Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Crown: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Crown: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Crown: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Crown: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

by Gretchen Rubin

"When we change our habits, we change our lives." We know our habits influence our health and happiness. If we habitually eat healthy foods, our risk of obesity decreases. On the other hand, if we can't seem to stop staying up past our bedtime, our mood and concentration during waking hours will suffer. The question Gretchen Rubin (Happier at Home) asked herself focused not on how habits affect our lives, but why we have so much trouble creating and maintaining positive habits when we're aware of the cost-benefit ratio of doing anything else. After reading the latest scientific research on the subject of habitual behaviors and enlisting the help of family and friends, Rubin embarked on a journey to discover why some people appear to make and keep habits effortlessly while others struggle, and how we can all find a strategy to achieve the right routine. "Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control," she explains, because habits replace internal struggles with an autopilot mechanism. However, the real trick lies in consciously creating this mechanism.

According to Rubin, "The most important thing is to know ourselves, and to choose the strategies that work for us." In other words, she recognizes that wanting to form a healthy routine isn't enough; we must set ourselves up for success. She asks readers to take the first step of recognizing which of four personality types they fit in her "habits Sorting Hat": the "Upholder" who values expectations that come from within as well as from others, the "Obliger" who meets others' expectations but often fails to meet internal expectations, the "Questioner" who must see value in any expectations before meeting them, or the "Rebel" who struggles against any and all expectations. Understanding motivation is the key to strategizing. For example, a Questioner may easily take to regular exercise because she understands its intrinsic value, but an Obliger may have difficulty adjusting to good self-care habits without an accountability partner. Rubin also gives readers a secondary list of criteria for self-examination, quizzing them on everything from their most productive time of day to whether they prefer familiarity or novelty. The self-inventory may sound extensive, but it's no more challenging than taking an Internet quiz, and the results are far more valuable. "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."

As in her previous books, Rubin relies on anecdotes from her own life to illustrate her points, many of them involving the loved ones who tested her theories and strategies. Her diabetic sister, Elizabeth, features prominently as a strategy tester, and her successful attempts to give up French fries, monitor her blood sugar levels as closely as possible and exercise more inform Rubin's conclusions and offer amusement as Rubin gives her not-so-subtle encouragement--treadmill desk, anyone? While Rubin provides a complete list of notes to back up her quotations and statistics, as well as an exhaustive list of further readings, her stories of seeing her theories at work first-hand make the most compelling argument for trying out her advice. After all, one of Rubin's Secrets of Adulthood is, "I'm more like other people, and less like other people, than I suppose." Using a variety of real-life examples in conjunction with theoretical advice gives readers added opportunity to decide which situations and strategies best relate to their lives.

The real meat of Rubin's work lies in her careful analysis of the many strategies that can help habits form and the equally powerful pitfalls and loopholes that can break them. Some of her suggestions may strike readers as almost too easy, such as scheduling activities until--or even after--they become habitual. "How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives," Rubin reminds us. Other strategies, such as pairing activities we think of as undesirable with more fun pastimes, stimulate creative thought about how to make a chore less arduous. Possibly the most helpful information comes from Rubin's explorations of the traps set against habits by the outside world and by ourselves. For example, rewarding oneself for good behavior may seem logical on the surface, but Rubin cautions that "continuous progress is the opposite of a finish line" and a reward can make what should be an ongoing habit feel like a finished task.

In a world where we are constantly reminded of the good habits we should follow, yet simultaneously bombarded with temptations to do the opposite, Rubin's latest brainchild serves as a refreshingly sane touchstone. Smart, supportive and breezily honest about her own flaws, Rubin encourages us to get in touch with what we truly value, not impose challenging regimens in pursuit of unrealistic ideals. Best of all, the release date comes just in time to rescue those of us who have dropped our New Year's resolutions with a more relaxing and realistic look at how we shape our lives. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Crown, $26, hardcover, 9780385348614, March 17, 2015

Crown: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin: Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

photo: Elena Seibert

Gretchen Rubin is one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on the linked subjects of habits, happiness and human nature. She's the author of numerous  books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers Happier at Home and The Happiness Project. Rubin has an enormous following, in print and online; her books have sold more than two million copies worldwide, in more than 30 languages, and on her popular blog,, she reports on her adventures in pursuit of habits and happiness. Rubin started her career in law, and was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters. Here, Rubin talks with us about habits, narrating audiobooks and understanding yourself.

Change your habits, change your life. It seems so obvious when you put it that way, but how did you find the initial idea for this project?

I've been thinking and writing about happiness for years, and I began to notice that when talking about their happiness, people often mentioned their habits--an important habit they couldn't make or break. So I began to get more and more interested in habits.

Then I had a conversation with a friend that turned my interest into a full-time preoccupation. Over lunch, she told me that she wished she could form the habit of exercising, and added, "In high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice, but I can't go running now. Why?"

Her struggles spurred me to ask myself: Why do we form habits, and when, and how? Why is it easier at some times than other times? Why is it easier for some people than others? Why do some people eagerly embrace habits, and others resist them? Why do we sometimes break a longstanding habit overnight--or adopt one?

We all face pressure to follow so many habits: keep the house neat, eat right, exercise, read more, spend more time with family, keep up with correspondence, and on and on forever. Where should a person who wants to make several changes start?

There are a few ways to start. First of all, whenever you're in a period of transition--a new house, new job, new relationship--that's a terrific time to start a new habit. If you're going through a change like that, take advantage of it. After law school, when I started a new job, I started going to the gym before work every day. It was a lot easier to start that new habit when my whole schedule was being changed. Along the same lines, my father quit smoking when he went on a six-week business trip to Micronesia.

Also, a good way to start a new habit is to monitor. Monitoring is uncannily effective. We do a better job with just about any activity when we monitor it. So if you want to eat right, keep a food journal. If you want to exercise more, keep an exercise log or wear a pedometer. If you want to spend more time with your family, keep track of how much family time you have each week.

What new habits have you been able to adopt thanks to your research and epiphanies?

So many. The most dramatic habit I've developed is to give up carbs--I now eat a very low-carbohydrate diet. I'm much more diligent about going to bed on time. I have "Power Hour" every weekend, when I spend an hour working on some long-delayed task. I stand on one leg in the elevator whenever I'm going to or from my apartment, to work on my balance. I've managed to stop snacking after dinner. I put away my clothes regularly--mostly. I stopped using salutations and closings in most of my e-mails. I use automatic bill-paying much more. I go for a weekly walk with a friend. I read much more. I could go on and on!

In Better Than Before, you mainly focus on how to pick up a habit. Do you have any advice on kicking bad habits to the curb?

Good habits and bad habits are mirror images of each other. To stop staying up too late is to turn out the light on time. To stop procrastinating is to work steadily. Some people like to think about ending bad habits, others, starting good habits. Each of us should frame the habit in the way that appeals most to us.

You ask readers to do a lot of thinking about their personality types in different categories. For those of us who have difficulty identifying our tendencies or don't fit neatly into categories, how do we go about identifying our habit strategies?

In Better Than Before, I identify 21 habit strategies. That sounds like a lot, I know, but it means that there's a wide menu of options. If one habit strategy doesn't strike a chord with you, or you're not sure how you'd use it, you can move on to something else. The real secret is to understand yourself, to find the strategies that suit your nature. Among the 21, you'll probably find several that strike a chord with you.

It's surprisingly challenging to know ourselves. You'd think, "What's hard about my knowing myself? All I do is hang out with myself all day." And yet it's so easy to be distracted by what we assume is true, or what we wish were true, or what other people want, that we lose track of what's really true for us. But we can build good habits, and a happier life, only on the foundation of our own nature, our own interests and our own values.

I saw on your blog that you're the audiobook reader for Better than Before and also recorded The Happiness Project. How do you feel about being your own reader?

I love it. It's a fascinating process. And readers are so enthusiastic about hearing the author read his or her own book--it's really gratifying. Plus, when I recorded The Happiness Project I got to work with the people who recorded the Harry Potter books with Jim Dale, and with Better Than Before, I worked with the engineer who had recorded Cherry Jones reading the Little Housebooks. I love those audiobooks, so it was thrilling to have any kind of connection to their creation. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Powered by: Xtenit