Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before fits right in with The Cultivated Life principle: how to grow for the better. This warm, down-to-earth book tackles the subject of personal habits and how to master them. Habits are the architecture of our lives, Rubin says, and changing habits involves knowing your personality. This forces us to examine exactly who we are and how we operate in the world. But once we identify these characteristics, we can begin to improve ourselves. It’s a fresh perspective I haven’t encountered before and the book greatly helped me in living a more settled, peaceful interior life.
Rubin sees people as responding in one of four ways to expectations: a questioner, a rebel, an obliger, or upholder. The profiles relate to how you might resist outer expectations but meet inner ones (questioner, for instance). Me, I’m an upholder, someone who meets inner expectations and outer expectations. Upholders are self-directed and like rules. They meet expectations for themselves. Writers, gardeners, anyone who has a self-employed, solitary job I imagine is an upholder.
After she discusses, the four tendencies, she challenges readers to examine their personalities even more in-depth. For example, are you an abundance lover or a simplicity lover? Do you like familiarity or novelty? How do you like to spend your time? What do you value? Oftentimes, we may be mixing a variety of personality traits, values, etc. and so, this is where her theories get a bit fuzzy. However, exploring your personality allows you to approach your habits truthfully. The next step is to monitor what you actually do so you can compare it to what you would like to do. This is where the book’s power lies.
So what to do after you have that figured out? Rubin says you identify what habits you want to change (and also what you don’t). It may be worth it for you to zonk out in front of the TV for three hours every Friday. If so, that’s something to recognize and make your peace with. But for the habits you want to change, you must take a hard look at your schedule. Habits are changed most quickly when they’re repeated in predictable ways, she says, so putting an activity on a calendar will highlight that repetition. She concedes that you may not always change a habit just because it’s on the calendar but science shows us that repeating habits often changes them, so she encourages readers to, if nothing else, do your desired habit often.
She also examines how difficult it is to take the first step. Even if you blow off a new habit-forming process, she says, it’s still a success to at least start. The enemy of change is complacency and she encourages readers to not procrastinate. She does account for how difficult it is to break the previous chain of actions that form your habit but does have encouraging words on how to do that. We all have trigger moments that lead us toward our bad habit so one technique for change is to identify your trigger habit. For instance, I realized when my kids were smaller and I was more stressed, I’d sit down at the dining table and want to eat a big delicious meal. After realizing that that added up to too many calories too often in the week, I decided to make quicker, lower-cal meals and eat them at the kitchen island. Just that one move from sitting in the dining room to sitting in the faster-paced kitchen, saved me both calories and time.
Abstaining and Moderation
This section particularly appealed to me. That it was titled “Free From French Fries” caught my eye. Here, she discusses the idea of abstaining versus moderation. She talks about how to deprive yourself of something without feeling deprived. To solve this in her life, she totally abstains from the thing she knows she shouldn’t eat or have. However, she notes moderation is another solution but she found for her, the negotiation with herself was too exhausting. For instance, if someone’s going to order the French fries, they might ask themselves, “How much can I have? Does having it yesterday and today mean it’s a moderate amount?” And on and on. If you’re a moderator, you have to make peace with what “moderation” means to you. If you’re an abstainer, you can just say “no” to the temptation and not think about it. Both are freeing in different ways.
Convenience Versus Inconvenience
This was another great discussion. Oftentimes, we won’t engage in an activity if it’s inconvenient. So instead of changing yourself, you can change your surroundings. If you want to exercise, figure out a convenient means of doing so. If you want to eat cookies after dinner, hide the cookies. These are small things but I found they work surprisingly well. This also relates to her section on safeguards and loopholes, in other words, when we might break a newly formed good habit. In that case, the best thing to do is to control the break as much as you can. If you’re going to a party and you want to eat cake, then make peace with yourself beforehand. That way you don’t agonize over the decision and instead just flat out enjoy it. I do this now at our favorite local brewery with a meal of cod tacos and French fries. I’ve decided I’m only going to eat it once a month and I stick to that, sometimes even by putting it on the calendar. It’s awesome because when I go to the brewery, I don’t struggle, I just automatically order it without thinking, then eat it up, and enjoy every last fry.
Rewards and Treats
This is a complex issue. For many, rewards are the motivation to change a habit, but Rubin warns against this. Once you hit the finish line and get the reward, the reward ends and so does our good behavior. Also, creating rewards requires decisions, asking yourself “Do I deserve this?” and “Does this time count?” Instead she recommends doing actions without evaluation, debate or a reward. The less you think, the more the habit becomes ingrained as part of your behavior. It’s not about a means to an end.
Less Thinking, More Positive Doing
Rubin’s overall argument is habits make change possible by freeing us from decision-making and self-control. These two issues rang a bell with me. I make decisions constantly. We all do. Rubin says the more you can avoid decisions and automatically carry out good habits, the healthier you’ll be. As she says, “Once we clearly understand the various levers — both internal and external — that move habits, we can make change much more effectively.” Though I still struggle with changing some of my habits, I have changed enough so that I at least now have a meta-perspective on my behavior, which gives me greater control over my mind, body, and life.
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Karen Hugg is a writer and gardener living in the Seattle area. She is a certified ornamental horticulturalist and Master Pruner. When not digging in the dirt, she writes. She's been published in various journals, anthologies, websites, and more. Her life is happily hectic but she's lucky to have a patient husband and sweet children. Her pets aren't bad either. To learn more, explore http://www.karenhugg.com.