Better Than Before | Book Notes #4

Better Than Before : Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Better Than Before : Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin


Habits are something we do automatically without much conscious thought. Humans are creatures of habit. The habits we form can be harmful or beneficial to us, and it can also be something that we intentionally set for ourselves or something that we unintentionally formed because of our environment or our situation. Habits get formed either way, so it’s best if we take advantage of our brain’s amazing ability to form habits to our advantage. Better than Before gives a detailed and concrete guide of how we can do that.

And it starts with the realization of the important of connection of habit and decision making,

Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.

Eliminating the daily decision making that takes up willpower and energy is the real benefit of forming habits. With the decision already made, we can focus on the doing rather than the deciding.

 Habits = Freedom

A major realization that shifted my mindset after reading this book is how I view habits, before I thought habits were activities that I must do in order to have a better/more organized/more successful life, most books I’ve read said so. I thought of habits as drudgery, something that must be endured to have a “better” life. But a eureka moment came when I realized that habits equals freedom. We form habits regardless if it’s intentional or not. Forming habits that I consciously chose, that I know is beneficial for me, frees me up from feelings of anxiety,worry and overwhelm that tend to plague me when I know there are important things that I should be doing but are not because I haven’t intentionally allocated time to do them, it doesn’t get done because other more urgent or more fun stuff comes along. Undone stuff already takes mental space, if the undone activity is especially important I end up paying for not doing it eventually (not scheduling time for exercise leads to lack of energy or not sleeping well leads to poor mental performance). Making the essentials (however you define this for your life) a habit can be freeing because once these things are nailed down as automatic, we don’t have to think much about them, time and energy is automatically allocated for them and they automatically get done, it frees us to use our willpower, physical and mental energy on other things we deem important. With this in mind I can view habits as maintenance tasks that automatically gets executed to make our body and mind function optimally. Habits aren’t easy to develop, but changing my mindset from viewing it as drudgery to freedom will help me keep at it when it becomes difficult.

The goal is to develop habits that allow us to have time for everything we value—work, fun, exercise, friends, errands, study—in a way that’s sustainable, forever

Know Thyself

Forming habits, is not an easy undertaking for me. I struggle with it. I know the importance of forming good habits but I still find it difficult to do. The book, helped me understand more about the process of habit formation and develop a habit formation system that works for me. Following a process that works for me, not others  (however successful they maybe) is the key takeaway from this book. It’s a profound realization that seems so obvious but gets often overlooked. I’ve read other books about habits before, but what’s unique about this one is that the way the author classified the natural tendencies of people when it comes to meeting expectations. That’s what habits are, essentially they are expectations we put on ourselves to behave a certain way. Knowing our own tendencies can help us tailor our habits to what we already inclined to do.

The four tendencies discussed in the book are:
Upholders – respond readily to both outer and inner expectations.
Questioners – question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified
Obligers – respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations
Rebels – resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

Knowing which tendency I belong to has helped me tremendously in several ways. First, it helped me understand why some strategies that worked for other people does not work for me, saving me from the feeling of frustration because I no longer need to wonder why. Secondly, it also helped me in adapting a strategy to fit my tendency so I could work with something that naturally plays into my way of thinking instead of going against it, less resistance means more energy to put into the actual habit formation. Self Knowledge is valuable in habit formation and other aspects of our lives, and the book gave more self knowledge questions to help us know ourselves better

Lark or Owl ( more energetic in the morning vs. more energetic at night)
Marathoner or Sprinter or Procrastinator (work little by little vs. work in bursts )
Underbuyer or Overbuyer (buy when needed vs. buy in case it gets needed )
Simplicity Lover or Abundance Lover (simplification/elimination vs. addition/variety)
Finisher or Opener (loves to start/launch  vs. loves to finish/complete)
Familiarity lover or Novelty lover (habits get easier as it gets familiar or likes short term challenges)
Promotion focused or Prevention focused (focus on achievement/advancement vs focus on prevention of loss/avoidance of pain)
Small Steps or Big Steps (start with tiny habits vs. big change all at once)

Knowing our own natural tendencies can help us see what approach would work for or against us, so we could do more of what works and avoid or do less of what doesn’t. Thirdly, it helped realize the flip side of this realization, that what worked for me may not work for other people because they have different tendencies, and I therefore do not need to insist others do things the way I do them. It’s funny how we tend to expect other people to see things the way we do, it seems like a natural tendency to do so, maybe it’s because we don’t have direct access to how others think and only have direct access to our own. But recognizing that it’s really different strokes for different folks is enormously beneficial to us not only in habit formation but also the way we understand and relate to other people.

How to Form Habits

 The book is contains practical guides to forming habits, from choosing what habits to develop, to starting and maintaining one, to dealing with excuses we tell ourselves that causes us to sabotage our efforts. I extracted the ones that I think will help me the most and listed it here to use as guide that I can refer to every time I need to form a new habit. So the list below isn’t exactly how the author organized the information from the book, it’s just how I organized the information I learned that makes it easier to remember and follow for me.


1. Choose


Choose the habit to develop, be clear about the  benefits of this habit and why I want to develop it. It must be aligned with my values and my identity ( or ideal identity) so I am not going against myself on every step. If I’m going to spend the time and effort to starting and keeping the habit, I have to ask myself if it’s something I want keep permanently.


2. Schedule


Schedule the habit on the calendar, allot time for it like an appointment. Doing so would ensure that we allocate time for it and not relegate it to “tomorrow” or “when I have free time” slot that we never get around to having. It would also allow us more accurately assess the available time we have if we plan on adding new activities to our schedule.  Scheduling also eases our anxiety,


Without scheduling, it’s easy to spend the whole day worrying about working, so you’re not working but not relaxing either.


We tend to forget things we don’t put into our schedules, sometimes we get caught up with doing urgent matters that important things take a back seat, until soon they get forgotten. Scheduling would make sure we get reminded of to do what’s important.


How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.  


3. Monitor


Determine a metric for the habit, something that can be measured to determine if the habit is being done or not. If we have a concrete measurable metric, we can objectively assess if we are doing the habit or not and then adjust accordingly.


If we want something to count in our lives, we should figure out a way to count it


4. Accountability


Have system of accountability to make sure we do it,  we are more likely to do things when we are accountable for it. It could be another person/s ( a friend, coach, mentor, group ) or a “commitment device”  ( an phone app, pedometer, deadline, bet with a friend). This is as much to remind us as well as to “make us” do our habits even when we don’t feel like it.


5. Find Your triggers


Habits are triggered, the smell of fries cooking can trigger cravings for unhealthy food, feeling anxiety can trigger smoking. Being aware of what triggers our habits help when we are trying to stop a bad habit by hiding, removing or avoiding them. We could also use triggers to create good habits too, we could drink our vitamins right after breakfast or do 1 or 2 push-ups every time we enter a room to get some exercise in our day. We could tie a habit to something we are already doing consistently.


A cue might be a place, a mood, a time of day, a transition, other people, or a pattern of behavior. Even a fleeing sight or sound or smell can be a trigger.


6. Plan for Failure


Despite our best efforts, there maybe times that we fail on doing the habit. For those instances, it’s best we have a plan in case that happens so we could avoid the “what the hell effect” – it’s when we spiral out of control completely and throw out our entire habit plan because we already failed anyway. We can use “implementation intentions” to formulate our plans, to do that use if-then statements.


If  _______ happens, then I will do _______


Another brilliant suggestion I learned from the book, is also to divide your day into segments, so that if you fail in one segment of your day, you don’t need a full day to restart, you can start in another segment.


“Instead of feeling that you’ve blown the day and thinking, ‘I’ll get back on track tomorrow,’ try thinking of each day as a set of four quarters: morning, midday, afternoon, evening. If you blow one quarter, you get back on track for the next quarter. Fail small, not big.


7. Plan for Exceptions


This is one of the nice new strategies that I learned from this book, it’s the perfect solution to those moments when you want to just break the habit just this once because it’s a special occassion that only happens just once a year, like a birthday or an anniversary. You want to indulge but you also feel guilty if you do. Well, the solution is to make exceptions in advance on when you can break a habit. Doing so would make you enjoy those rare moments of indulgence and still keep your habits intact and you feel in control. Exceptions are best saved for something memorable and worthwhile, plus putting a time limit on it can also help ( ex. Christmas day not Christmas season) .


A good test of a planned exception is “How will I feel about the exception later? Will I think, ‘I’m so happy that I broke my usual habit to take advantage of that opportunity”or ‘Well, looking back on it, I wish I’d made a different choice?’ “


8. Plan for Success


Rewarding ourselves for doing a habit consistently is a popular advice, but we actually cautioned against doing so because with external rewards we learn to view the habit like an unwanted obligation. When the rewards stops, we stop doing it. It’s better if we are intrinsically motivated ( challenge, curiosity, control, fantasy, cooperation, competition, recognition ), habits persists longer if we do.


The reward for a good habit is the habit itself.


If our habits are tied to completing a specific goal (like losing weight before a wedding)  and we succeeding in doing it, we might expect the habit to stick even after the wedding. But that’s not actually the case, because completing the goal is a signal to stop and it’s harder to restart a habit after stopping for a while. So in those case we need to also need to plan what to do when we succeed, if we want to keep our habits.


A finish line divides behavior that we want to follow indefinitely – to run, to write, to practice – into “start” and “stop”, and all too often, the “stop” turns out to be permanent.  


Having said all that, habits can still feel rewarding, with a simple but effective mindset change the author came up with. The shift, is to use natural consequence, the idea behind is, because you’ve done the habit you get to do the natural consequences related to it. It’s no longer a reward but a a cause and effect scenario. An example given in the book is use when the author uses a taxi ride as a “reward” for strength training, she puts it this way:


“A natural consequence of a demanding workout is feeling tired, and because I’m tired, I get to take a taxi”


9. Convenience


Make the habits you want to do more convenient and the habits you want to stop to be inconvenient. We tend to do what’s easier, I suspect most bad habits that we form are because of this reason. I’ve used this one a lot, I don’t  stock sweets or junk foods at home. I eat them occasionally precisely because I don’t stock them at home. If I’m craving one, I must get myself out of the house and walk over to the store a couple of blocks away to buy one. Just thinking about how inconvenient that is dampens my craving, most of the time I’m too lazy to go all that way to buy something that’s unhealthy for me. It’s not always easy to make things convenient but I could try my best to make it as convenient as I can when possible.


10 . Pairing


Pair an enjoyable activity I already do to a new habit I’m trying to develop. This is a great idea to make sticking to the habit more pleasurable. I’ve already started doing this by pairing listening to podcasts to doing household chores.


11. Treats


Treats are different from rewards, you don’t have to do anything to get them, they are just enjoyable things you do because life could be overwhelming and exhausting and giving ourselves treats for time to time gives us the break we need so we could recharge.


“treats” may sound like a self-indulgent frivolous strategy, but it’s not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role. When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits.


We can make a list of activities that we enjoy, and make that a go-to list when we decide to give ourselves a treat. It doesn’t always have to take too much time like a massage or night to a theatre, they could be simple ones like having tea or playing with the dog.


There are two interesting mindset shifts I learned that I really liked. One, is that we can view anything, even challenging ones as treats as long as we enjoy them. I thought of yoga class as a treat because even though I find it incredibly challenging, I feel so good afterwards. Second, is that I could view treats as investments, I’m an under buyer, so if I think something is just too frivolous I wont buy it, but if I think that it’s something I will be using for a long time or can be beneficial for me in the long run, I will likely buy it, same goes for a treat.


What I thought about it
I plan using this ten steps as my personal framework for developing a habit. It’s great to have on a list for me to refer to from time to time. Planning seems to be a lot of work at the start, but if it’s important enough to keep for a lifetime, then I think the few minutes of planning will be worth it. The truth is, the deck is stacked against us when we want to change, because we are so used to the way things are, having a plan to counter the obstacles to our habit formation can level the playing field or even give us an advantage. We don’t have to perfect, but as the author perfectly put it, we will be better than before.


Book Summary
    • Habits are automatic activities we do without much conscious thought.
    • Habit = freedom, because when we decide to form a habit, we decide just once at the beginning and then eliminate the need for deciding in the future.
    • The 4 tendencies to meet expectations are: upholders, questioners, obligers, rebels. Figure out which ones you fall into and develop your habit based on what works for you.
    •  How to Form A Habit
      1. Choose : Why do it? In what ways can your life get better? List Advantages.  
      2. Schedule: Time, Dates, How often? Put it the calendar.  
      3. Monitor: Decide what to measure as success  
      4. Accountability: Find something or someone to be accountable to. ( Can be people or system)  
      5. Triggers: Find the triggers, keep trigger in sight if it’s a good habit, hide trigger if it’s a bad habit  
      6. Plan for Failure: List out possible obstacles, then create if-then plan solution  
      7. Plan for Exceptions: List conditions when you are permitted to not do the habit  
      8. Plan for Success:  Use internal not external rewards. What are the natural consequences of doing the habit?  
      9. Convenience: List out ways to make doing the habit more convenient and not doing it more inconvenient.  
      10. Paring: List possible activities you enjoy that you can pair up with the new habit.  
      11. Treats: List a go-to enjoyable activities that you like doing to feel re-energized  


Actionable Takeways
  •  Find out where I fall in the four tendencies and the other self-knowledge categories
  •  Choose a habit to form and make a plan using the results of the tendency and the self-knowledge category, answer the how to form habit list to make a plan
  • Monitor the habit and create an if-then plan implementation for any difficulties encountered

Simple Rules
→ short, easy-to-remember rules I can set for myself to follow the principles of the book

  • Don’t break a habit on a whim.
  • If it’s on the calendar, do it, no more deciding, it has been decided before. The only time it doesn’t get done is if it’s an exception.
  • If I’m having a hard time doing the habit, find out why, then create and if-then implementation intention plan for it.

 Interested in finding out more? Here are some helpful links …