13 things I learned from Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before

Want to change your life for the better but keep getting stuck? Discover 13 self-improvement secrets one reader learned from the book Better than Before.

Like many of us, head of PR and blogger Anna Hardman has long been in pursuit of a ‘better life’, looking for ways she can make herself, happier, healthier and get closer to her life goals.

But making lasting positive change isn’t always easy. Which is why Anna was delighted to stumble upon the book Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin. Here’s what she learned from it.

I’m obsessed with habits

I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin for years. Her work on building a happier life is brilliant and I love how practical she makes her advice. Her blog is full of tools and tips on living a happier life, and now, since and her latest book release, practical strategies on how to foster good habits too.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with habits lately. I’ve always loved New Year’s resolutions (or in my case usually monthly resolutions!) and what are New Year’s resolutions if not a chance to refresh your habits? Better than Before is basically a book on New Year’s resolutions you can try all year round – what’s not to like?!

I think I’m also super interested in habits at the moment because I’m trying to change some of mine. I’m changing what I eat, I’m trying to lead a more balanced life, trying to read more and do more writing.

13 things I learned from Better than Before

I listened to Gretchen talk about habits on the audio version of her book (I’m having a new love affair with audiobooks because I can get through so many more on my walk to work) and loved some of the advice.

A lot of it is beautifully uncomplicated, but if habit formation was simple there’d be no need for self help books, slimming clubs, apps that limit your internet usage, your spending etc etc etc.

Here are 13 things I learned from Better than Before.

1) Habits aren’t always about self-control

They often are at the beginning but once you’ve made a habit second nature, it stops being a decision you consciously have to make every day, it becomes a mindless, decision-free part of your day instead.

Toothbrushing is so second nature to most adults there’s no self-control involved. We sometimes don’t need to use self-control past a certain point – we make one decision mindfully and then eventually mindlessly, but why are some harder to adopt than others? The million dollar question…

2) Knowing yourself helps you develop the best strategy for making habits stick

Gretchen is a big fan of tools, models and frameworks and in this case, her four character profiles are really helpful in understanding what you might need to form a successful habit. According to Gretchen the four are:

  • Upholders – respond readily to outer and inner expectations.
  • Questioners – question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense.
  • Rebels – resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.
  • Obligers – meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

I’m pretty much 100% Obliger with a splash of Questioner occasionally. Apparently Obligers are the character type who’d most rather be something else, Obligers struggle with being Obligers – GREAT!

But what it taught me was that external accountability is helpful for me when it comes to sticking to something. If I make a silent pact with myself I’m less likely to stick to it vs. telling others. Obligers are also really susceptible to burnout and rebellion. Sounds familiar. You can find out what you are here.

3) Habits can free your mind to focus on more important stuff

We now know that when they work, true habits can relieve you of decision making and let you think about bigger, better stuff.

If you can master your temptation to eat badly, you can stop having a debate with yourself about whether to eat the donut or not, and focus on the meeting you’re in (anyone else do that?!), the work you have to get done, the friends you should meet. They can free our minds and relieve us from having to constantly weigh up choices.

4) Habits are more than the sum of their parts – the big ones form our destiny

Goethe once wrote: “Whatever liberates our spirit without giving us mastery over ourselves is destructive.” (And vice versa).

If we master the big stuff – food, exercise, stress, money we have a much better chance of thriving and being happy. Sounds obvious but it made a lot of sense to me.

Obesity in lots of cases (not all, for sure) can be about good habits. If they’re not in place your destiny and life path are 100% affected. The habits we make efforts to adopt  affect our destiny and our happiness.

5) We humans are mainly striving to master the same seven habits

Gretchen calls them the ‘essential seven’ and I’ve no doubt they’ll ring true for you. I’d say I’m constantly working on at least five of these at any one time:

  1. Eat and drink more healthfully.
  2. Exercise regularly.
  3. Save and spend wisely.
  4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (pursue a hobby instead of cruising the internet, enjoy the moment, stop checking email,get enough sleep etc).
  5. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog etc).
  6. Simplify clear, and organise (make the bed every day, recycle, give away unused clothing etc).
  7. Engage more deeply—with other people, with yourself, with the world (call family members, volunteer, spend time with friends, spend time alone in nature etc).

6) Remembering the WHY stops us spreading ourselves thinly

We can often feel frantically busy but not on the right things, this is where habits can help, especially if they’re based on values and not what we think we should do.

For example if you decide to exercise your values should be your motivation – not just ‘I want to lose weight’ but ‘I want to lose weight because it will give me confidence, I’ll like myself more and I’ll have healthier, happier relationships – those are the things I value’.

Knowing WHY you’re doing something helps you prioritise and stop doing everything you ought to do and just the things you WANT to do.

7) Behold the elusive power of the Lightning Bolt

There are tonnes of strategies you can deploy to help with habits (Gretchen goes through a LOT based on each character type) but sometimes inspiration to start and keep a habit comes from one, rare, random thing – the lightning bolt.

The Lightening Bolt is something that makes you change your habit overnight, in a split moment. It transforms you: “We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a longstanding habit… The Lightning Bolt is a highly effective strategy, but unfortunately, it’s rare, and practically impossible to invoke on command.”

It could be a book you read, a person you meet or something you hear that pushes you to change right there and then. It can also be negative, such as a panic attack, or an illness. We’re “smacked with some new idea that jolts us into change”. Reading Revive and Sweet Nothing have both felt like lightning bolts to me, and my sugar-free habits are going (fairly) well so far.

8) Not everyone can follow the 80:20 rule

Gretchen talks about abstaining and moderating – some people thrive off abstaining totally from something whereas others can moderate their habits and follow an 80:20 rule.

Abstaining means you always refuse all temptation which ends the endless chatter of whether to indulge or not. If you abstain you take the decision away. ‘Just a few biscuits’, ‘just one glass’ – that’s hard. The 80:20 rule isn’t for all but in my opinion, if you have willpower it’s a nicer way to live your life.

9) Make something convenient and you’re more than halfway there

Obviously, convenience plays a huge part in habits. As Gretchen advises: “Make it easy to go right and hard to go wrong”, which is obvious advice but often hard to follow.

Join a gym on the way home, leave your credit cards in the house… there are big stats backing up the effectiveness of this. Put bad habits out of reach, literally, and you will automatically make a good habit easier.

10) If you slip up, blaming yourself only sets you back

This is a big one for me. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve chastised myself for slipping up on a resolution or a ‘rule’ I’ve set myself. When we slip up and are full of self-blame, stats show we find it harder to get back on the wagon than if we had shown ourselves self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and good habits will follow.

11) We are experts at lying to ourselves

We’re very good at telling ourselves porkies to get out of a habit and we often find loopholes to delay new behaviour. Loopholes sound like this: ‘It doesn’t matter if indulge now, come January I’ll be super healthy so it’ll cancel out’ or ‘I can’t stop eating biscuits today, someone made them and I’d hurt their feelings’.

Watch out for them and be prepared to be your own critical friend.

12) Rewards can sabotage us, treats can make us really happy

When we’re going well with a habit we often feel we need a reward but if we look outside the habit for it we’ll likely end up sabotaging the good work we’ve done. So if you’ve good at not spending then you feel like you deserve a reward and before you know it you’ve spent £200 in Topshop.

The trick, Gretchen says is to look inside the habit not outside for external treats. Use the fact you’ve saved money to do something worthwhile, or open a savings account and use the mounting balance as a motivation.

Treats are different, they’re not earned and help you stay on track if used well – a rare, relaxing bath after a workout or new gym gear. It’s important to use treats every so often and ‘just because’ rather than ‘because I’ve been good’ as you often end up replacing one bad habit with another. The key is to treat healthfully not naughtily. Boring but true.

13) Being ‘better than before’ not perfect is what matters

Gretchen concluded that there’s no simple, universal solution to habit formation out there and the fact remains that the only person we can change is ourselves. What matters is to move in the right direction and keep pushing forward to make things better. No one likes perfect people anyway, flaws are much more attractive.

Gretchen ends the book saying how convinced she remains about the value of good habits and having listened to the book, I completely agree. I’m off to keep tackling the essential seven!

You can read more of Anna’s writing on her blog Actualanna.