Book Review: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin Better Than Before. Am I right or am I right/

Here’s a confession: I have discovered my soft spot for self-improvement books. I don’t say “self-help,” because that genre has long been maligned (and justly so, for titles like these), and now it just sounds stupid.

But “self-improvement” books—books based on research, on science, on facts—those I can get behind. So, when Birchbox Book Club sent me a free copy of Better Than Before, I set about reading it.

Better Than Before is an obnoxiously profound read.
I wanted to like it. And I did.

Step 1: Recognize you are just completely, totally flawed.

Rubin writes in a casual, conversational style, which is great when you’re subconsciously comparing yourself to her and losing.

I held off judgment until page 20 or so, when Rubin describes the “Four Tendencies” of people. There are Upholders, who meet both internal and external expectations, but may get exhausted and fail to find time to recharge. There are Obligers, who have no trouble meeting external expectations, but won’t meet a goal if no one’s relying on them for success. There are Questioners, who will only meet an expectation if it seems worthwhile, valid, and reasonable to them. And then there are Rebels, who don’t give a fuck about “expectations”.

I’m not one to dichotomize myself, but it was pretty gratifying to immediately identify with the Obliger tendency. Most people see me as an Upholder, but they have no idea how many of my own projects and commitments are languishing at the back of my mind, slowly starving to death. I know I should do [Certain Thing], but unless someone is counting on me to do it, there’s a good chance I won’t.

For example, my exercise schedule tends to go something like this.

Friend: “Hey, want to run around the park on Wednesday?”

Me: “Yeah, let’s do it!”

Friend: “I can’t go today ūüôĀ “

Me: *sits at home binge-eating pita chips and re-watching Battlestar Galactica*

The book offers more tendencies and how to identify your own—from things like when you wake up and go to sleep (Owls vs. Larks), to whether you’re able to control your food cravings (Moderators) or you’re better off avoiding temptation completely (Abstainers).

Each idea is framed by Rubin’s own experiences forming new habits, breaking old ones, and inflicting her Type A personality on friends and family members.

Step 2: Be okay with that.

The point is not simply to classify yourself, though.¬†The point is to get a close-up view of the type of person you are–so you can approach forming better daily habits in a way that works for you and will be more likely to stick.

Rubin peppers the book with research citations and other examples that, while less scientific, are at least inspiring. This is another book that makes you think, “Well, why not?” or “What if…?”

She then offers several “pillars” for building stronger habits. These strategies are often rooted in common sense, and more often than not, the need to be honest with yourself replaces the need for iron willpower.

Step 3: Are you enlightened yet?

It’s funny, because I’m not sure if Rubin and I would be friends in real life. She says she doesn’t like music and prefers plain food, and other things that sound, well, pretty boring. But she¬†knows these things about herself, and she is fine with them.¬†She has enough self-knowledge to empower habits that matter to her (like enforced daily “Quitting Time”), and ditch the ones that don’t (like meditation). Seriously, though? Everyone can benefit from meditation.

Her main commandment is “Be Gretchen”. That earned her my grudging admiration (you’re welcome, Gretchen. Surely you were sitting at home, waiting for that).

In some way, it’s almost like permission to “Be Lianna”. It’s a heady feeling for someone already deep in the process of trying to be her best self (still talking about me here). This book is Mindfulness Lite, for people who want to gain more self-knowledge—which makes it especially funny to me that Rubin didn’t see any benefit to meditation.

But far be it from me to call the kettle black. I can’t promise that I’ll stick with my newly re-energized dedication to 10 minutes of daily meditation, or with the ¬†bright yellow blocks of time on my calendar dedicated to twice-weekly yoga. Or that I’ll stop eating sugar. (Hell, I ate half a bag of Hershey kisses while I finished this post.)

But the one ¬†lesson of Better Than Before¬†that stuck in my mind¬†(and was promptly supplemented by this TED Talk) is that once you’ve decided to do something, you’ve decided. You need waste no more time on agony.

I hadn’t thought of my life like that before. It seems like a game-changer. We’ll see what happens.

 

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