Better Than Before – Gretchen Rubin


“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” — William Butler Yeats

20 August 2016 is the day everything changed. The day didn’t start well but over the course of the morning, the plates shifted. I dusted off a book that had been sitting on my shelf for 6 months and started reading it. And pretty soon wondered why I hadn’t picked it up sooner.

The book was Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before, a layman’s journey into habits and how to change them. I’d tried books on habits before, dry tomes on the amount of time it takes to fix a habit but nothing about how to really make a start in the first place. Gretchen’s approach is first about knowing who you are and how you respond to inner and outer expectations. She includes a test which you can take to see which category you fall into: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger and Rebel. I didn’t really need to take the test to discover that I am an Obliger: good at meeting outer expectations (those other people put on me) but not good at meeting inner expectations (those goals that I make for myself). Understanding this better meant that I could think better about how to make new habits so that I can adapt my surroundings to best suit me.

One of the things that I had been struggling with for a while, and which had started to really get me down, was my approach to exercise and eating healthily. All good habits that I had picked up in 2009 The Year That I Was Thin had been forgotten (or ignored) and I was turning into a sofa-dwelling slug. This was an area in which I wanted to turn things around. Here are some nuggets of Gretchen’s (sometimes borrowed) wisdom which helped me relocate my mojo.

#1 “Decide Then Don’t Decide”
This pearl of wisdom boils down to this: once you have made a decision to do something, follow through and stop wasting energy trying to renegotiate with yourself when it comes to executing the action. Just do it, no discussion. I decided to do 30 minutes of some sort of exercise at 6.30am every day. And since August 2016, on most mornings, I have done just that. On just a handful of occasions I have found apparently compelling enough reasons to not do this. Some of these may have been Loopholes (more on that later). For me it was easier to decide to do a small workout each day than have the constant decision making required for doing something longer on 3 or 4 days a week. Connected to this is the idea that what we do everyday matters more than what we do once in a while. I wanted to put exercise back into my day as an Important Thing. I love getting my daily dose of endorphins. Similarly, I decided to cut out eating rubbish snacks at work. The office is filled with free biscuits, chocolates and cakes for birthdays, and it’s always someone’s birthday! It’s much easier to say no once and then abstain than to decide each time the opportunity arises.

#2 “Everything Counts”
This nugget ties in to one of the Loopholes that Gretchen describes where we (falsely) come up with some sort of rationale for not following through on our habits, for example the Loophole of This Doesn’t Count. “It’s weekend/holidays/I’m ill so this doesn’t count”, “Just this one thing won’t make a difference”. But it all counts. Everything we do adds up. A big pile of small stones is still a big pile. So the one chocolate, the one biscuit, the fact that it is Friday, it all matters. Everything Counts.

#3 “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”
Being paralysed into inaction by a desire for perfection is clearly a fundamentally worse position to be in than actually doing the something albeit imperfectly. So don’t let the P-word stand in your way of making progress. As I was getting back into my gym, running and swimming activities, I was coming from a fitness level well below that at which I had previously been and it was demoralising. Gretchen has a phrase that she uses: “Accept yourself but expect more of yourself”. So I accepted the reality that I wouldn’t be achieving what I had done before and aimed to get fitter, stronger, better than my current state.

#4 “We Manage What We Monitor”
Humans are very good at under- or overestimating things. If you want to keep something under control, measure and monitor on a regular basis. I dusted off my body composition scales and started journaling my progress, and tracking my food intake so that I could see where I was slipping up.

#5 “Unclutter”
One of Gretchen’s four foundation habits (the others being Sleep, Move and Eat and Drink Right), uncluttering is for me one of the most cathartic processes I can do. Clearing my spaces clears my head. As well as physical clutter, it’s also mental clutter that sometimes needs sweeping up. I now get reminders out of my head and into my phone, I simplified my mornings by setting a routine and sticking to it: wake at 6.00, exercise at 6.15, jump in the shower at 6.45, breakfast at 7.10, clean teeth at 7.25 and leave the house at 7.30. Now it goes like clockwork.

Losing weight for my wedding was never the purpose of changing my habits. But by twist of fate, 365 days after my thunderbolt epiphany, I got married to my amazing (supportive, loved me whatever shape I was but just wished me happy) husband. I was 18kg lighter, full of confidence and most definitely happy. Another year on, two years after the Thunderbolt, I’m happy to have remained within a few pounds above or below where I was on our wedding day. This year I’ve set monthly fitness challenges for myself to keep the momentum. Losing weight is one thing, keeping it off is quite another. Or, as Gretchen would say “Keeping up is easier than catching up”.