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Better Than Before

Better Than Before
  • On April 3, 2015

I have a love/hate relationship with Gretchen Rubin’s work. She writes books on self-improvement in a relatable, personal style that I like. She undertakes all her own advice, and writes whether her experiments are successes or failures with an unflinching honesty. Reading her work is a lesson in objectively scrutinizing your own life. I like that about her. I am also slightly obsessed with self-improvement. Look–we all have to have hobbies. Constant personal growth is one of mine.

On the other hand, as a body-positive person I cringe each and every time she writes about staying fit and thin. There’s much said in her books about “keeping weight off” as a goal that leads one toward happiness. She touts the use of scales, food monitoring and abstinence as great tools for increasing happiness. Every time I come across this stuff I want to throw her books across the room.

So, I was unsurprised to discover that I felt a deep ambivalence about her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. A book about habit change? Awesome! What’s the one habit people seem to obsess over in this culture? Diet! Bah. I knew it was coming, but I wanted to see how the book was anyway. Because obsession.

Yes, there’s a lot of talk about diet changes and the benefits of being thin (and the co-occurring suggestion that if one does x with their diet they will surely become skinny and by extension beautiful, self-confident and healthy, one of the more pernicious lies told to us fatties). The diet talk doesn’t dominate the book thank goodness, and she moves on to more interesting topics fairly quickly.

I acknowledge that healthy food habits can be great to develop, given that we understand what healthy food habits are for ourselves and how vastly those habits can differ from person to person.

Food talk aside, the rest of the book was hit or miss for me, too. There were parts I absolutely loved, and parts I felt were too simplistic to be useful.

She spends the first part of the book defining categories of decision makers. I really like the framework of the “Four Tendencies”–we tend to make decisions from different perspectives, and therefore habit changes will work differently for each of the four groups. She even has an online quiz set up for you to determine your tendency.

For example, I’m very clearly an “upholder” in Rubin’s framework. I have very little trouble meeting a deadline or expectation. I can adhere to my own expectations as well as the expectations of others. I set and meet goals easily. Knowing the rules is very important to me, and meeting standards is a pleasing activity. Conversely, stick me in a situation where there aren’t clear rules or expectations and I start to freak the heck out.

Different decision-makers need different strategies for how to form habits. Luckily, Rubin offers 21 different strategies in her book. I think some of my frustration with the book is that I’ve done a lot of my own research and study on motivation and habit formation, and I think she’s missing a crucial element in exploring the difficulty of change: shame.

I am wary of any strategy that employs shame as a tool. Things like “monitoring” and “accountability buddies” can be very useful, or can induce deep shame in people as they rack up their “failures” or even expose their shortcomings to others. I do like that she warns that accountability buddies should probably not be close friends or family, and that often hiring a coach or trainer is a better idea. A hired professional will be far less likely to induce shame in us.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I bet that being an upholder is totally coloring my feelings about the book. Most of the strategies she offers seem obvious to me, and the ones that rubbed me the wrong way probably triggered my own shame response. The fact is, habit forming isn’t difficult for me, and the places I’m blocked have a lot more to do with an emotional issue or attachment rather than any particular difficulty with follow through. Rubin says in the book that most people fall into either the “questioner” or “obliger” categories, with relatively few of us being “upholders” or “rebels.” It’s likely I’m just not the right audience.

This is possibly the first time I’ve changed my mind mid-review.

Okay–I think that people in general will like this book. Rubin offers accessible, meaningful strategies for life change in a clear format that you can relate to easily. Ideas like “the one minute rule” (borrowed from Getting Things Done, if you can do it quickly, just do it now), “the tomorrow trap” (if you think you’ll do it tomorrow, you won’t get as much done), “work or do nothing” (chose to either work on a project or do literally nothing for a period of time), and others are really good pieces of advice.

She also asks the important question of why–why do you want to change the habit? Sometimes we think we “should” do something but we don’t have any real intrinsic motivation to do it. It’s another way to put the saying, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Trying to change something we have no concerns about is likely to end in failure.

Rubin outlines four main sources of habit that most people want to work on (she calls them the “Foundational Four”): sleep, movement, eating and drinking “right,” and uncluttering. Focusing on these areas can give us a boost to the rest of our habits, according to Rubin. For example, if we have an uncluttered environment, it can be easier to start a new project or plan. Work on these four first, and the rest will follow.

I’m hoping that this book will allow me to understand others better, especially others who are not upholders like me. She mentions in the book that if you allow too much leash for a questioner or obliger, they will run with it and struggle to change. Just because I don’t need regular check-ins to stay on task doesn’t mean that check-ins couldn’t benefit someone else. The more I learn about how other people work, the better I can be as part of a team or family.

You’ll have to read Better Than Before and tell me what you think. Also, if you take the quiz let me know what your tendency is,and if you think it’s accurate. I’m really curious to know if other people find her strategies helpful. Also, check out her website. It is chock full of information and downloads to help you start your own habit changing today.

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