Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Report - Better than Before

Finally!  It only took a month but I'm finally ready to blog about one of the best non-fiction books I've read in a long time - Better than Before:  What I learned about making and breaking habits - to sleep more, quit sugar, procrastinate less, and generally build a happier life.  (Yes, that is a hell of a subtitle)

Perfection may be an impossible goal, but habits help us to do better.  Making headway toward a good habit, doing better than before, saves us from facing the end of another year with the mournful wish, once again, that we'd done things differently.
Habit is notorious - and rightly so - for its ability to control our actions, even against our will.  By mindfully choosing our habits, we harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth."
-Better than Before, paperback page 12-

I've been a fan of Gretchen Rubin's books since 2011, when I read her first book on the subject of happiness, habits, and resolutions, The Happiness Project. It so inspired me that I followed in her prescribed footsteps to do my own happiness project, and I even followed it for quite a long time.

Rubin goes deeper in her latest book to talk about the minute architecture of our daily lives - our habits.  How we form them, how we keep or break them, why we may want to make or break particular habits, how we can strengthen them, and the almost innumerable ways in which we try to get out of doing what's in our own best interest.

As illustrated in the quote above, she highlights how when something is truly habit, we do it without thinking.  It's so deeply ingrained that, theoretically, we are able to exert little to no self control when acting on it.  As a yoga teacher, constantly inundated with the idea of "mindfulness" in day to day conversations, it was amazing and fascinating to discover all of the upsides of "mindlessness!"

Rubin begins by stating that in order to truly have clarity and take control over our life's habits, we first have to identify what our tendency is.  She divides people into four basic categories - Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels, based on their likelihood to respond to particular expectations of life.  Outer expectations would be defined as - meeting work or school deadlines, keeping particular appointments, etc., and inner expectations could be to keep a New Year's Resolution, stop snacking after dinner, quit snoozing, etc.

As she defines the basic tendencies -  (paperback page 16)
Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations
Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it's justified
Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations
Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Obviously there's room for fluidity and variables within those definitions, which is why she calls them tendencies.  For instance, based on her more fleshed out descriptions in the book, I am 100% an Upholder...but that doesn't mean I always respond and meet outer/inner expectations perfectly.  (Her chapter on "Loophole spotting" hit close to home with every single sentence - my brain is excellent at figuring out ways to justify breaking healthy habits I want to keep for myself.)

But I do tend to do what I say I will, whether it's expected of me from a friend or my boss or just something I want to do for myself.  Maybe it's related to my deep-seated fear of being in trouble or rule breaking - but that's a deeper exploration for another time.

She also breaks down the "Essential Seven," or seven habits that reoccur most frequently when people sit and make a resolution, or decide to give something up for Lent, or are in some way inspired to improve their lives.  They boil down to:

1. Eat/drink better
2. Exercise
3. Save, spend, earn more money
4. Rest, relax, unplug
5. Stop procrastinating, accomplish more
6. Simplify, clean, and organize living/work space
7. Engage more deeply in relationships (personal and/or with God)
(paraphrased from Better than Before, paperback page 9)

Rubin says you first must know yourself in order to figure out which strategies will help yourself make or break the habits you desire - only then can you make real headway toward improving the above seven areas.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to life, because if there were, the self-help section at bookstores and libraries wouldn't be the behemoths they are.

Better than Before is broken down into a lot of fairly small, easily digestible, chapters that delve into various strategies and tactics.  Though the chapters are small and easy to read quickly, they are dense - chock full of anecdotal examples and solid research.  There's a reason I felt the need to read this book twice before writing about it, and why I read The Happiness Project and its "sequel," Happier at Home over again almost immediately after finishing them for the first time.  Rubin is a disciplined writer who knows how to make every chapter, page, paragraph, and sentence count.    It's somewhat overwhelming the amount of information she packs into such a small, compulsively readable book.  (Compulsively readable if you're a huge nerd about habits, at least...)

This book is truly for everyone.  Who doesn't have habits they want to cultivate or break?  Who doesn't have areas in their life that are challenging, and are overwhelmed at figuring out where and how to start improving them?  Do you tend to set big lofty goals that are unachievable, and then discouraged when you don't achieve them?  Do you tend to procrastinate everything on your plate until you suffer the inevitable consequences?  Do you tend to put way too much on your plate for other people, and then suffer burnout because you haven't tended to your own needs and desires?

Better than Before offers strategies and solutions for every type of person.  You may find the entire book revelatory, as I did, or you may only find that some of it resonates with you.  (Not surprisingly, the fastidious Rubin is also an Upholder, so even though I don't identify with her on a lot in terms of our preferences and lives, there is a lot in her journey to which I can relate)  This book, despite its subtitle, doesn't dictate any specific habits she believes people should adopt, or tell you that just because the author is happier waking up at 6am and not eating sugar that you should too.  It's up to each individual to decide what they need to be happier - Gretchen Rubin is just doing the work of laying out roadmaps to help us get there.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Happy Tuesday!  I wanted to write a quick entry today touching on my completion of my second Whole30 (hooray!), my subsequent control issues, and a concept introduced by who other than Gretchen Rubin, my habits-and-virtue muse.  This could get a little neurotic and ramble-y, so...enjoy.

As of February 1st, I finished my second Whole30 and it was overall a smashing success.  By including eggs this time around I didn't spend quite as much money as last time (where I'd need meat of some kind with every meal), and by teaching myself to make a fabulous roast chicken I saved money and opened the door for all kinds of other yummy treats, like homemade bone broth.

The downside - not having Marc around, being home alone on cold winter nights - it was much, much harder to fight my emotional cravings for chocolate and alcohol.  Especially the weekend of the blizzard!  I tend to eat when I'm bored, and while I relish having alone time, it was just easier to distract myself and keep myself disciplined and motivated when Marc is home - even if he is eating cheese and crackers.  I probably over-did it a little bit on figs and almond butter (my favorite Whole30 "treat") and next time I might ban that from my list of Whole30 approved foods, but overall it went well.

The following week I was very careful about what I re-introduced and when - basically just natural sugars, wine, and dairy - and kept to a mainly Whole30 style of eating.

And then - the weekend.  Drinking with family.  A lack of real food available at the hotel with Marc's parents lead to a reunion with my old and dear friends, Cheetos and M&M's (Cheetos!!!  Nostalgia in a bag).  And then - the SuperBowl!  I bought Whole30-compliant treats only to succumb to the inevitable tortilla chip love-fest that is SuperBowl Sunday.  Between the copious amounts of drinking, the food, and my allergies to the lovely animals owned by our friends who are hosting Marcus, I felt a bit of a wreck waking up yesterday.  And of course, I couldn't quite tell what cause was causing what effect because it all came on like a glorious, delicious tidal wave of sugar and things I'm allergic to.

My usual mental and emotional route would be to wallow in regret and recrimination and frame it as thirty plus days of discipline completely down the drain, but that's just melodramatic and silly.  All I can do is learn from it, notice how I felt and if it was worth it, and move on.

It got me thinking of the concept of a mental or internal Manager as brought up by Gretchen Rubin in her latest book Better than Before.  In my own brain, I'd titled this concept as my "higher self," but it's basically the same thing.  We all have a little voice in our head that's the Responsible One, that knows what's best for us, even when (and especially when) it's not necessarily the most fun or delicious or enjoyable thing.  The Manager knows it would be more responsible to dip the veggies in guac instead of half a bag of the Tostitos.  The Manager knows two glasses of wine will lead to a better night's sleep than four.  The Manager has a responsible plan, and it's up to us whether we as the actual real human will act on the advice of management or on...whatever else.  Call it impulse, call it self destruction in some cases, or just call it lightening the hell up and enjoying yourself.

The Whole30 is not a way of life 365 days a year, and it doesn't purport itself to be.  It's a way to get information on your physical, mental, and emotional relationship with food, and that bleeds over past food into other areas of life as well.  But it does become a habit after 30 days, and it's a precarious thing to suddenly change your habit and move into uncharted territory - what they call "nutritional off-roading."  The hope is that you take the mindfulness that you've cultivated and use it to make purposeful, thoughtful, deliberate choices about what you consume.  That your Manager Self has been strengthened through the past 30 days of killing your sugar addiction and eating healthy, nourishing meals.

This is the type of thing that I over-think about a lot.  I think part of why I can go to such an over-indulgent extreme in SuperBowl party-type situations is because I can be such a tightass in others.  The opposite of a profound truth is usually also true, and we all have contradictions within our personalities.

If we all lived our lives by letting our managers call the shots 100% of the time, we'd all probably be a lot more responsible, healthier, and better-rested.  But dear God, we'd be so bored and boring.

Food is really just a microcosm of so many other choices and challenges in life, and in how we deal with the things that are in control (and so little in life is truly in our control).  Finding that role of the Manager in each of us and deciding how much and how little power to give it is a constant struggle but one that I think is crucial to each person wanting to live better.

Does this resonate with anyone?  Whenever I write about or think about this topic, I always think I'm maybe slightly more insane than the average bear on this.  Maybe I just need to have a drink and relax.

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