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.

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