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Review: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

better than before

We moms often focus on habits.  We try to develop good habits in our children, we use habits to make our homeschools function more effectively, and we harness the power of habit to help our lives run more smoothly.

Over a century ago, Charlotte Mason wrote a lot about the importance of cultivating habits in our children, and people are still writing about habits these days.  The latest habit book, and one of my favorites, is Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin.

Gretchen believes that the reason we want to develop good habits is so that we will become happier.  After all, most people’s daily lives are hugely affected by their habits:  what we eat, how we interact with others, whether or not we exercise, how we relax, how we work, how we sleep….   In fact, our habits virtually control our lives.

We all do realize this.  So why is it often so hard to begin new habits?  And why do some people manage so much more effortlessly?  And why are some habits so much more difficult to develop than others?

Gretchen analyses these questions for the four different personality tendencies that she has identified.  Apparently people may be

  • Upholders, who tend to meet internal and external expectations,
  • Questioners, who will only meet expectations if they make sense,
  • Obligers, who will meet others’ expectations but not their own, and
  • Rebels, who instinctively rebel at any form of expectation.

To confuse matters further, some people respond in one way to one set of expectations and in a different way to another.

Gretchen also discusses what other personal characteristics to keep in mind when trying to form a habit.  Because, really, the habit itself and what will make it work for us all depend vitally on our individual personalities.   Are we Overbuyers or Underbuyers?  Larks or Owls?  Promotion-Focused or Prevention-Focused?   Each of these differences will make a difference in the way we form habits.

Now, what is a book about habits if it does not discuss the temptation to break them?  For me the most fascinating part of Better Than Before is its exhaustive discussion, from a practical, secular point of view, of temptation.  We all face temptations of various sorts, innocuous ones like snatching a cookie before bed as well as serious ones that involve breaking God’s commandments.  Gretchen deals almost exclusively with the former, although she does also mention setting up safeguards to avoid having an affair.  Nevertheless, page after page of this book is filled with thought-provoking ideas for anyone who wishes to face temptation consciously and effectively.

Some say that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it, but Gretchen points out that abstaining completely gets rid of it much more effectively, and without negative consequences.  In fact, based on research, she suggests that ‘cravings are more provoked by possibility than by denial.’  And she points out the obvious truth that it is much easier to extinguish a first desire than to satisfy all those that follow it.

I recognized myself over and over in her extensive catalogue of the different ways that we respond to temptation.  Gretchen has a clear eye for the ways we deceive ourselves and even helps us laugh at our own foolishness, an effective safeguard to indulging in that particular sort of foolishness again.

Of course, it’s one thing to be tempted to eat a cream puff or watch an extra hour of TV; it’s a totally different thing to be tempted to do something sinful.  As a secular writer, Gretchen does not mention that we need to ask God to deliver us from the evil One whose temptations to sin are so subtle and relentless.  In fact, Jesus pointed out that we cannot fight him on our own.  From that point of view, perhaps Gretchen’s thorough discussion may help us find the promised ‘way out’ of temptation in our everyday lives.

Here are a few of Gretchen’s practical suggestions:

  • Change your surroundings to make impulsive sin less convenient.
  • Eliminate triggers that tempt you.
  • Plan what to do in case you are tempted in a certain situation.
  • Recognize which loopholes you are using to justify your actions to yourself.
  • Use distractions to take your mind off the temptation.
  • And, I would add, pray.

Another result of Gretchen’s study is that she has begun to understand exactly how different people are.  She is now both less judgemental than before as well as less certain that what works for her will work for someone else.

I, too, have a new insight into people, especially as a result of Gretchen’s Four Tendencies.  For example, the fact that some people always want to do the opposite of what is expected is not due to purposeful maliciousness, but is an ingrained part of their personality as Rebels.  I’m not saying they should not, in many cases, fight against these tendencies, but I’m pointing out that when they do not rebel, they have made a conscious and probably difficult choice that some of the rest of us do not understand.  The fact that some people, Obligers, base their actions on what they think others expect does not mean they are being spineless; they just need to be reminded that God has expectations for them as well, and that his expectations are the most important ones.

As those who have read her other books know, Better than Before would not be a Gretchen Rubin book if it weren’t full of pithy sayings:

  • Progress, not perfection.
  • It is easier to change our surroundings than ourselves.
  • The habit of habit is more important than the habit itself.
  • Habit is deciding once and then never deciding again.
  • Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong.
  • Out of sight, out of mind.
  • The punishment for a bad habit is the bad habit itself.

Wise habits reduce the amount of self-control we need on a day-to-day basis, reduce the number of decisions we need to make each day, and are our surest way, according to Gretchen, to ‘Everyday Life in Utopia.’  They will make our children’s, and our own, lives easier, and our homes more pleasant.

However, in the long run true happiness—true blessedness—comes from loving the Lord and living for him.  Yes, as Psalm 1 shows, this is related to wise habits, but life is much more complicated than Gretchen would suggest.  Life is, in fact, downright messy, and things often do not make cause-and-effect sense, as discussed in this speech about the book of Psalms (it’s the first link).

When it really comes down to it, we can only truly become ‘Better than Before’ through the Holy Spirit.  We can only truly become happier through our Savior Jesus.  And, in my case at least, He has been using Gretchen’s book.

Here’s another practical and effective suggestion to ward off temptation to sin from Courageous Living by Michael Catt:

1.When in doubt, don’t.

2. Be where you are supposed to be,

when you are supposed to be there,

doing what you are supposed to be doing. (p 85)

As Catt says, those two rules pretty much cover every life situation.

Other excellent books about habit include (links are to my reviews):

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

21 Days to a More Disciplined Life by Crystal Paine

I have also reviewed Gretchen Rubin’s other books, Happier at Home and The Happiness Project.

This is yet another book in the in the 2015 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook

For more encouragement, visit Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Works for Me Wednesday, Mom to Mom Monday, Monday’s Musings, Missional WeekendR&R Wednesdays, From House to Home, Homemaking Mondays, Good Morning Mondays, Make Your Home Sing Mondays, Faith Filled Fridays.

Disclosure: I received this ebook from the Blogging for Books review program and have expressed my own honest opinions.

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6 Comments

  1. Love this informative review of the book, “Better Than Before”…especially this quote, ‘cravings are more provoked by possibility than by denial.’ Very good strategies here…thank you!

  2. Jenn says:

    Very thankful for this review! I have read all her other books, and had this on my wishlist. You write such good reviews. 🙂

  3. Annie Kate says:

    You are welcome, Beth. Yes, too, I found that one statement ‘cravings are more provoked by possibility than by denial’ to be very powerful.

    Jenn, I am so glad you enjoyed this review. Thank you for your encouragement, dear friend!

  4. Hi Anne, thank you for sharing this review. I have read 7 Habits of Highly effective people. I am yet to read your recommended books.
    Thanks and God Bless Anne.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, Ifeoma, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a wonderful book. I read it quite a few times when I was young and the effect on my life has been profound. Even now, decades later, I still think about it regularly.

  5. Sounds like an interesting book! Thanks for sharing your review at Inspire Me Mondays!

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