Book review: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin Better Than Before Penny Golightly review

Habits, hacks, productivity and general self improvement are always interesting topics, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of today’s book, which is Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin. Fancy a change? You might like to give this one a read.

The book covers the importance of our habits and how they structure and shape the courses of our lives, and looks at a dizzying number of ways that you can set up desired (good) habits and eliminate or tone down unwanted (bad) habits.

At the start of the book, the author writes persuasively about how a good habit, once in place, simplifies and improves life by pretty much running on autopilot for you, meaning that you don’t have to get constantly caught up in making yet another complex set of decisions and also eliminating the need to constantly exert self control – you ‘decide not to decide’, in her words. She’s very upfront about there being no one-size-fits-all blueprint for this, and fortunately then goes on to show how different types of people can find things that work best for their individual quirks and personalities.

Know yourself to change yourself

Indeed, the most unique section of Better Than Before is the material about self knowledge. In particular, Gretchen Rubin has described four main tendencies or personality types that she believes people fall into: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels. These hinge upon whether the person upholds or resists their own internal expectations, and the external expectations of others. There’s a handy questionnaire in the book to see which category you fall into.

Rubin also looks into other quirks that form strong aspects of our personalities, and asks you to ask yourself a lot of questions about preferences, behaviours and motivating factors. For example, some of us like to get up with the larks and others are night owls, although most of us are somewhere in the middle. Fighting against a strong tendency such as this can make it all the harder to form new habits and create change, so, she argues, it’s better to find strategies that work more harmoniously with who we are.

The keys to creating success

The most important habit creation strategies are then discussed: Monitoring, ‘Foundation’, Scheduling and Accountability. Most of these are self explanatory, but I wasn’t able to second guess what Foundation meant. Turns out it’s the basic habits that keep you ticking over healthily, that you perhaps need in place before you can make other, bigger changes. It includes sleep, food and drink, exercise and uncluttering.

The next section is about getting started on your planned habit changes. There are many different ways to get going, such as taking small steps to gain a rhythm and some confidence, using a ‘clean slate’ such as a new job or a house move, or taking on an all-encompassing attitude and behavioural change in one go (aka the ‘Lightning Bolt’).

Making those new habits stick

Further strategies are then discussed, including abstaining vs moderation, using convenience to boost good habits, and employing inconvenience to disrupt bad habits. There are also some interesting ideas for safeguarding healthy behaviours, avoiding the temptation to spot and use loopholes, and trying distraction techniques to tame cravings and impulses.

Additional happiness boosters include rewards (although it’s pointed out that they can hinder as well as help), and non-reward treats that just make life that bit nicer. There’s also some information about what the author describes as ‘pairing’, which is putting two behaviours together to make the new habit more enjoyable, as far as I can tell. It’s rounded off with a few ways to look at conflicting values and to consider yourself in comparison with other people, to increase self-knowledge and make it easier to shape habits.

To sum up: A lengthy, interesting book about habits that has something for everyone. The writing is a mixture of literature and research review plus the author’s own personal journey, which makes for a sometimes-quirky narrative that avoids the material becoming too dry.

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin is currently available at Amazon priced £11.89 for hardback and £5.99 for the Kindle edition.

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