"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."
Anyone who has tried to create a new habit knows that it’s hard. And, habits are at the heart of change—we change our lives, habit by habit. In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Ordinary Lives, Gretchen Rubin explores a myriad of strategies and tactics for creating new habits—grounded in both research and experience. She draws on many of my favorite books and authors, bringing the best of the research from each of them into an easy to read and highly relatable book. She add to that some ways of thinking about habits that, despite all that I’ve read before, feel fresh and new.
The Big Idea
It’s Not About Self-Control
"In the end, I concluded that the real key to habits is decision-making—or, more accurately, the lack of decision making."
I’m really, really good at my early morning routine. I keep it, no matter what. Later in the day, it’s so much tougher for me to do the things that I know I should do, that I wish were ingrained habits. Better than Before helped me to crystallize what was different—and what I could do about it.
The most important thing about my morning routine is that there are no decisions involved. I don’t have to exert one ounce of self-control. I have a plan, I’ve made it easy to execute, I do it when I get up, and I do it every day. The result: I’ve meditated for a minimum of 10 minutes and a maximum of 40 minutes every day—bar none—for the last three years. The discipline is to continue to not allow this practice or habit to be a matter of decision. I have no doubt that as long as I do that, I will continue to practice.
Many of my other habits do require more self-control because they include some amount of decision-making. It’s not all about time of day (which I thought) or diminished willpower (which is true, but not the main point), but more about designing the environment so that doing (or not doing) what is required to adopt or maintain a habit requires as little decision making as possible.
Despite what you’ll read about in insight #1, this principle—minimizing decision-making—applies to almost everyone.
"We can’t presume that if a habit-formation strategy works for one person, it will work just as well for anyone else, because people are very different from each other."
Better than Before is chock full of tips and strategies for habit-formation (see insight #2 as an example)—but perhaps the biggest insight is realizing that any given tip or strategy may not work for you—and that’s ok. And that few strategies (or habits) are inherently right for a specific person.
Knowing more about who you are and how you operate is key to figuring out how what strategies to follow to make habits work for you and what advice to ignore because it probably won’t—and to feel ok about that. It’s also helpful for those of us who like nothing more than to give advice to others about how to establish a habit. We (yes, that’s me) need to accept that what works for us may not work for others.
Rubin suggests four basic tendencies in people around habits—you’ll likely identify with at least one of them. They have to do with how we manage expectations—both external ones (e.g., work deadlines) and internal ones (e.g., exercising more.) An Upholder tends to meet both outer and inner expectations, a Questioner resists outer expectations—but tends to meet inner ones, an Obliger struggles with inner expectations—but tends to meet external ones, and the Rebel resists both outer and inner expectations. Rubin does not suggest that we change our tendency—rather that we work with it to design strategies for creating and maintaining habits that will work for us.
She also provides lots of other categories of distinctions for us to think through that could influence how we go about forming habits—ranging from whether we are morning or night people, “marathoners” or “procrastinators”, underbuyers or overbuyers—and many more. Some of these categories were familiar to me—others were new. As I thought through habits I wanted to adopt—or stop—these distinctions stuck and definitely provided new insights.
Create fixed habits
"I’ve found that it’s actually easier to do something every day than some days."
Scheduling is one of the pillars that Gretchen Rubin explores. Foundations (focusing on what matters most) and monitoring (keeping track of what we are doing) are the other two pillars. A couple suggestions around scheduling really “popped out” for me—and might be helpful for you. One was that it’s often easier—and more powerful –to do something daily than once in a while. What you do every day really matters—and is possibly easier to build into your routine (reducing decision-making—remember?)
The other tip around scheduling that has already made a huge difference for me is to tie to an existing habit (after my morning coffee) or an external cue (when my alarm rings,) rather than a specific time of day. I used to do my workout each morning right after meditation. My schedule shifted due to clients in another time zone and I found my daily rigor disappearing (I had to make decisions.) My new scheduling trigger is “the first free 45 minute block in my day” and, lo and behold, whether that is in the morning, early afternoon or late afternoon, I’m squeezing in my 45 minutes of exercise.
While reading Better than Before I found myself making shifts as I read—thinking about habits I wanted to work on and how I could better address them. I found myself cataloging what I was doing that I wanted to shift—what I was proud of and how I was already using these strategies—and where I could be “better than before” with some minor shifts. If you’re thinking about how to make lasting changes in your life—through your everyday habits—this is a great place to start. I highly recommend it!