To Change Your Life, Begin by Changing Your Habits: A review of Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Everyday Life

Several months ago, a coaching client turned me on to the work of writer Gretchen Rubin.  Rubin’s book The Happiness Project has been on my shelf for a couple of years (and I confess, it’s still on the “to read” shelf), but I wasn’t aware that Rubin and her sister, writer Elizabeth Craft, had a podcast. “You should check it out,” my client told me. “She has some great tips on making little tweaks that end up making a big difference for your life.” Sure enough, I liked the podcast, and over the past few months, I did learn some “little tweaks” that have improved my life.


I followed Rubin on Twitter and learned about her new book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Since many of my clients are working on establishing better habits in their lives, this book moved to the top of my stack. It’s full of wisdom and advice to help people who want to adapt better habits for their lives—so full of wisdom that I can barely scratch the surface here. So I’ll just highlight some of the most important things I learned from the book.


Habits are the key to understanding how people are able to change their lives. Rubin notes that “It’s simple to change habits, but it’s not easy.”  Her point was that changing habits is not a complicated process, but it’s a process that requires us to be self-knowledgeable, deliberate, mindful, and diligent. She points out that there is no single way to develop new habits or no one-size-fits-all list of good habits.  Instead we must “cultivate the habits that work” for each of us.


One of the most important things I learned from Rubin’s book is the reasons that habit is such a powerful and beneficial tool. A habit is a “behavior that is recurrent, is cued by a specific context, often happens without much awareness or conscious intent, and is acquired through frequent repetition.” Rubin’s research revealed that about 40% of the things that we do every day are done out of habit.  And habits are important because they conserve the amount of self-control required to do the things we want and need to do. If I have to convince myself to exercise every single day, then on days when I’m tired or under stress, I’m unlikely to exercise.  It will simply require too much discipline to put on my workout clothes and get moving. But if exercise is part of my daily routine—something that I do every single morning as automatically as brushing my teeth or taking a shower, then I’ll probably do it even if I am tired or under stress.  As Rubin put it, “Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.”


To change our habits, it is important to understand the personal tendencies that shape our approaches to habit formation. She identifies four tendencies that are common among people:


·         An upholder responds readily to both inner and outer expectations. Upholders want to know what’s expected of them, and then they will work to meet those expectations. Upholders are rule followers, and they struggle if the expectations for them are unclear.

·         Questioners question all expectation and decide for themselves an appropriate course of action, and they will make this decision based on whether they think that course of action is logical, reasonable, or fair.

·         Obligers respond to other people’s expectations for them, but they struggle to meet their own inner expectations. They are motivated by external accountability, so they always keep commitments to others even as they struggle to keep commitments they’ve made to themselves.

·         Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner. They place a premium on self-determination, and so they resist forming habits.


Rubin has developed a free, online quiz to help you identify your own tendency.  (I was surprised to learn that I am questioner, though I am one who leans toward being an upholder. Rubin says that most people are questioners or obligers.)


None of these four tendencies is necessarily good or bad when it comes to habit formation. Rubin says that we should know our own tendency and use it to help us frame our approach to forming habits.  To use the example I gave above—getting more exercise—an upholder might achieve that goal by putting it on a “to do” list. A questioner might research the benefits and decide that getting more exercise is worth doing. An obliger will be more likely to exercise if she gets an exercise partner to hold her accountable while a rebel will be more motivated to exercise if she frames exercise as an activity that brings her more freedom (such as freedom from physical constraints.)


Beyond understanding our personal tendencies, we need to know other things about ourselves in order to change our habits.  Are you a night owl? Then you are unlikely to keep a commitment to exercise at 6 am. Similarly, if you’re a morning person, you will probably be unsuccessful at establishing an exercise routine after work.  Do you like familiarity or novelty? The answer to that question can also shape your approach to habit formation. As Rubin put it, “We can only build good habits on the foundations of our own nature.”


Some other main takeaways from Better Than Before:

·         “Fostering good habits takes energy and that energy is in short supply.” Therefore, it makes sense to work with our own tendencies when we set out to change habits and to focus our energies on habits which will do the most good.

·         “Keeping up is easier than catching up.” In other words, if we lapse in practicing a good habit, it will be a whole lot harder to make the behavior a habit again than if we never lapsed in the first place.

·         We often find it harder to make ourselves do things we enjoy.  We do everything else first, and by the time we finish those tasks, there is little energy left for things we want to do. She points out that working can be a form of procrastination.  This one particularly resonated with me. I often want to mark tasks off my list, so I put off the things I want to do—and put them off and put them off. Rubin found that one key to making sure that she made time for things she wants to do is to schedule a specific quitting time every day and reserving all the hours after quitting time for family or leisure. I’m trying that tip. I’ll let you know how I do.


I’ve only covered a fraction of the great advice in this book, but I highly recommend it.  I’ll be referring to it again and again both to help my clients make change and to help me form good habits (and break bad ones.) 


What habits do you want to change and what gets in your way?