Guest Post: Review of Better than Before by Vijay Rajamani

by Vijay Rajamani

Habits shape our existence and future.  Scientists claim that we repeat about 45 percent of our behavior almost daily.

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. By changing our habits, we can change our lives. But is it easy to change habits? No.

Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, addresses the question:  How do we change our habits?

There are numerous categories of books on habits. Most are interesting reads that give you great insights on habits. However, I found some limitations such as:

(a) Many books train you to intellectually appreciate the science or art of habit formation. They talk about how the brain makes neural connections, which parts of the brains are involved in habit formation process, etc. You may not connect well with these if you don’t enjoy authors who don the persona of a professor.

(b) Most don’t consider the role of your own personality in building and sustaining habits. Unfortunately, no one size fits all — especially when it comes to habits.

(c) Some try to tell you the best habits to build, which may not resonate with your own ideas of good habits.

(d) Few others get in to research findings and reel out statistics of behavioural experiments, which are insightful for academic discussions, but may not be easy to adopt in your own life.

These make you treat the science of habits as an intellectual read, rather than something easy enough to try out yourself and make remarkable changes.

However, Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before is a refreshingly different take on habit formation and change. “Better than before” is a transformational state that we all seek to achieve.

An epiphany that Gretchen had during a chance conversation with a friend is the starting point of this book. Her friend struggles with sustaining her exercise habit post-marriage.

That gets Gretchen to ponder over many interesting questions about habits, such as:  It is understandable why it’s hard to form a habit we don’t enjoy, but why is it hard to form a habit we do enjoy? Why is it that sometimes people acquire habits overnight, and sometimes they drop longtime habits just as abruptly?

Gretchen’s sister Elizabeth, nudges her to be a guinea pig herself (Gretchen) to try out various habit formation, habit change strategies, and share her insights to the world. Gretchen picks up the challenge and the result is Better than Before.

Gretchen divides the book in to 5 sections.

Section I: “Self-Knowledge,” explores the two strategies that help us to understand ourselves.

Gretchen ties habit formation to your personality type. Gretchen divides humans in to 4 personality types (or tendencies), based on how one meets (or doesn’t meet) internal and external expectations. (1) Upholder (meet both internal and external expectations) (2) Obliger (meets external but not internal expectations) (3) Questioner (meets internal but not external expectations) and (4) Rebel (meets neither external nor internal expectations). If you are interested in taking her quiz to find out your tendency, here’s the link.

This is a game-changing insight because each personality type has a different worldview and different ways of solving problems. What works for one type may not work for another. You need to understand what type you are and adopt different strategies based on your personality type.

Forinstance if you are a questioner, you won’t do anything unless you have convinced yourself that a habit is of value before you pick it up. If you try to start a habit before you have passed that test, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Similarly, if you are an obliger you need someone that you are accountable for. If you don’t find yourself accountable to anything or anyone for a habit, then you may not be successful at that. She also underlines certain other personality differences such as lark vs. owl and sprinter vs marathoner that greatly influence how we form habits.

Section II: “Pillars of Habits,” examines the strategies of Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability.

As for monitoring, Gretchen talks about her experiences with monitoring her health using fitness bots, and how it helped her use the data to get insights to change habits.

She talks about the foundational habits of sleep, eating and drinking right, and uncluttering, and how she tried to embrace them.

In scheduling, she describes her experience of trying to schedule things, and offers helpful suggestions on how you can be smart about them if you factor in your personality types (such as owls vs. larks).

Using accountability as a strategy, she argues that you can strengthen your habit-building if you make yourself accountable to someone (even yourself) for your actions. That improves your self-command.

Section III: “The Best Time to Begin” considers the importance of the time of beginning when forming a habit, as explored in the strategies of First Steps, Clean Slate, and Lightning Bolt.

Section IV: “Desire, Ease, and Excuses” considers our desires to avoid effort and experience pleasure—which play a role in the strategies of Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience, Safeguards, Loophole-Spotting, Distraction, Reward, Treats, and Pairing.

Section V: “Unique, Just like Everyone Else” investigates the strategies that arise from our drive to understand and define ourselves in the context of other people, in the strategies of Clarity, Identity, and Other People.

Gretchen writes most of the book in first person, talking about her own struggles in picking up habits and how she goes about approaching them. She also narrates how she influences her friends and family with these strategies and documents their success or failure with those strategies. These are almost in story format, so your attention is certainly hooked.

I could feel totally connected with the way she narrates her strategies and experiments. Each sentence in the book is packed with wisdom. These stem from Gretchen’s own experiences, as well as the research material that she has gone through in arriving at these conclusions (if you read through the appendix).

Gretchen has taken care not to bore you through all the statistics and to keep it interesting. She makes the point that if something works for you, it is as significant or more significant than the insights from research and data.

The way she has interspersed some of her “Secrets of Adulthood” as part of the habit-formation strategies, blends naturally and enhances the narrative. The one I particularly liked was “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

The book takes a human view of habit formation. It talks about potential traps that you may face and what you can do about them.

It doesn’t offer iron-clad guarantees on what strategies will stick and what will not. It depends on you and your tendency. This is not also a prescriptive attempt to define what habits are right for you.

Think of it as a catalogue of strategies that Gretchen picked to try certain habits, and her experiences with those.

Most of the strategies are so simple that you can adopt them very easily and quickly. It is totally up to you to decide and adopt the habits that are important to you, and the strategy you think will work best for you.

You may not particularly enjoy this book: (a) If you want a more analytical narrative that focuses more on research findings, data, graphs and ties everything back to the statements; (b) If you want the organization of the book to be bulletized list of things to do; (c) If you need a list of actions or habits all outlined clearly for you to extract the summary; (d) If you think first-person narrative of personal experiences is not conducive to a subject like this.

I found this book to be a fascinating read. The narrative is simple, concise, and well-organized. No wonder it is a NY Times bestseller.

I am actively trying out some of the strategies (like scheduling, monitoring etc.). I find that some strategies work and some don’t. I hope you find it enjoyable too.

This article is by Vijay Rajamani, a blogger based out of Bangalore, India. He is a productivity enthusiast, who writes about Productivity topics in his blog My Productivity Lab.

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