Tag Archives: Gretchen Rubin

Book review Tuesday: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

The more I read by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the more I begin to suspect that she and I would really get along. As far as I can tell, we have extremely similar personalities and preferences. Also, we’re both former lawyers who became writers. In fact, when I was first considering jumping ship from my law firm and starting a writing career, I sent Rubin an email asking for her advice, and she very kindly responded with a warm, encouraging note. So, I like Gretchen Rubin, even though I don’t know her personally — and I always enjoy her writing, including her newest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Rubin’s latest book focuses on habits, asking how we form successful habits, what makes us stick with them, which habits are worth pursuing, and so on. I find the question of habits quite interesting because I am someone who’s fairly consistent with certain habits (for example: getting daily exercise) but struggle to form other, lasting habits (e.g., keeping a budget). So I read this book with interest and really enjoyed it.

Rubin has a real gift for coming up with useful personality taxonomies, and this book introduces what Rubin refers to as “The Four Tendencies.” In order to make and stick with a habit, she says, one must identify which of four personality tendencies one has. The four tendencies, described on Rubin’s website, are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. As Rubin puts it:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations 
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense 
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

This was an easy one for me: I’m an Upholder, through and through (just like Rubin). Also, like Rubin, I was surprised to learn that Upholders are in the minority. Apparently, responding pretty much equally to both inner and outer expectations (that is, getting up for a run because you told yourself you’d do it AND/OR getting up for a run because you told a friend you’d meet them in the park) is not a common personality attribute. Alastair is most definitely a Questioner. He only does something if there’s a sound justification for it; he hates arbitrary rules. He and I have had the same argument about why our bed needs to be made countless times. Al thinks making the bed is pointless, since you’re just going to get into it and mess up the sheets again at bedtime. I think making the bed makes the room feel neater and consequently makes my life feel less chaotic. Also, I’d hasten to add, adults just make their damn beds. Anyway. Knowing one’s Tendency is the first step, Rubin says, to understanding how to form effective habits. You need to know yourself and what kind of expectations to which you respond best in order to set a plan for yourself that will work.

Once you’ve identified your Tendency, you can tackle what Rubin refers to as the four “pillars of habits:” monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability. As an Upholder, I think I can actually take some of these pillars of habits too far. For example, I can go a bit overboard with monitoring. Just this week I stopped using my phone to obsessively track Lucia’s sleeping, eating, and diaper output, because, I finally realized, it was making me crazy. I’m the type of person who loves data. Staring at numbers gives me the illusion of control. I figure if I can study the record of Lucia’s sleep patterns for the last three months of her life, I can crack the code to baby sleep and win at parenting forever. It took me this long to realize that babies don’t work like that, and I was driving myself nuts tracking every second of napping, every poopy diaper, every drop of milk consumed. But I do understand that monitoring, when exercised responsibly, is useful for habit formation; for example, I try to keep track of what I eat and the amount of exercise I get on another app on my phone, and it helps keep me accountable to my commitment to eat healthfully (most of the time).

Having established the pillars of habit formation, Rubin then dives into the nitty gritty of establishing and maintaining habits. One comes away from this book feeling that one can now take on the world, new habits firmly in place (or, at least, the manageable beginnings of new habits in place). As always, Rubin’s take is practical, relatable, and full of interesting anecdotes. I came away from this book feeling motivated to tackle some of the habits I want to introduce into my own life. Recommended!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Abstaining vs. moderating

I really enjoy Gretchen Rubin’s blog (and book) The Happiness Project. For one thing, I find Rubin quite inspiring; she’s another former lawyer who abandoned the law to become a writer, and she turned a personal betterment project into an incredibly successful (and lucrative) happiness empire. She also sent me a very kind and encouraging email when I wrote to her telling her that I, too, wanted to leave the law to seek a career in writing, which was so nice.

I think much of what Rubin says about happiness jives with me because she comes at happiness from a bit of a Type A, planner’s perspective, which resonates strongly with me, an ESFJ personality type who loves control and order, and also because one of her fundamental tenets is to know thyself, which suggests that everyone’s formula for individual happiness is going to be a bit different. The idea is that if you know your own preferences, weaknesses, and ways of being, you can better make choices for yourself that will boost your happiness. In other words, one happiness size does not fit all. I love that. It’s so empowering, this idea that we can tailor our choices to maximize our own happiness, isn’t it?

My happy place

My happy place

To help people to get to know themselves better, Rubin offers a number of quizzes that are designed to help identify certain fundamental personality traits that may have a large bearing on happiness. One of these quizzes is: are you an abstainer or a moderator?

The first time I took this quiz, I thought, “I am a classic abstainer. I do really well when I make temptations off-limits to myself, and I thrive on bright lines and rules.” But after the last few months of experimenting with abstention from alcohol and other foods, I’m starting to question whether the abstainer-moderator divide is really so black and white. As I was doing my month-long detox from alcohol, for instance, I felt empowered by its starkness. Completely cutting out booze was not that hard for me, but I felt sure that it would have been difficult to only allow myself one drink at each social occasion, for example. While I still think that may be true on the margins, now that I’m off the detox, I’ve found moderation with alcohol to be far easier than it’s ever been in the past. I’ve lowered my tolerance significantly, so now it’s easy for me on a night out to have one or two drinks and then stop, rather than three or four. So I’d say that alcohol is now firmly something that I’m able to consume in moderation.

However, there are some things that I absolutely cannot do in moderation. Frosting, for example. Non-organic peanut butter. Honey-mustard pretzels. Raisins. (I once had a run-in with a Sam’s Club industrial sized bag of raisins at a friend’s house during a high school study group session. Oh, the stomach cramps.) The list goes on (unfortunately). With other foods, though — chocolate, cookies, candy — it’s easy for me to have just a little and then stop. This strikes me as odd, because it seems that the part of my brain that allows me to have one bite of chocolate should be the same part of my brain that regulates peanut butter consumption, and yet, put me in a room with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon, and all hell will break loose. Why can’t my brain work the same way across foods? Dammit, brain! There’s undoubtedly some deep, dark psychological reason for this inconsistency, but it honestly might just come down to the fact that peanut butter is so gall-derned delicious.

In any case, thinking about abstention vs. moderation is a useful exercise, not only when trying to lose weight, but when thinking longer-term about happiness. I know that in the longer term, I am much happier when I cook healthy meals at home, even though going out to a restaurant for a decadent meal may provide a very short-term happiness boost. Learning to balance the enjoyment I get from going out to eat with the satisfaction I feel from eating wholesomely at home is one of the things I’ve gotten better at over the past several months, and that’s a good thing. I consider it a sign of progress that I am able to float between abstention and moderation, choosing one strategy or the other depending on the situation. But there are still slip-ups. To err is human, right? Anyway, I guess this is all part of growing up. One of these days, I’ll figure it out (hopefully before I die of a peanut butter overdose).

So what are you, an abstainer, a moderator, or something in between? And am I the only one who loses my sh*t around those Snyder’s honey-mustard pretzel bite things? (Thanks Gretchen Rubin for the food for thought!)