will religiously follow through on everything a doctor advises, for example, the Questioner will have to be convinced that the doctor’s advice is sound. A Questioner might best be convinced to start exercising, for example, if their doctor provides them with reading material on studies that prove the benefits of exercising. An Obliger, however, meets outer expectations, but has difficulty meeting inner expectations. They are motivated by the expectations others have of them, but have difficulty motivating themselves. An Obliger may best be able to keep a new habit of exercising, if they commit themselves to working out with a friend each day – a friend that will be upset if they fail to meet up as expected. For the Obliger, the exercising habit becomes about meeting the friend’s expectations, rather than keeping a promise to themselves. Lastly, the Rebel resists all expectations, inner and outer. Their deepest value is freedom, and they do not want to be controlled by anyone or anything, not even themselves. Rubin gives an example of a Rebel friend who began running as her preferred form of exercise, because she could go whenever she wanted (she didn’t have to conform to the gym’s hours), she could go wherever she wanted, and she could go for however long she wanted. She was totally free to decide, if, when, and how, she would exercise.

As an Upholder, habits take root fairly easily for me, but I enjoyed reading Rubin’s suggestions for what helps a habit take hold even more deeply. I heartily agree that knowing one’s self is extremely important to knowing how to establish habits. But understanding the pillars of habits (monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability), the best ways to begin habits, and the ways to increase our desire to establish habits (including how to up the ease of establishing habits, and how to avoid excuses) help give us fuel for becoming better than before. One suggestion that was a particular “aha” moment for me was the idea that the habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself. Apparently, it is much more difficult to restart a habit, than it is to begin a fresh habit. This means that if you have a beneficial habit in place, it is vitally important to keep this habit, because if you should fall out of it, it will be extremely difficult to pick back up again. If I should be tempted to stay in bed for an extra hour one morning, rather than exercising, it may not be catastrophic to my fitness to take a “day off,” but it is bad for my habit. If that one morning should turn into a month of mornings “off,” it will be much more difficult for me to start back up again. The habit of the habit is more important than the habit itself.

I feel I could go on and on about what I learned from this book, but I think the main thing I took away is a greater understanding of why certain strategies work for me. I love to-do lists and scheduling. When I was in school, I took great pleasure in creating schedules for myself so that I could get my work done on time, or even early. There was only one day when I went to bed without achieving my goal of getting x amount of work done, and I was greatly distressed by not reaching my goal! Scheduling helped me to get through the massive amount of work before me, and I really couldn’t understand why others didn’t adopt this strategy (now I understand it is because my fellow students weren’t all Upholders – Questioners and Obligers are more typical tendencies). I’ve been implementing to-do lists into my life since reading Better Than Before, and checking off each task as I’ve completed it gives me great satisfaction. This might seem silly to others, but a to-do list keeps me on task because it is a reflection of my expectations for myself.

If you’re looking to establish some new habits as you head back to school this year, or if you want a “new you” in the area of your work habits or home life, I would highly recommend reading Better Than Before, and applying some of the techniques Rubin describes. You can take Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz via her blog. The survey does include some questions about age, gender, marital status, etc., which I believe has more to do with a marketing survey vs. your Tendency, but you can choose “prefer not to say” for these questions if it is an issue for you (which might mean you’re a Questioner or a Rebel!). Happy “new year!”

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