Book Review: Better Than Before

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, examines everyday habits.

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
Catherine Holecko

Author Gretchen Rubin, having tackled happiness in her bestselling books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, takes a deep dive into the topic of habits in Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (Crown Publishers, March 2015). She wants to figure out how we can change our habits, and what she learns is this: "It's simple to change habits, but it's not easy."

Better Than Before: Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Friendly, yet knowledgeable tone of voice
  • Advice is backed by research
  • Focus is on forming positive habits, not breaking "bad" ones
  • Lots of extra, helpful information and tools available online

Cons:

  • Lists of Tendencies, Distinctions, Strategies, and Secrets can be hard to keep track of
  • Four Tendencies principle forms the foundation of the book, but the quiz to determine your tendency is at the end. Go there right after that first chapter!

Better Than Before: Review

I'm not much of a self-help reader, but Gretchen Rubin's advice is so warm, relevant, and fresh that it's a pleasure to peruse. Better Than Before is the result of her investigation into the topic of habits, the "invisible architecture of daily life." Realizing that we "repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily" means that "our habits shape our existence, and our future."

That's fascinating ... but intimidating, too. So Rubin studies how we form habits, how we start them (and quit them), and the many strategies that keep us on track—plus the temptations that lure us away.

She reports back on what she's learned, as well as both her own efforts at changing habits and her suggestions to others. This means that by the end of the book, you feel as if you know Rubin, and some of her friends and family, quite well. For some readers, this intimacy may be a turn-off, but I enjoy getting advice in the form of personal anecdotes.

(Especially when they are thoroughly grounded in research, as they are in Better than Before.)

At the heart of the book is self-knowledge. As Rubin notes on her opening page, "We each must cultivate the habits that work for us." And to do that, we need to know who we are. Rubin suggests that there are "Four Tendencies" in how people respond to habits. Once we identify which one we fall into, it's much easier to figure out what habits we need to foster, and how best to do that.

The Four Tendencies are:

  • Upholder: Meets both outer and inner expectations (outer expectations are things like work deadlines and traffic regulations; inner ones are goals or rules we set for ourselves, like New Year's resolutions)
  • Questioner: Resists outer expectations, but meets inner expectations
  • Obliger: Meets outer expectations, but resists inner expectations
  • Rebel: Resists both kinds of expectations

Additionally, Rubin identifies what she calls "Distinctions." These are "aspects of [human] nature that are relevant to habit formation." These include pairs like Larks (early risers) vs. Owls (night owls who stay up late), "underbuyers" and "overbuyers," "finishers and "openers." If we try to create a habit in a way that goes counter to one of these aspects of our temperament, we're unlikely to succeed.

So understanding them is paramount.

After guiding the reader through these tendencies and distinctions of self-knowledge, Rubin devotes the bulk of Better Than Before to the many strategies we can use to establish a habit. Because there are so many of them—and so many aspects to habit-forming and abandoning!—it's best if you have some habits in mind before you start reading. (Rubin suggests this in her introductory note to readers.) Rubin's habit of capitalizing key words left me, an Obliger, feeling like I had to memorize them all. This also underscores the self-help nature of the book, for better or for worse.

If you're looking to create, and sustain, a healthy new habit, like resetting your exercise schedule or keeping a food diary, you'll find the advice you need in this book—even if you're a Rebel, although that will be a challenge. You just have to be willing to do the work of examining who you are first. But Gretchen Rubin will help you in your journey, and be pleasant company too.

Disclosure: A review copy was not provided by the publisher.

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