Nova Book Review: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

I was enraptured by Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project. It just hit all of my buttons. A book about a year long experiment in making yourself happy? A controlled social experiment with real life examples and personalized tools to make my own life joyful? I’m in.

Rubin’s book helped me organize my life in a way that was fulfilling both personally and professionally. I gathered my toolbox, decided to start making time for daily workouts, resolved to say a mantra instead of yelling at my toddler, and designated a spot to put down my phone after work.

Alas, life gets in the way. My time for workouts is pushed aside for 30 minutes more sleep, my mantra is pushed aside when the toddler pours my coffee on the carpet and I find I’m still checking my email after dinner.  

So, when I saw that Gretchen Rubin had a book about developing habits, I raced out (well, to Amazon) to buy Better Than Before with high hopes that she could help me continue the good habits she’d convinced me to start in the first place.

When we form a new habit, we are setting an expectation for ourselves, so to change these habits, it’s important to see how you personally respond to these expectations. In Gretchen’s new book, she creates a framework for our individual tendencies as an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel. (You can take her quiz here to identify your tendency.) Based on your result, you can determine the best way to set your personal expectations.

Though I felt a little forced into the category by the phrasing of the questions, I generally agree with my results as an Obliger. That means that I am motivated by external accountability, but resist inner expectations. When I think about habits I’ve acquired before, that makes sense: weight loss with a wedding deadline, eating healthfully while pregnant – all accomplished because of external responsibilities. When left to my own devices, important things definitely get left behind.  

Gretchen gives specific tips based on your tendency to help develop a strategy for habit formation. For an Obliger, that means “the strategy of accountability.”  Practically, this means that for workouts, I need to team up with a friend who will notice if I miss; for my toddler, to remind myself that I need to remain calm for his benefit instead of only for my own; and for my phone, make it a family rule to leave work at work and use my husband to hold me accountable.

Reading Better Than Before may not be as much fun as reading The Happiness Project, but I do think it gave me valuable insight into my personal behavior and how to use my own strengths to better myself.  

Priscilla Carruthers