Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
I received a copy of Better Than Before to review as part of the Birchbox Book Club, and I was so happy to have it. When I was awarded a dissertation fellowship, I was like “This is amazing! I get to be a full-time writer for a year.” And it has been fruitful and wonderful in many ways, and frustrating in others. Not having the regular rhythm of classes and teaching, and adding a truckload of internalized pressure, have made me feel like I’m in a panicked freefall many days. A good routine would go a long, long way to helping me feel more balanced. So, how can Better Than Before help?
In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestseller The Happiness Project, argues that our habits are the secret to our happiness. I appreciate that she treats happiness as a process without getting over-sentimental about it:
When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then–and this is the best part–we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits. (12)
The theory follows, then, that when we don’t have to put so much willpower into structuring our lives, it frees up our minds and our energy for other pursuits and allows us more mindfulness, and thus happiness, in our days. Sounds good enough to me. But how?
I used to have great habits and then I…don’t know what happened. Getting them started up again has been a years-long process of trial and error. What I like most about Rubin’s book is that it addresses habit formation as a matter of self-awareness and it starts to get at the blocks that keep us from doing things that we know we love and we know are good for us.
Rubin addresses the topic in a highly-conversational, very Type-A tone, based on both research and her own experiences. The book is divided into five sections that cover self-knowledge, pillars for structuring habits, how to get started, desires and pitfalls, and how we are “unique, just like everyone else.” She bases her approach to habit formation on her model of the Four Tendencies: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels. (You can take a quiz here.) In short, the Tendencies are a model for thinking about what expectations you are likely to meet. For example, Upholders meet all expectations. Obligers are more likely to meet others’ expectations than their own. I tend to be a little bundle of contradictions in most things, so I really don’t think I fall neatly into any one camp. If I had to choose, I’d be a Questioner (meets inner expectations; resists outer, unless I think they’re valid), but I can be an Obliger sometimes too. And sometimes a rebel. If I’m making a change, I don’t want someone else to think it’s their idea or I’m doing it for someone other than me. Brat. When I took the quiz in the back of the book, I gave roughly equal answers for each of the Tendencies. I’m a pain, I know. Skeptical as I was about the Tendencies, just thinking about what motivates me to meet expectations was helpful.
After the Four Tendencies, Rubin explores other distinctions that may shape a person’s habits. This is my favorite part of the book. She prompts you to consider, for example, if you’re a lark or an owl; a marathoner, a sprinter, or a procrastinator; an underbuyer or overbuyer; a finisher or an opener; promotion-focused or prevention-focused; and more. With each distinction, she briefly discusses how your other personality traits may help you to frame your habits in a way that you will be more successful sticking to them. It’s good stuff.
The following sections, “Pillars of Habits” and “The Best Time to Begin” get more into the nuts and bolts of starting new habits, with examples drawn from Rubin’s own life and relationships. While a lot of the tips here are things I’ve read elsewhere, such as at Zen Habits or Life Hacks, the continual use of the Tendencies and the other distinctions to think through how habits can be formed successfully makes the book more useful than it might otherwise be. That’s where Rubin’s book is better than texts I’ve read before, and offers more helpful solutions: it treats habit as a personal process rather than prescribing umbrella solutions for everyone.
While I don’t think 100% of the book made sense for me personally (I especially struggled with the Four Tendencies), I think it is a wonderful guide for thinking about your own habits and how you approach them. The opportunity for guided self-reflection and tips that you can take or leave as inspiration is worth the cover price.
Naturally, after reading the book, I totally crashed. I had been pulling all-nighters (never, ever a good idea) the week before and I had a cold. Or allergies. Probably a cold. So, I was wiped out and spent a couple of days in bed recovering and doing some light research. Nevertheless, I still have some habits I want to get into, and I am hopeful that the insights from Better Than Before can help.
My partner, Julio, and I have talked many times about how I want to get in more control of my mornings and what an ideal morning would look like to me:
–A half hour of journaling and reflection time
–Two hours of distraction-free writing
I think this routine would enable me to get focused work done first thing, while also building in activities that give me energy and clarity. I’ve read before that doing the hardest thing on your to-do list first can make a big difference in your day, and that two hour block would be a perfect space. I think that if I can get in this routine, it could be transformative for my days and help me feel more in control of my time. I just have to take the first step and keep doing it. Arg.
I have tried unsuccessfully to get in the habit of doing yoga first thing when I get out of bed. I love yoga, but it’s just too chill for me to do in the morning. Even with power yoga, I either get head rushes, or end up snoozing on my mat, or just quitting in the middle of a set. But, I love doing my barre exercises and that Folgers Irish dancers commercial was a favorite of mine when I was a little girl, so I might actually get up and dance with my coffee. It’s the little things. If I can do that first step in the morning, perhaps I can keep going from there with the rest of the routine. Wish me luck, si vous plait.
When I get home in the afternoon/evening from my work sessions on campus or running errands, etc., my bad habit is to watch something before I get to work and then I never really get focused. Instead, I’d like to couple coming home with doing a yoga break. My brother and sister-in-law got me this great deck of yoga cards, that is perfect for this purpose and I know doing afternoon yoga has done wonders in the past for restoring my waning energy.
Saving, Not Spending
This was one of the biggest insights for me from the book. Rubin discusses overbuyers and underbuyers as well as people who love simplicity vs abundance. When I really think about it, I am an overbuyer who loves simplicity. I buy things and then I feel the need to purge. I’m not sure why I overbuy. I didn’t used to. It’s something I’m pondering. I like having things, but I also like open space and order to the things I have. (The exception here would be my wardrobe. I’m a clotheshorse.) Preparing for my cross-country move really opened my eyes to this, I think. Selling off many of my clothes, books, household goods… has felt really good (not always, really, but a lot of the time). I’m going to try to frame my budget goals more in terms of my love of simplicity than in terms of stressing about finances, because when I stress about money, I’m worse about saving it.