Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before book review: Habits that shape the way we do things

A book about the psychology of habits may not sound groundbreaking, but Better Than Before could completely change how you go about your daily life and work.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, says habits are the "invisible architecture" of our lives

A 2006 study by Duke University in the US found that some 40 per cent of our behaviour is repeated almost daily (in about a dozen daily habits, Rubin adds).

By mindfully creating mindless habits, she argues that we are freed from small daily decisions, allowing us to focus on bigger projects and goals.

“When possible the brain makes a behaviour into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel or urgent matters,” she writes. “Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.”

Rubin has many – too many – distinctions between people when forming habits. Are you a morning lark or a night owl? A lover of familiarity or novelty? A finisher or an opener?

But the eye-opening part of this book, which was released in paperback earlier this year, breaks people into four “tendencies” – Upholder, Obliger, Questioner or Rebel.

An Upholder, she argues (and she is one herself) is self-directed and needs no external accountability to form habits, while a Rebel resists all expectations, even ones they set themselves.

But these are tiny minorities: most people are Questioners or Obligers. Questioners resist anything arbitrary, and will only follow an expectation or habit if they believe it to be justified, while Obligers are motivated by external accountability and find it hard to self-motivate.

Managers, Rubin says, would do well to focus on solutions that help Questioners, by providing sound reasons, and Obligers, by providing accountability, deadlines and milestones.

But should we be trying to “fix” these tendencies when it comes to how we form and maintain habits? Rubin says they are hard-wired and that the “happiest and most successful people” have “figured out ways to exploit their tendency to their benefit”.

And the Rebels’ “unshackled spirit”, she argues, is also a necessary voice of dissent in any organisation.

q&a slow and steady or in a rush?

Suzanne Locke expands on Gretchen Rubin's latest book Better Than Before:

Any other useful distinctions between people when it comes to habits?

Yes – the most useful is whether you’re a sprinter, marathoner or procrastinator. Sprinters work in quick bursts of intense effort and deliberately wait for the pressure of a deadline, while marathoners like a “slow and steady clip” and dislike deadlines. Procrastinators will often agonise over the work they’re not doing and rush around doing “busy work” as a way of avoidance.

What are the worst parts of these tendencies?

Obligers have a tendency to “snap” under the weight of expectations, Rubin says. Upholders can be “relentless and tiresome … mindless in their rule-following”. Questioners can suffer from analysis paralysis because they always want one more piece of information and Rebels can even frustrate themselves. Surprisingly, Rubin says many Rebels are found in rules-based institutes like the military.

What habits do the most successful people have?

Prolific horror author Stephen King must be a Marathoner – he writes 2,000 words or 10 pages a day. US president Barack Obama eliminates “decision fatigue” by only wearing blue or grey suits. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg also eliminates clothing decisions by wearing the same outfit daily. Trey Parker and Matt Stone send the finished episodes of South Park to Comedy Central just hours before airtime – real sprinters.

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