“Know thyself.” ~ Greek maxim
Gretchen Rubin is a self-confessed habit-junkie. Even more than obsessing about her own habits, she gets a thrill from helping her friends and family improve theirs. And she’s on a mission to help change yours and mine. She came to habits in an unusual way, by first focusing on happiness. What will make me more happy, she asked herself? And in 2009 she published the result of her one-year quest to become more happy, The Happiness Project. Through this process, she came to believe that if happiness is the destination, habit-change might well be the journey. But how can people go about changing their habits, she wondered?
She then spent time researching and reflecting about habits, the good and the bad, how to start and how to stop. Better Than Before is an encyclopedic treatise on the subject. Every time I thought, okay, she’s said it all, what else is there to say? I would realize there were more CDs left to listen to. (I listened to Gretchen Rubin read the unabridged version of her book. I love hearing the author’s own intonation. She has a knack for bringing the dialogues to life.)
First she explains the sheer power of a habit. It’s something you have decided to do once and therefore never need to decide again. In other words, a habit is something I just do, not something I waste precious mental and emotional energy deciding about every single time it comes up. In fact, I am deciding, she says, not to decide.
Next, Rubin goes into detail about four key pillars of habit formation, including a very useful chapter on strengthening one’s foundation of sleep, food, exercise and clutter-control. If these areas are strong, they boost our self-control, she affirms. In addition to having a good foundation, it’s also critical while forming a new habit to monitor what exactly we are doing, to schedule good habits and to build in accountability. “Every day,” she says, “is easier than some days.”
She gives suggestions about the best times to begin a new habit. She also deals with every possible excuse we make to ourselves to side-step our fledgling habits, as well as how to get back on track when necessary. But throughout she stays non-judgmental and open to the fact that what works for one person may not work for another. Her philosophy can be summed up by this phrase you’ll find in the book: “You are unique, just like everyone else.” Instead of being imperative and prescriptive like so many self-help books, Better Than Before takes you through a long series of scenarios and invites you to ask yourself, “Am I like x or like y?” Am I a lark or an owl? Am I a starter or a finisher? An abstainer or a moderator? A marathoner or a sprinter? My answers to these questions can help me know myself and see which strategies may work best for me.
She also sketches out an idea she develops more fully in The Four Tendencies (2017), about how people respond to inner and outer expectations. Knowing whether you are an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel can have a profound impact how you go about starting or stopping a habit. For me, a Questioner, I need to have a very clear sense of why a habit is useful or important, otherwise my resolve soon flags. For Obligers, external accountability is key.
Like many great teachers, Gretchen Rubin tells stories to drive her points home. We hear how she coached a friend to consume alcohol in keeping with her values, how buying a treadmill desk dramatically improved her sister’s quality of life, how she and her father changed their eating habits almost overnight, how she helped her daughter feel more in control of weekend homework, how a friend with a gambling problem took his car for a test drive to Las Vegas… Concrete examples of how other people are tweaking their habits for greater happiness with more or less success help us see how to make it happen for ourselves.
While this book could be especially helpful for anyone trying to sleep better, eat better or exercise more, it’s also a great guide for anyone who wants to develop the habit of writing. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how many useful tips I gleaned about daily practice of writing, since Gretchen Rubin is a writer and uses tons of personal examples. My key takeaway is her strategy of transition. When you are anxious about starting, use a pre-writing ritual such as listening to music. If I pair the hard habit with something easy and pleasurable, then I’m more likely to be consistent. She even mentions a phenomenon I had no idea was universal: needing to have something in the mouth while writing. Last summer, when I was working steadily on my novel, I would have to chew gum or drink something fizzy or eat carrot sticks while striving toward my daily word quota. Gretchen Rubin says she experiences the same thing, but has taken up a habit from her husband, an inveterate pencil chewer, and now gnaws on a coffee stir stick. Wow, I thought, I’m not the only one who finds writing so anxiety-inducing that I need some kind of a pacifier.
Some of the fruits of her research are pithy quotes from Erasmus, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, William Henry and Michel de Montaigne. She’s pretty quotable herself: “Progress, not perfection” and “How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives” are two that will stay with me. Though that may sound heavy, Better Than Before is a road map to the most pleasurable, convenient and permanent ways to becoming happier through habit-change.