Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin: Notes13 min read

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 Better Than Before breaks down the latest research on how to break bad habits and develop good ones, in order to help you find your habit tendency and give you a few simple tools to start improving your own habits.

It’s that time of the year again. Do you know how many people stick to their New Year’s Resolutions? 8%. A depressing figure, considering half of all Americans make them every year. But sticking to new habits is hard, just like breaking bad ones. Plus, everyone is different. What works for John doesn’t necessarily work for Gina.

Better Than Before takes this into account with the habit tendency framework. It is author Gretchen Rubin‘s, third book after Happier At Home and The Happiness Project. For Better Than Before, she also developed a quiz to help you find your own habit tendency. The framework ended up being so popular, she wrote another book about it: The Four Tendencies.

There are 4 distinctive types, based on how people respond to inner and outer expectations:

  • Upholders, who respond well to both.
  • Questioners, who respond well to inner expectations, but notto outer ones.
  • Obligers, who respond well to outer expectations, but not toinner ones.
  • Rebels, who resist all expectations.

Upholders win the habit lottery, as new habits come easy to them, as long as there’s a strict set of rules they can follow. Take away the structure though, and they start to struggle.

For example it might be easy for them to cook healthy food, if they plan their meals in advance, but when deciding in the moment they get lost and choose a frozen pizza.

Questioners naturally doubt the effect good or bad habits have, which is why they’re data-driven. If they want to eat better, they should take a close look at all the ingredients of their food, research why every single one is good or bad, and look at studies who proved the effects.

Obligers will find themselves often trying to please people, because they put other expectations above their own. Getting an accountability buddy (or coach) who cooks with them or asks them what they ate every day will help them eat better.

Rebels desire authenticity and the freedom to choose. If you’re a rebel you’d be best off ditching your calendar altogether, and instead telling yourself: I cook a healthy meal for myself today, because I want to.

After explaining this framework, Gretchen starts to give you simple tools to create better habits. Most of them try to minimize the need for willpower, to get your habits on autopilot as quickly as possible.

If you want to exercise regularly, for example, put every workout on your calendar. Eliminate the need to decide whether you feel good enough after work, and just go if it’s on there.

Your calendar also serves as a habit tracker. For example it’s much easier to eat healthier when you know what you’re starting with, so keep a food journal for a week, weigh yourself every day, or download an app like

Gretchen learned from fellow habits researcher Wendy Wood that a major change can help us create new habits. Wood did a study where 36% of all participants, who were successful in improving their diet, had recently moved. Big changes like marriage, moving, divorce, or children moving out can be a great opportunity to pick up new habits, and say goodbye to old ones.

Similarly to tracking your habits and using a calendar, making good habits easy to do and bad ones hard, will help you.

For example you could just leave your running shoes in the middle of the hallway. When you almost fall over them, you’re more likely to put them on and get out the door.

Another way to make things easier is to make them more fun. 66% more people took the stairs, when Swedish researchers turned them into a piano, making music as you walked up.

Conversely, less people buy ice cream (about half as many) when the lid of the cafeteria ice cream cooler is closed, as opposed to when it’s already open, and the ice cream is easier to grab.

“Out of sight, out of mind.”, was already true for Odysseus, when he tied himself to his ship, in order to avoid the sirens’ deadly temptation. You too should remove temptations, wherever possible.

For example I sometimes hide my phone under a couch pillow when I write. When I do so, I tend to forget about it and only pick it up when I really want to use it. When I leave it right next to me, I pick it up every couple minutes, just to check if there’s something new.

Another good way to make sure you stick to your good habits is to bundle them. This can work in two ways.

One is called habit stacking and simply means you make a commitment to always do certain habits together. For example you can say: “After I close my laptop in the evening, I will floss my teeth.” A morning routine works this way too. For example the Miracle Morning includes 6 habits: silence, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading and writing.

A different approach is called temptation bundling, and it pairs your joys with your struggles. Kathy Milkman, who coined the term, struggled with going to the gym, but loved listening to audiobooks.

By creating a rule to only listen to audiobooks in the gym, she bundled the temptation with a good habit, ending up exercising 5 times a week, just to finish The Hunger Games.

Finally, don’t forget to give yourself a treat for your good behavior every now and then, but make sure it’s spontaneous, and not a planned reward, as you’ll end up jumping through hoops just for the reward and not the good habit itself.

So start establishing some rules, making some commitments, and designing your environment to make positive change as easy as possible!

My personal take-aways

I love this book! When teamed up with Gretchen Rubin early in 2015 when she published the book, us coaches all got a copy of it and a lot of us went through her quiz to find our habit tendency. I’m an upholder and I’ve taken a lot of my clients through the quiz since. All of them found it helpful to know their tendency and had a-ha moments when finding out about it.

She even inspired me to create my own quiz to help people find out how they best break bad habits.

I’ve been jumping around in the book but want to finish it entirely soon. This summary on Blinkist did a great job of highlighting the most important points. Whichever you choose to read first, I hope it will help you become Better Than Before.

Who would I recommend the Better Than Before summary to?

The 18 year old who’s just about to start college at a new location, the 48 year old secretary who feels like she’s just pleasing her boss, and anyone who doesn’t know their habit tendency yet.

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

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Better Than Before Summary

The Book in Three Sentences

A behaviour becomes a habit when it no longer requires a decision from you.

To change a habit effectively, you need to understand your ’tendency’.

Scheduling is one of the most effective ways to building better habits.

The Five Big Ideas

  • “Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life”.
  • “It takes self-control to establish good habits”.
  • “A habit requires no decision from me, because I’ve already decided”.
  • “When we change our habits, we change our lives”.
  • “If we’re trying to persuade people to adopt a habit, we have more success if weconsider their Tendency”.

Better Than Before Summary

“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life”.

“The most important thing is to know ourselves, and to choose the strategies that work for us”.

“[We] often learn more from one person’s idiosyncratic experiences than [we] do from scientific studies or philosophical treatises”.

“To understand how people are able to change, [we] must understand habits”.

“I’ve learned to put great store in my own observations of everyday life, because while laboratory experiments are one way to study human nature, they aren’t the only way”.

“Habits eliminate the need for self-control”.

“Yet one study suggests that when we try to use self-control to resist temptation, we succeed only about half the time, and indeed, in a large international survey, when people were asked to identify their failings, a top choice was lack of self-control”.

“With habits, we conserve our self-control”.

“It takes self-control to establish good habits”.

“In ordinary terms, a “habit” is generally defined as a behavior that’s recurrent, is cued by a specific context, often happens without much awareness or conscious intent, and is acquired through frequent repetition”.

“I concluded that the real key to habits is decision making—or, more accurately, the lack of decision making”.

“A habit requires no decision from me, because I’ve already decided”.

“This freedom from decision making is crucial, because when I have to decide—which often involves resisting temptation or postponing gratification—I tax my self-control”.

“Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control”.

“Research suggests that people feel more in control and less anxious when engaged in habit behavior”.

“Surprisingly, stress doesn’t necessarily make us likely to indulge in bad habits; when we’re anxious or tired, we fall back on our habits, whether bad or good”.

“For this reason, it’s all the more important to try to shape habits mindfully, so that when we fall back on them at times of stress, we’re following activities that make our situation better, not worse”.

“Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own existence”.

“Generally, I’ve observed, we seek changes that fall into the ‘Essential Seven’”.

The Essential Seven:

Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)

Exercise regularly

Save, spend, and earn wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, stick to a budget)

Rest, relax, and enjoy (stop watching TV in bed, turn off a cell phone, spend time in nature, cultivate silence, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car)

Accomplish more, stop procrastinating (practice an instrument, work without interruption, learn a language, maintain a blog)

Simplify, clear, clean, and organize (make the bed, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle)

Engage more deeply in relationships—with other people, with God, with the world (call friends, volunteer, have more sex, spend more time with family, attend religious services)

“A ‘routine’ is a string of habits, and a ‘ritual’ is a habit charged with transcendent meaning”.

“Habit is a good servant but a bad master”.

“Ask yourself, ‘To what end do I pursue this habit?’”

“When we change our habits, we change our lives”.

“We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then—and this is the best part—we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over”.

“The first and most important habits question is: ‘How does a person respond to an expectation?’”

“When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand how we respond to expectations”.

“We face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations (meet work deadlines, observe traffic regulations) and inner expectations (stop napping, keep a New Year’s resolution)”.

The Four Tendencies:

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 (my friend on the track team).

Rebels. Resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

“Our Tendency colors the way we see the world and therefore has enormous consequences for our habits”.

“Upholders respond readily to outer expectations and inner expectations”.

“Because Upholders feel a real obligation to meet their expectations for themselves, they have a strong instinct for self-preservation, and this helps protect them from their tendency to meet others’ expectations”.

“Questioners question all expectations, and they respond to an expectation only if they conclude that it makes sense”.

“Because Questioners like to make well-considered decisions and come to their own conclusions, they’re very intellectually engaged, and they’re often willing to do exhaustive research”.

“Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations”.

“Obligers may find it difficult to form a habit, because often we undertake habits for our own benefit, and Obligers do things more easily for others than for themselves”.

“Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike”.

“Rebels sometimes frustrate even themselves, because they can’t tell themselves what to do”.

“Knowing our Tendency can help us frame habits in a compelling way”.

“If we’re trying to persuade people to adopt a habit, we have more success if we consider their Tendency”.

“Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control”.

“A key step for the Strategy of Monitoring is to identify precisely what action is monitored”.

“Unsurprisingly, we tend to underestimate how much we eat and overestimate how much we exercise”.

“Surprisingly often, when people want to improve their habits, they begin with a habit that won’t deliver much payoff in return for the habit-formation energy required”.

“It’s helpful to begin with habits that most directly strengthen self-control; these habits serve as the Foundation for forming other good habits”.

“Habits grow strongest and fastest when they’re repeated in predictable ways, and for most of us, putting an activity on the schedule tends to lock us into doing it”.

“Scheduling also forces us to confront the natural limits of the day”.

“Scheduling one activity makes that time unavailable for anything else. Which is good—especially for people who have trouble saying no”.

“To apply the Strategy of Scheduling, we must decide when, and how often, a habit should occur”.

“Consistency, repetition, no decision—this was the way to develop the ease of a true habit”.

“Scheduling can also be used to restrict the time spent on an activity”.

“Although scheduling time to worry sounds odd, it’s a proven strategy for reducing anxiety”.

“The Strategy of Scheduling is a powerful weapon against procrastination”.

“Scheduling is an invaluable tool for habit formation: it helps to eliminate decision making; it helps us make the most of our limited self-command; it helps us fight procrastination”.

“Most important, perhaps, the Strategy of Scheduling helps us make time for the things that are most important to us”.

“Accountability means that we face consequences for what we’re doing—even if that consequence is merely the fact that someone else is monitoring us”.

“To a truly remarkable extent, we’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not”.

“It’s not easy, as an adult, to make a new friend. It can feel very awkward to say, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee sometime?” The convenience of group membership makes it easier to become friends”.

“Two kinds of clarity support habit formation: clarity of values and clarity of action”.

“It’s easier to stick to a habit when we see, with clarity, the connection between the habit and the value it serves”.

“The fact is, changing a habit is much more challenging if that new habit means altering or losing an aspect of ourselves”.

“Research shows that we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say, and the way we describe ourselves influences our view of our identity, and from there, our habits”.

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