Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

May 14, 2015

Book review of Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin - What a fascinating look at forming habits and how they shape our lives.
Every night, I open my journal and write in it. I have done this every night for the last fifteen years (except for January 11, 2014 when, for some mystical reason unknown to man, I forgot).

That habit is as secure as getting dressed in the morning or brushing my teeth at night. And I've often wondered, Why? Why did that habit stick when a million other habits haven't? Why can I get myself to write every night even when I'm so exhausted my writing is illegible, but I can't get myself to consistently fold the clothes as soon as they come out of the dryer?

I read Better Than Before, hoping it would answer this question.

And it did. (Answer: I guess I used the Strategies of Lightning Bolt, Don't-Break-the-Train (which is encompassed in First Steps), and Pairing. Who knew?)

This whole book was an absolutely fascinating look at habits. When Gretchen Rubin first began her research for it, she discovered that most books about habit-formation gave readers a precise formula for how to create a habit. (People often say that it takes three weeks to form a habit, but from personal experience (and backed up by Gretchen's research), I can tell you that doing something for 21 days doesn't guarantee in any way that I'll do it on the 22nd day. In fact, telling myself that I only have to do something for three weeks gives myself a finish line, which Gretchen declares is a very bad idea.) Gretchen realized that only a small percentage of people were actually wired to be able to successfully follow a prescribed set of steps like that.

This makes sense, right? We know that people handle learning, parenting, friendship, and work in a million different ways. Why would we expect habit formation to be any different?

Gretchen Rubin uses the question "How does a person respond to an expectation?" to divide the general population into four different groups, or Tendencies. You have the Upholders (who are very self-motivated and responsible), the Questioners (if they can figure out why they should do something, they'll do it), the Obligers (they need external accountability for success) and the Rebels (they resist anything that feels the least bit restrictive).

When I talked last month about being an Overbuyer, I said I was pretty sure I was an Obliger who leaned heavily towards Upholding. But the more I read, the more I realized it was just the opposite: I'm an Upholder who follows through on external responsibilities first.

I love making personal goals and mapping out exactly how I'm going to achieve them. However, reading this book helped me realize that my goals will almost always come second to what other people expect of me, and so if I want to be more successful with forming a habit, I should tell someone else about it because then I feel very accountable. Gretchen Rubin quoted one of her readers, who said, "'When I tell people my goals, I feel 'uber' committed to them. I'm very careful about any commitment I make out loud, because it's almost as if I feel there's no way out of the commitment after I own it."

After Gretchen describes the Four Tendencies, she devotes the rest of the book to various Strategies for habit formation. There's the Strategy of Monitoring (as Gretchen says, "If we want something to count in our lives, we should figure out a way to count it."), the Strategy of Inconvenience (if you put the chocolate on the highest shelf in the kitchen, you're less likely to mindlessly eat it), and the Strategy of Pairing (a personal favorite of mine--if you tie one habit to another, it's more likely that both will occur). I counted them up, and I think Gretchen goes over nineteen different strategies (and within those nineteen, she breaks it down even further). That's a lot of tools; so many, in fact, that no matter what your natural Tendency, you can probably find something that will work for you.

I use the Strategy of Accountability to my advantage all the time, and this blog has provided a great forum for it. For the last three years, I've made reading goals, which have made me read all kinds of things I wouldn't have made time for otherwise. I also wrote a post about how I was managing my time online (and then felt super guilty every time I looked at my phone before lunch). And most recently, I wrote about how I wanted to make snack time more intentional and healthy (a follow-up post is coming soon, I promise). Once I write it down, it's like the law to me even if no one else reads it. It feels public, and so I have to follow through.

When I recognized what I was doing, I thought for sure it meant I must be an Obliger. But then I realized that the Strategy of Accountability works for all Tendencies, and the way I was employing it was actually like something an Upholder, not an Obliger, would do.

One of the other parts of the book that made a deep impression on me was the importance of beginnings and (a lack of) endings. A goal has a definite beginning and ending (I will plan, write, and publish this blog post). Conversely, a habit is a way of life (I will write three blog posts every week). The problem comes up when we confuse goals and habits--specifically, when we try to make a habit into a goal. When we have an end in sight, we go right back to our old ways after we feel like we've accomplished what we set out to do. When we form a habit, we leave the old way behind in favor of a new (and hopefully improved) one.

Ironically, just a couple of weeks before I started this book, Mike and I started a diet with a weight goal in mind. Right from the start, I was bothered with my mindset, which was something along the lines of, I can't wait to lose these last eight pounds. I can suffer through eating salad for lunch for a few weeks, and then I'm going to gorge myself on chocolate chip cookies. A habit is a lifestyle change, and too often I hope that the healthy eating habit will kick in if I'm working on a goal for six weeks. But in many ways, it's not the length of time that matters but the mindset of, I am someone who makes healthy choices.

I have to say that now that I've read three of Gretchen Rubin's books, I've become very familiar with her personal tastes, interests, and priorities. One of the reasons I love her books is because they feel very personal. She shares her own struggles and triumphs and likes and dislikes. However, sometimes her personal bias shined through just a little too much for me. I don't remember thinking this with the other two books, so it could just be that I've heard about her strength training and low-carb eating a few too many times, but sometimes her authoritative tone annoyed me (like when she concisely shut down the thirst-can-be-mistaken-for-hunger theory, and I happened to disagree with her). Even with those few annoyances though, I would never want to change her writing style. Her books would lose so much appeal for me if she cut out all the parts that were distinctly Gretchen.

Just a fair warning: you have not heard the last of this book. I have so many more things I want to discuss, but I can't fit them all into one review, nor can I do justice to them if I don't give them their own blog posts. So stay tuned for many more habit-themed blog posts in the future.

At the beginning of the book, Gretchen attempts to define what a habit is and why good habits are so beneficial. That definition stayed with me because it rang so true. She said, "Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self control."

That's it! That's why I am so interested in harnessing the potential energy of habits. I don't want to decide to eat an apple for a snack. I don't want to choose between washing the dishes immediately after eating or going outside with my kids. I don't want to wonder if I should help Aaron with his homework now or wait until tomorrow. Decision-making stresses me out and drains all my energy. I want as many things to happen automatically as possible so that I can focus all my attention on the things I really care about.

That's the power of habits. (Now excuse me while I go write in my journal.)

What are your most effortless habits? What are your Strategies?


  1. Okay, you've convinced me. Even though I read the blog, I still definitely need to read the book. It's officially on the summer reading list.

    Also, as soon as Gretchen started writing about her four personality types, I just knew I was an upholder. But when I started taking the quiz she has on her website, I got worried because I seemed to be answering yes to so many of the obliger questions. I still came out as an upholder, but I suspect I'm very similar to you (I meet outer expectations first). I'm excited to read more of your thoughts on the book. Gretchen always provides so much material for thought.

    1. I don't know that you'll discover anything new, but it's definitely not bad information to get again!

      Also, just the fact that you're doing your master's while being a mom points pretty clearly to being an Upholder. :-)

  2. Thanks, Amy. I'm adding this one to my wishlist (and I just read another book on habits recently - The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business).

    1. Did you like it? I think that's one of the books she references.

  3. So, hypothetically, what if you agree to read a VERY long classic novel with a friend and then have to be shamed into starting it but won't allow yourself to read any other SUPER tantalizing books (except the Crossover!!) until it's finished, what does that make you? ;)

    1. That makes you a VERY kind and devoted friend!!! I have to know--what are the super tantalizing books you (erm, I mean, your hypothetical friend) are avoiding? And what did you think of The Crossover?!


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