Better than Before

Better than Before

I keep thinking that I don’t need to read the latest Gretchen Rubin book as I am such a fan of her other books (see my blogs on The Happiness Project and Happier at Home) and am not practicing all that they preach, so I shouldn’t embark on another one. However, I was drawn to reading Better Than Before: Mastering the habits of our everyday lives this month and I’m very glad I did.

One of its central thesis is that there are four types of people when it comes to identifying how your nature effects your habits, and if you figure out which one you are, you are much more likely to be able to find a way that works for you to stick to good habits, which will ultimately make you happier. I didn’t need to do the quiz to know that I was the same as Gretchen, an Upholder. My friend Polly had already told me that there was no doubt that I was, and any category described as ‘the Hermione one’ is going to have me in it. Of course I did the quiz anyway and Polly was proved right.

Gretchen argues that the four tendencies are hard-wired – people are either Upholders, Rebels, Obligers and Questioners. Upholders and Rebels are very small categories – most people are Obligers or Questioners. Upholders readily respond to both outer and inner expectations. They get up and think ‘what’s in the diary and on the to do list today?. That is absolutely me. They want to know what’s expected of them and to meet those expectations, avoiding letting people down, including themselves. Thankfully, a strong instinct for self-preservation means that it’s easy for them to say no to things that they don’t want to do. There’s a relentless quality to Upholders. Me again. A dark side of gold-star seeking and hoop jumping.

What was particularly helpful was not just learning about what this means for understanding yourself, but also what it means for understanding those around you. For me as an Upholder, living with a Rebel can be challenging (and honestly, what are the chances of that, given that they are both such small categories!). Rebels wake up and think ‘what do I want to do today?’. They resist control, even self-control, and enjoy flouting rules and expectations. Rebels work towards their own goals in their own way, they refuse to do what they are supposed to do, but in doing so they can accomplish their own aims. So rebels can frustrate others because they cannot be asked or told to do anything. They don’t care that they said they’d do it. Asking them to do something often makes them do the opposite. It creates a ‘stop’ sensation that they have to actively overcome. One rebel says when quoted in the book that if asked to empty the dishwasher they think ‘well I was going to, but now you asked I can’t, so no’. They often work better when they are in charge. Upholders can be distressed by a Rebel’s expectation-rejecting behaviour but the more they push, the more the Rebel will resist. Note to self.

It’s useful to remember that no one way is the right way and to be reminded that whilst in many ways it’s good to always meet your obligations, go to things you said you would and to not let people down, that it can be quite exhausting to have such high demands of yourself, and unreasonable to expect the same of others.

Gretchen Rubin uses extensive research to point out why habits are good for us. Habits eliminate the need for self-control and people with better self control/regulation/discipline are both happier and healthier. Whilst it does take self-control to establish good habits, once they are in place they become effortless. People feel more in control and less anxious when engaged in habbit behaviour.

She also discusses a number of other binaries that people tend to fall into and how knowing them makes sticking to habits easier. First of all, larks and owls. Larks are happier, healthier and more satisfied with life than owls, in part because the world favours Larks. Owls fall asleep later than Larks and because work, school and young children start early, Owls get less sleep, which makes their life harder.

Then there are marathoners and sprinters. Sprinters think marathoners are plodding and marathoners think sprinters are irresponsible. Abstainers find it easier to give something up altogether than moderators, who can have a little bit and then stop.

She also talks a lot about tiredness and the importance of getting enough sleep. Being mildly but chronically short of sleep makes people more susceptible to hunger and temptation. Self-control wanes as the day goes on, which explains my late evening online shopping habit. The ‘bad trance’ I recognised immediately – when you are simultaneously tired and wired – exhausted but full of adrenalin, caffeine and sugar. When you’re too tired to get off the sofa and go to bed. I have got a lot better at this and having to go to bed early for my morning commute makes it much less common to get myself into this state, thankfully.

I’m also an overbuyer not an underbuyer and a simplicity lover rather than an abundance lover. I get more pleasure shedding things than acquiring them. I am one of those people that loves using up the last bit in the toothpaste tube rather than the feeling of opening a new one. I also love a trip to the charity shop to give things away, so why oh why am I an overbuyer then?! No doubt the convenience of online shopping really doesn’t help. Gretchen draws on behavioural economics to point out that we need to make it easy for ourselves to stick to our good habits, whilst many companies are making it easy for us not to (that one-click button on Amazon for instance).

Now always feels like an unpopular time to take a first step. So instead of deciding I’d start my habits diary in the New Year I started that day instead. Yes it’s before Christmas, which will make it hard, but probably no harder than starting in somewhat depressing January. I’m sure I won’t stick to the habits that I am going to try and cultivate all of the time, but if I’m recording them I’ll find it easier to get back on track and will be less likely to go off the rails in the party season. I’m already a quantified-selfer and wearing a Fitbit does help with tracking my sleep and exercise.

I felt relief writing this blog on my morning train rather than starting yet another new book when I haven’t blogged for ages, which I was feeling guilty (with myself) about. Blogging again means I’m getting back into a good habit that I enjoy and meeting my expectations for myself. Sounds boring? Doesn’t bother me if it does – it makes me happy.

Gretchen Rubin ends the book by describing this as ‘everyday life in Utopia’ – ‘everyday life with deep, loving relationships and productive, satisfying work; everyday life with energy, health and productivity; everyday life with fun, enthusiasm and engagement, with as little regret, guilt or anger as possible’. Sounds pretty good to me!