What I’m Reading: Better Than Before


Photo by Charles Yeager

I love self-improvement books. There, I admit it. I’m a relentless self-improver and love finding out about new (to me) life hacks, cooking & nutrition tips and general health & wellbeing advice.

I had read two of Gretchen Rubin’s books on trying to find ways to happiness and contentment, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home and loved them, but didn’t pick up her new book, Better than Before, until I heard her interview on Underground Wellness. Side note: who else gets surprised when you hear an author’s ‘real’ voice after hearing what they’ve written in the ‘imagined’ voice in your head while you’re reading?

What a great book. Gretchen tries to answer the question, “how can we make good habits and break bad ones”, with a number of different frameworks and models (i.e the Strategies of Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling and Accountability) , all underpinned by the Four Tendencies, which cover outer and inner expectations. She posits that everyone falls into one of these four distinct groups, with very little overlap.

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.

Want to know which one you are? There is a great quiz on her website and it confirmed that I am indeed a Questioner.

According to the book and quiz results, Questioners:

  • Question all expectations
  • Respond to an expectation only if they conclude that it makes sense
  • Are motivated by reason, logic and fairness
  • Decide for themselves whether a course of action is a good idea and resist doing anything that seems to lack sound purpose
  • Want to make well considered decisions and come to their own conclusions
  • Are very intellectually engaged and are often will to do exhaustive research

According to Gretchen, “Questioners come in two flavors: some Questioners have an inclination to Uphold, and others have an inclination to Rebel; the first type accepts expectations fairly readily, the second type is very hard to persuade.” I’m definitely in the first camp in some areas in my life and in the second in others. I’m not a people pleaser, but I am very aware of both inner and outer expectations – and sometimes chafe against both.

There is a specific call out to exercise and how a Questioner can make an exercise habit stick that i found highly relevant:

  1. Design an exercise habit that works for your character and lifestyle (Strategy of Distinctions):  I like variety, I don’t have a lot of time and I like knowing that others are doing the same type of exercise I am. This is why Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Guide has really been working for me these past 11 (!) weeks. I can do the workouts in 30 minutes during naptime, the exercises change each week and there’s a huge community on Instagram that are super supportive.
  2. Consider exactly why and how a particular habit should be kept (Strategy of Clarity): I like the way exercise makes me look and feel (the why) and I know there are windows of opportunity on Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays and the weekend for me to grab 30 minutes to workout at home.  I have all the equipment I need, so it’s very easy for me to change into my workout clothes and go!
  3. Get more information about your habits by wearing a pedometer or charting your exercise (Strategy of Monitoring): Kayla’s programme is broken into days and weeks, so I know exactly where I am in the programme and she encourages everyone to take progress photos to compare and contrast.

Better Than Before is chock full of wonderful information that will helps to understand good habits and bad ones.

From a nutrition perspective, the section on abstaining is fascinating. We’ve all heard truisms such as “a little of what you fancy” and “everything in moderation”. But one person’s moderation is another’s immoderation. Or to use a Samuel Johnson quote from the book, “I can’t drink a little wine, child; therefore I never touch it. Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.” Some people just can’t moderate in food, in drink, in consumption of television, etc. They just aren’t built that way.

I’m one of these people. I can’t just eat one square of dark chocolate (what a cliche!)  or a scoop of ice cream to satisfy a craving. I know that I’ll eat the whole bar or tub, so it’s easier for me to totally avoid these types of foods. According to Gretchen, “abstainers do better when they follow all-or-nothing habits. Moderators are people who do better when they indulge moderately.”  That’s why elimination programmes like Whole 30 work well for Abstainers – the all or nothing principle makes sense and takes no mental effort once you’ve decided to be done with a certain category of food.

The abstainer / moderator and Four Tendencies frameworks take us nicely back to the ‘no one sized fits all’ principle for nutrition. Everyone has different backgrounds, lifestyles, hormone levels and genetics. We also approach things in different ways, which is why it’s so important that nutrition and wellbeing programmes are built and customised for the individual.

Have you read Better Than Before? What do you think?

P.S. Don’t forget to check out Happier, the weekly podcast that Gretchen puts out with her sister, the writer Elizabeth Craft.

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