Better Than Before: A review of Gretchen Rubin's book on habits

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Author Gretchen Rubin came to Seattle, and I didn't see her — but I saw her poster in the library often enough beforehand that I was inspired to check out her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. It's about her own quest to understand habit formation and tips for us on how best to start and maintain good habits.

I enjoyed the book and found it very useful. Rubin outlines four personality tendencies when it comes to habits: Upholders (who find it easy to keep habits no matter what), Obligers (who will keep habits if it pleases the people they care about and they have accountability from them), Questioners (who must justify and research before they'll commit to a habit), and Rebels (who will keep habits only if it suits their antiestablishment tendencies). You probably already know from that brief description which one is you, but if not, there's a quiz on her site.

Rubin uses her own experiences coaching herself and victims … er … loved ones through habit formation to report on how each personality type can find success in keeping the habits we want, whether that's cutting our sugar intake, reading more books, taking a regular yoga class, biking with our kids each week, or whatever motivates you. She helps you clarify your goals (and figure out if you even actually want that habit — some of us will profess a habit we think we should have but have no intention of actually following through on it), set up accountability (whether internal or external, the type required for Obligers), and avoid pitfalls.

For instance, she advises against having a goal with an end date unless we want the habit to stop then. If your goal is to run more, don't make running a specific race the point of the habit, or once you've run the race, your habit is very likely to end there. A similar caution goes for rewards: Let the reward match the habit rather than break it. A runner could use organized races along the way as both reward and accountability, and a further reward could be to get new running shoes or a fun running outfit (rather than time off running). A writer could be rewarded by a new desk or laptop rather than a break in writing, and a writer's goal shouldn't be "to finish X book" but rather "to write every day for X time." Any habit should stay simple and solid: Do X thing with X regularity, forever (or until you decide you're better served by letting that habit go, which is apparently not an easy thing for Upholders to decide).

I especially found her distinction between Moderators and Abstainers illuminating. I've long suspected I do better cutting bad habits cold turkey than in moderation, but the popular wisdom leans toward advising moderation and even warning against abstaining for fear it will backfire and cause a binge. Rubin herself fights against this notion by describing these as two different personality types. For instance, while one person might be able to have a single drink socially and then stop, a recovering alcoholic knows it's zero drinks or way too many. In the same way, many of us have weaknesses where we know we can simply not trust ourselves to use moderation and find it less of a mental and emotional burden to decide simply to have none. In other words, for some of us and for some habits, abstaining can be easier than moderation.

I'd mark the book down a star for the style, which some may enjoy and some may not. I found it inflated a bit by all the personal anecdotes (the author's own and her test subjects'). While having some of that is helpful, I felt there could be a digest version of the book that got across the same information more concisely. I also felt a little disconnected when Rubin would talk about particular characteristics and preferences of hers in a way that made it sound like they were admirable for everyone: For instance, she's a morning lark, and I'm not, and she has strict rules about television watching, and I don't. But that's just a personal thing, I'm sure. I did appreciate that she defended her consumption of diet cola! I just got the general sense that I'd quickly get annoyed with her if I knew her in real life — for one thing, she'd always be nagging me about my habits! Her family members and friends do seem to put up with it, and I'm grateful that she uses what she's learned to teach the rest of us.

So, if you're trying to start a habit (such as writing or blogging daily) or pick up a lapsed one again (somehow, so much harder!), give Better Than Before a read.

You can connect with Gretchen Rubin here:

P.S. As you might have guessed from my obsessive researching, I'm a Questioner. I laughed out loud when I read this line in the book: "I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework" — I was questioning pretty much everything throughout the book. Let me know in the comments if you're a Rebel, Questioner, Upholder, or Obliger!



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