Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

By: Gretchen Rubin

Here is another book that I give 9/10! This book is great because it is all about habits and learning to change your habits to change your life…to become better than before!

I hope you enjoy my notes from this book and if you find anything I mention interesting I definitely recommend picking up the book for yourself!

Gretchen starts off talking about how those with self-control/self-regulation/willpower are happier and healthier – they are more altruistic, have stronger relationships, more career success, manage stress better, etc.  So how to habits play into this? Why do people form habits? And what is the benefit of a habit?

Habits conserve self-control – people are able to effortlessly do things they want to do. They key to habits is decision making. Specifically the lack of decision makingHabits let daily hassles vanish because we don’t think about the steps that need to be taken. For example, if my eating habits are effortless (I follow my routine, eating how I normally do without much thought) but I want to make a physical change to my body that involves changing my eating patters, this would require effort and conscious behaviour that goes against my normal daily (no thought required) habits.

When we are worried/overtaxed habits comfort us –  we feel more in control and less anxious when engaging in habit behaviour. If you are making conscious, daily efforts to behave in a new way/go against your routine habits to create change, you will find that when you get stressed you will mindlessly fall back on habits that you have been trying to break.

When we change our habits we change our lives – use decision making to choose habits we want to form and willpower to get the habit started – then let the power of habit take over. Need an atmosphere of growth – learning new things, getting stronger, etc. and habits help us make consistent, reliable progress toward our goals.

The Four Tendencies: (how people respond to expectations)

  • 1. Upholders – respond readily to outer expectations and inner expectations
    • Want to know what is expected of them, keep resolutions, feel obliged to meet expectations for selves and others
    • Follow routine day in and out
    • Need to ask yourself “why am I meeting this expectation?”
  • 2. Questioners – question all expectations and meet them only if they believe it is justified
    • Motivated by logic, reason, fairness
  • 3. Obligers – respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations
    • Motivated by external accountability “what must I do today?
    • Hard to self-motivate, depend on external accountability
  • 4. Rebels – resist all expectations (outer and inner)
    • Resist control, self-determined, authenticity

Need to learn about yourself. This will help figure out what and how to form habits that work for you. Ask yourself, are you a…

  • Lark or Owl? – get up early or stay up late? I am definitely a Lark…and a grandma when it comes to my bedtime!
  • Marathoner, Sprinter or Procrastinator? – Marathoners do a little at a time and finish work before deadlines, sprinters work best on a tight deadline and procrastinators work on a tight deadline but dread it. 100% a marathoner, I hate doing things at the last minute!
  • Underbuyer or Overbuyer? – Underbuyers buy as little as possible and overbuyers buy too much (i.e I might need this one day…). I am an underbuyer with regard to most things but overbuyer when it comes to food. I always feel like I need backups of every can/bottle/bag of food.
  • Simplicity lover or abundance? Simplicity lovers like “less”/no clutter/few choices and get overwhelmed by lots of noise/distraction. Abundance lovers like “more”/overflow/addition/a fully pantry/collecting things/many choices. This one I think I am in between…
  • Finisher or Opener? Finishers like to end a project/use the last drop in a bottle/etc. Openers like starting things/opening new things (may get too optimistic about ability to take on new habits). I think I lean more towards being a finisher…but also love starting things…hmm…
  • Familiarity or Novelty lover? Familiarity lovers reread books/watch movies over/eat the same foods; habits get easier as become familiar. Novelty lovers don’t like routine habits; might prefer series of short-term activities/activities that change more often. Completely a familiarity lover. I am all about my daily routine and legitimately could eat the same thing for breakfast/lunch/supper every day and not get bored.
  • Promotion or Prevention focused? Promo focused concentrate on achievement/advancement/making gains/getting more love/praise/pleasure and optimistically pursue goals. Prevention-focused fulfill duties/avoid losses/minimize pain/danger. I am definitely promotion focused.
  • Prefer Small or Large steps? Some people like to take small steps that add up and others like to jump fully in.  I think this one depends on the occasion for me.

You need to know yourself before you can figure out what are the best habits for you to follow

Pillars of habits: Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling and Accountability

1) Monitoring

  • Self-measurement brings self-awareness which strengthens our self-control
  • Monitoring works so well because there is no fooling yourself with numbers/facts
  • Monitor what is essential to you to ensure your life reflects your values

2) Foundation

  • One positive habit often makes it easier to stick to other positive habits
  • But the reverse is also true – bad habits often reinforce each other
  • 4 Foundation habits: Sleep, Move, Eat and Drink 
    • These tend to reinforce each other
    • Different ones have differing importance to different people
    • Need to figure out which ones apply to you

3) Scheduling

  • Setting a specific, regular time for an activity is one of the most powerful strategies of habit formation – makes us much more likely to turn an activity into a habit
  • Makes activities automatic which builds habits
  • Helps to tie a new activity to an existing habit or external cue i.e. after breakfast, when my alarm rings, etc.
    • Works better than using a specific start time because it is easy to lose track of the hour
  • Fixed habits = always happen in the same way without conscious thoughts i.e. brushing teeth, putting on seat belt when get in car, etc.
  • Unfixed habits = require more decision making and adjustment i.e. going to write today but don’t know exactly what time (that is a choice)
  • Try to make good habits as fixed as possible because the more consistently you do an action the more automatic it becomes and requires less decision
  • Most of the time important habits should be scheduled for the morning – more predictable as complications can arise as the day goes on
    • Self-control also strongest in the morning
  • Develop a true habit with consistency, repetition and no decision
  • For some habits, ‘mostly’ is good enough – i.e. don’t NEED to do it every day, most of the time suffices
  • Scheduling is also used to restrict the amount of time spent on an activity
  • Used as weapon against procrastination

4) Accountability

  • Face consequences for what we are doing, someone monitoring us, deadlines, late fees, etc.
  • Show more self-command when feel accountable (even if only to self)
  • When don’t feel accountable, behave worse
  • Create accountability: go public, hire a trainer/coach/planner, accountability partner, join a group (AA, WW, etc.)


The Best Time to Begin: A) First Steps, B) Clean Slate, C) Lightning Bolt

A) First Steps

  • Tomorrow logic wastes time and allows us to deny that our current actions clash with our intentions
    • We may also overcommit to responsibilities that are in the distant future
  • Ask yourself if you prefer small or big steps for new activities?
    • Small steps can be helpful when trying to do something that seems overwhelming – taking that first small step helps build momentum
    • Blast starts can also be used – they require a period of high commitment and is demanding but its intensity can energize a habit. But these are unsustainable over the long term and must plan specifically how to shift from the intensity of the blast start to the habit that will continue forever
  • Stopping halts momentum, increases guilt, makes us feel bad about losing ground and breaks the habit so the need for decision making returns (this demands energy)
  • Some habits are almost unbreakable and others will remain fragile for years so you must do everything possible to guard against stopping a valuable fragile habit
  • When faced with an unavoidable stopping point (i.e. vacation), it helps to commit to a specific day to start the habit again
    • Something that can be done any time often happens no time so don’t wait for the right time to start again

B) Clean Slate

  • When circumstances change in a way that makes a fresh start possible (large or small)
  • Pay close attention to the first few times you do something because those decisions often shape the baseline habits
  • Helps launch a new habit with less effort
  • What we assume will be temporary often becomes permanent and what we assume is permanent often proves temporary
  • Clean slates can be opportunity for forming new habits but cal also disrupt existing good habits by eliminating a useful cue or breaking a positive routine
  • Can be very hard to recognize when change threatens to wipe a slate clean – this why monitoring is helpful

C) Lightning Bolt

  • Sometimes you are hit by a lightning bolt that transforms habits instantly i.e. encounter a new idea and suddenly a new habit replaces a long-standing habit with preparation/small steps
  • Cannot invoke on command and cannot decide to follow – it is something that happens to us
  • Often associated with milestone events i.e. marriage, divorce, death, etc.
  • Can occur any time and without warning – need to be open to it and utilize it when it happens for positive change


Strategies of effort involved: Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience

1) Abstaining

  • Abstainers vs. Moderators
    • Abstainers find it easier to give up something altogether than to indulge moderately
    • Depriving the self totally does not create the feeling of deprivation
  • Abstaining conserves energy and willpower because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster
  • Moderators do better when they indulge moderately
  • Abstainers find it easier to say no to something once and then be done with it forever; it takes no mental effort
  • For Abstainers, having something makes them want it more, for Moderators, having something makes them want it less
    • I.e. Abstainers will eat the whole tub of ice cream but Moderators can have one scoop and be done
  • Can be an Abstainer and Moderator depending on the context
    • I.e. one food can be your Kryptonite and if you have once bite you will eat it all but not for all foods/things
      • This is me and ice cream or PB or Popcorners chips…

2) Convenience

  • People are greatly influenced by sheer convenience – the amount of effort, time and decision making required by an action has a huge influence of habit formation
  • More likely to do something if it is convenient
  • Can use in relationships too – e.g. belonging to groups makes it convenient to see a larger number of people and the more you see someone the closer you become by the mere exposure effect. Much easier to see everyone at once then to have to make a bunch of plans individually
  • It might take work to make things easier but in the end it requires zero effort i.e. setting up automatic payments for bills

3) Inconvenience

  • Squash bad habits by making them inconvenient
  • The harder it is to do something, the harder it is to do it impulsively, so inconvenience helps us stick to good habits
  • Increase the amount of physical or mental energy required to do it
  • Hide any cues
  • Delay it
  • Engage in incompatible activity
  • Raise the cost
  • Block it all together

Strategies for Habit Formation:

Strategy 1: Safeguards: used to protect good habits

  • Instead of resisting temptation, try to anticipate and minimize temptation and plan for failure
  • Keeps one lapse from turning into a full relapse
  • a) Eliminate cues that lead to temptation – hide the reminder of the temptation
    • Cues can be a place, mood, time, transition, other people, pattern of behaviour, smell, sound, etc.
    • Can’t eliminate all cues therefore need a plan of action
  • b) Plan of Action – to keep good habits
    • “If – then” planning (if this happens then I will do that)
    • Make a plan for every habit challenge that could come therefore no ambivalence or indecision in the moment because resolved already
    • People who use if-then planning are more likely to stick to good habits – one of most important tools within safeguards because arms us to face any high-risk situations with a plan – can be prepared for times when we are on vacay, etc.
  • c) Stumbles may prevent a fall – people who don’t feel guilt about their stumble are better able to regain their self-control
    • Better to view stumbles as part of habit formation (not ashamed or feel weak)
    • May end up indulging in the bad habit if feel so bad about one stumble i.e. had one brownie so blew my diet so might as well eat the whole cake
    • Perfect compliance to a new habit is not necessary but the earliest repetitions help most to establish it therefore must prevent most stumbles at the beginning
  • d) Exceptions – need to figure out a way to allow self to break a good habit occasionally without losing it all together
    • The planned exception. I.e. I am planning not to track my food while on vacation
    • Works best for something memorable

Strategy 2: Loopholes: an argument for why we should be excused from following a good habit. Don’t give in to loopholes! Watch out for them, they are sneaky!

  • Justifications, excuses, etc.
  • Usually spur of the moment
  • Moral Licensing Loophole: give self permission to do something “bad” because we have been “good” therefore deserve it/have earned it
    • E.g. been good on diet so deserve the cake
  • Tomorrow Loophole: I will start/follow the good habit tomorrow, I’ll be ready tomorrow
  • False Choice Loophole: poses two activities in opposition even though might have nothing to do with each other
    • Make it seem like it is an either/or decision but could be a both/and
  • Lack of Control Loophole: Often have illusion of control over things we cannot control but deny control over things we can control
    • Argue that circumstances force us to break a good habit but really we chose
  • Arranging to Fail Loophole: Make a chain of little decisions that allow us to covertly avoid the good habit/succumb to the bad habit
  • “This Doesn’t Count” Loophole: For some reason this circumstance doesn’t count
  • Questionable Assumption Loophole: Make assumptions that influence our habits that are mostly unreasonable. I.e. have an appointment at 11am and it is 9am so no point doing anything productive because no time…
  • Concern for Others Loophole: Tell self acting out of consideration for others i.e. need to eat the cake because don’t want to offend the cook
  • Fake Self-Actualization Loophole: YOLO, Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
  • “One-Coin” Loophole: this one action doesn’t really matter…but in reality it is the adding of all the little actions that create the good habit
    • One coin doesn’t make someone rich but if you keep adding one and one and one, etc.
    • Sum of actions adds up to something meaningful
    • Need to put in the work every day
    • Focus on the growing heap, not each individual coin

Strategy 3: Distraction: Helps us resist temptation, minimize stress, feel refreshed and tolerate pain and stick to good habits.

  • Works best when involves a physical activity
  • Deliberately shifting attention
  • The “Bad Trance” – overindulging in something you don’t really enjoy i.e. mindlessly watching trash tv
    • Regret time wasted, feel listless, lethargic, etc.

Strategy 4: Reward: I’ve been so good for so long, I deserve a reward…

  • Problem: Rewards obstruct habit formation because:
    • 1) Teaches you that you wouldn’t do the habit for its own sake – gets rid of intrinsic motivation and increases extrinsic motivation only so when the reward is gone you no longer want to do it even if it was something you actually enjoyed
      • Sources of intrinsic motivation: challenge, curiosity, control, fantasy, cooperation, competition, recognition
    • 2) Require a decision – a habit is something we do without decision making so the decision “do I deserve my reward now?” exhausts mental energy and interferes with habit formation
    • 3) Creates a “Finish Line” – and what happens after you reach that goal? The behaviour is allowed to end?
      • Happens with weight loss goals
      • Takes a lot of mental energy to re-start the habit once have hit this one finish line
      • Once decide that achieved success, stop moving forward
      • Some people are able to make many goals with finish lines in a row, but most have a hard time re-starting (serial goal setters vs. habit former)
    • Need to find reward within the habit itself

Strategy 5: Treats: Small pleasure/indulgence we give self just because we want it (not a reward because doesn’t need to be justified/earned).

  • Too easy to overlook how much we enjoy something – need to notice our pleasure – anything can be a treat for someone
    • I.e. completing a to-do list (this is SUCH a treat for me – it legit makes me feel so good to cross things off a list!), peeling carrots, sweeping the floor, browsing magazines, etc.
  • We must guard against temptations of unhealthy treats
  • 3 types of treats are dangerous for some people: food (may feel worse after an indulgence), shopping (spend too much), screen time (tv/computer)
  • Treats make it easier to stick to good habits so long as we don’t make a treat into a habit otherwise it will stop feeling like a treat
    • I.e. love to take baths as a treat but if take one every day then it becomes a normal habit
  • Treats help maintain self-control with habits that are not automatic/without decision making

Strategy 6: Pairing: Couple 2 activities, one that want to do and one that don’t want to do to get self to do both

  • E.g. hate the gym but pair it with watching certain tv shows that you love so only watch them while at the gym
  • Provides satisfaction of multitasking because getting two things done at once
  • Also use to discourage self from an undesirable habit i.e. eating with sitting down at the table therefore not eating in the car, at a desk, standing at the fridge, etc.
  • Can be too effective – easy to allow a bad habit to form by creating a pair e.g. always get drunk on Saturday night, always go shopping when travelling, etc. and once pair made, it feels like deprivation to break it


Learning about Yourself: Strategies of: Clarity, Identity, Other People – Illuminate our individual values, interests, temperament

Self Strategy 1: Clarity: of values and actions

  • Clarity of Values: the clearer you are about what you value and what action you expect from yourself, the more likely you are to stick with the habit (vs. what other people value/expect)
  • Lack of clarity = feeling ambivalent about something, wanting one thing but also another, others agree it is important but I don’t, etc.
    • When two important values conflict – they are both important and agonize over which to honor in the habits we pursue
    • E.g. want to meet new people and want more solitude, want to give 100% to job and want to give 100% to family, etc.
  • Easier to stick to a habit when we see with clarity the connection between the habit and the value it serves
  • When not apparent that a habit has value, less likely to follow it
  • Pay special attention to any habit we wish to hide – shines spotlight on aspects of ourselves that don’t reflect our values because try to hide e.g. secret shopping, etc.
  • Clarity requires us to acknowledge what we are doing
  • Makes it possible to identify red-herring habits: a habit we claim to want to adopt but don’t actually intend to do
    • Usually reflect other people’s values/priorities
    • Often repeat out loud to avoid admitting true intention of not doing it
  • Clarity of Action: the more specific you are about what action to take, the more likely you will form the habit
    • Better when have concrete actions associated with a habit formation

Self Strategy 2: Identity: “the kind of person I am” is so bound up in habits and actions that is often hard to see in self

  • Harder to change a habit when it is tied to sense of self identity
  • E.g. I am the kind of person who doesn’t carry a purse…so even when I want to buy one because I see the usefulness, I don’t want to because then I won’t be that kind of person
  • Often describe attributes as positive or negative which can help shape the habits we want e.g. Am I  spontaneous or rigid? Energetic or restless?
  • Can be exciting to add a new element to your identity e.g. I am a New Yorker, a blogger, etc.
  • Telling others about a new aspect of our identity can help us stick to the new habit
  • May adopt a habit to signal the identity we want others to see e.g. start drinking to appear fun
  • Can get locked into identities that are not good for us e.g. “a workaholic”
  • May be very hard to change an aspect of your identity and habit that goes with it even if it is not something that is positive for you/healthy because you identify with it so strongly

Self Strategy 3: Other People: how others influence my habits and how I influence others’ habits

  • Health Concordance: couples health habits and statuses tend to merge over time
  • Goal Contagion: picking up someone else’s habits – better to be around people who are good role models with good habits
  • People may actively undermine our efforts to change i.e. you want to stop drinking but that means you don’t drink with spouse so they try to convince you to have a glass
  • Presence of other people may change our habits because of the desire to fit in
    • Can be stumbling block for good habits
  • Can provide mental energy to support other people’s efforts. Three ways to support other people’s healthy habits:
    • Drive: add energy and force to our habits. Be helpful/encouraging, but can be too pushy and a nuisance
    • Reverse: Press others to reverse out of a healthy habit (from love or because mean)
    • Neutral: support us with any and all habits we adopt – may be useful but may make it easier to indulge in less healthy habits

Conclusion: We can build habits only on the foundation of our own nature and habits. We need to know ourselves and figure out what strategies work best for us.




Wow. Talk about a useful book! Just reading through these notes again makes me think about all of my daily actions and habits that are both leading me toward my goals and hindering my progression. 

I think this book as a ton of relevant information for anyone who is trying to progress and move forward. The only way to progress is to change and the only way to change is to take new actions/behaviours and develop new healthy habits.

Read this book!


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