Better Than Before (or, how to make habits that actually stick)

This month, I finally finished a book that has been sitting on my shelf, calling my name for the past few months - Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin (a KC native, I must add). 

Now, when I write the word "habit", I can't help thinking that some of you are shivering in disgust, others are clapping their hands in excitement, and the rest are just feeling a bit guilty. I felt all those emotions while reading this book and still managed to come out more understanding and equipped for making habits that actually work for me. So I'm going to share a few things I learned about habits - why they're so hard to break, hard to keep, and so important in keeping life sane.

Habits are everywhere.

The first thing Rubin taught me was that habits are everywhere. They are, as she says, "the invisible architecture of daily life." I used to think of habits as just small tasks - brushing my teeth, locking my house when I leave, putting my purse in the same place when I get back. But within a few pages, I realized that habits, good and bad, were the framework that moved my life forward - how I responded to my husband, how often I took the stairs at work instead of the elevator, when I replied to emails.

Good habits can save us from the exhaustion of making decisions every day. Do I load the dishwasher right after meals? When do I go to bed? How often do I call my mother? Do I write a blog post today? If habits exist, those tasks get done without much deliberation.

Successfully making new habits depends on your personality.

Rubin defines four different types of personalities (or "tendencies") that respond to inner and outer expectations in very different ways: the Upholder, the Questioner, the Obliger, and the Rebel (for a description of each and a quiz to see which you are, see here). 

I definitely fall into the Upholder tendency with a strong Questioner lean - I stick to rules rigidly as long as they make perfect sense to me, and I will endlessly question ones I don't understand. I am also able to uphold my own inner expectations of myself.

Because of this tendency, I have to understand the why behind any habit and embrace the reason, before I will follow through. This really stood out when I started my new job. When faced with a lot of double charting and repetitive tasks, I asked why a lot - and I got answers that made sense. Now, I fill out the paperwork required without much thought. It's become second nature to do it all, because I understand it.

This is also a reason I don't run. I don't enjoy running, I don't feel the need to be healthier (although I know I need to exercise), and I don't care that lots of other people do it and are crazy about it. If I don't want to do it, it probably won't happen.

If you've struggled to build new habits, it may be worthwhile to figure out which tendency you fall into.

There are lots of ways to make habits succeed - and fail.

It's a paradox - some habits can take years to form, then only a few days to completely fall apart. Others (especially bad ones, if you're like me) can stubbornly persist, despite our best efforts to break them. There are many different strategies that can strengthen habits and set us up for success, if we are willing to make the extra effort. Here are a few -

  • Monitoring - All those planners with little checkboxes for daily habits are actually serving a purpose. If we keep track of how often we do something (wake up on time, clean the bathroom, pray, walk one mile), we are more likely to keep doing it. This is one reason fitness bands like FitBit are so popular. You can see the progress you are making, and you want to keep doing it.
     
  • Scheduling - As Rubin says, If it's on the calendar, it happens. This one is crucial for me. I have to schedule tasks that are important to me, because I am easily distracted by minor crises or pleasures that pop up throughout my day. But if I wait for the perfect time or a less-busy schedule, it will never happen.
     
  • Accountability - This strategy is very important for Obligers, who respond more to outer expectations from others than to inner expectations. If you're an Obliger, one of the best plans for success you can have is to make a commitment to someone other than yourself that you will do something. Get an exercise partner. Make plans for a playdate with a friend if you're trying to get your kid outside more. Ask your husband to go grocery shopping with you if you're trying to stay on budget. Some habits are better done with others than alone.

 

Better Than Before is best treated like a roadmap for building better habits. The chapters are short, but the ideas in each are heavy with applications for daily life. I'm still thinking about the habits I want to build and how to apply these principles in a real way. Some habits I'd like to make stronger are -

  • Writing regularly
  • Better quality time with my husband
  • Waking up early consistently
  • Cleaning my house (yes, it's sad, but a fact!)

If you've read this book or any other on habits, I'd love it if you shared what you learned in the comments. What are some ways you've discovered to build better habits, and in the process, a better life?

Disclosure: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own. Affiliate links used; see full disclosure here.