“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,”
—states Will Durant in a summary of Aristotle’s thoughts
I read that quote earlier this year and it made me feel as if I’m lacking in some way. Often I spend my weekends doing nothing except stare at white walls, trying to invent creative ways to rouse myself to do something from my lengthy to-do list, much of which consists of ways to increase my knowledge of art and literature or improve my writing. Excellence, then, would not come my way soon if I continue in this way. So my interest was piqued when I saw an ARC giveaway for Gretchen Rubin’s recently published Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. I immediately sent a request, wondering if I would enjoy the book or cast it aside as a major bore. After all, how could a book on habits be entertaining?
I doubt entertainment is anyone’s foremost reason for reading this book, and it wasn’t mine, but I worried if I’d be able to stick with it to the end. I didn’t have much to maintain an interest in the book other than a drive to change my bad habits and my friends’ expressed enjoyment of Rubin’s bestseller The Happiness Project. I’ve never read anything by her prior to this book. Despite these meagre sources to drum up interest, I immediately began reading soon after receiving the book and barely put it down.
At the heart of Better than Before is a quest for self-knowledge. That’s what latched my attention. Rubin reasons that we must first know ourselves — our wants, needs, and drives — before we can change. With that, she begins her book by stating that we’re driven by expectations. There are two types, she states, outer (deadlines and company goals) and inner (personal goals). We tackle these expectations in various ways but Rubin lists four ways we tend to approach them. She presents them as groups: upholders, who respond well to both outer and inner expectations; questioners, who resist outer expectations but meet inner expectations; obligers, who meet outer expectations but resist inner expectations; and rebels, who resist both types of expectations. Rubin confesses that she’s an upholder, which becomes more apparent the more I read. Likewise, I became convinced that I’m a rebel by the end of the book.
However, these are not the only parts of our personality that Rubin considers. She also discusses when and how we operate at our best. For example, I’m a night owl and I hate to wake early for anything so that popular advice to wake a few hours earlier to write doesn’t work for me…unless I’m in the mood. This discussion on self-knowledge preps us for the other chapters that present ways to form new habits, maintain them, and guard against regressing into bad habits. Throughout, Rubin shares stories of her trials with forming new habits as well as stories of her family’s and friends’ experiences. The personal touch helps to make Rubin’s suggestions seem feasible. She backs up her statements with facts and data she has researched. Apparently, she has been fascinated with habits for a long time.
Although I enjoyed reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s geared more towards members of the other tendencies except rebels. It was easier to see how the suggestions would benefit members of other tendencies, especially the upholders. I guess that’s because of the stories Rubin shares, which help to show her suggestions at work, and not much were about rebels. But I guess I can’t blame Rubin for that. Rebels tend to resist habits (upholders are most likely to embrace them) and it’s hard to motivate someone who acts only when she wants to. Plus, rebels hate being told what to do (I sure do).
The personal stories help, but if you’re the total opposite of Rubin then her methods for forming her personal habits can seem a bit daunting. For example, I almost gave up the book when Rubin mentions the various lists she uses, especially when they are coupled with other ways for maintaining her habits. Now her suggestions are sound and it’s possible they will work but when she places them all together (like when discussing her routine), I get overwhelmed. I guess it’s not so bad though since, as Rubin says, habits puts a person in autopilot so you don’t have to consider every decision for every part of your day. It makes it easier to get things done.
Still, I found most of the suggestions restricting. The ones that I gravitated to are those that seem most likely to trick me into a habit without me realizing; for example, pairing, which is to couple two activities — “one that I need or want to do, and one that I don’t particularly want to do, to get myself to accomplish both.” This one helped me to floss more since I do it immediately after brushing my teeth. (It’s possible this habit is aided by my crazy imagination broadcasting images of all my teeth falling out all at once if I don’t floss regularly). Oddly, abstaining works for me too, as I’ve discovered this Lent season, but that’s if it is I who decide to abstain and I’m not forced to do so. I thought rewarding myself was a great tactic until I found I could think of no counter argument to why I shouldn’t reward myself whenever I want.
Overall, Better than Before is a good self-help book that will suggest strategies for forming or strengthening your habits; plus, you might discover something new about yourself in the process. So if you’d like to exercise more, start knitting regularly, or simply find a mellow time in your busy day, crack open Better than Before and see what Gretchen Rubin has to say.
(Added to the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge)
Quotes from the book:
“We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature”
“Once we decide that we’ve achieved success, we tend to stop moving forward.”
“Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control.”
Other thoughts on Better than Before
- Better than Before: A Psychological Field Guide to Harnessing the Transformative Power of Habit (brainpickings.org)
- Gretchen Rubin: Change Your Habits, Change Your Life (a Q&A with Shelf Awareness) (shelf-awareness.com)
- Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (lifebetweenreads.com)
- Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin (weirdevangelicalzeal.wordpress.com)
- Review: Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin (alexandrampatterson.com)