Making Habits Easier to Break (and Make): A Review

In recent years, Gretchen Rubin has turned herself into something of a happiness guru. She has written two books called The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, and even hosts a podcast called “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.” As part of her investigations into happiness, she has put some thought into how people form, change, and maintain habits. This has led to her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

In the book, Rubin does not generally advocate particular habits to begin or end. She also doesn’t get into the neuroscience of habit formation (unlike Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit). This book is all about changing behavior through specific techniques. She first advocates knowing yourself, and classifies people according to a fourfold typology based on how they respond to expectations. People are:

  • Upholders, who respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations;
  • Questioners, who question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified;
  • Obligers, who respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations; and
  • Rebels, who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike (16).

Rubin goes on in the rest of the book to talk about nuts and bolts. She begins with what she calls the “Pillars of Habits” (Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability), then proceeds to the best time to begin a new habit, strategies to cement habits by making them as enjoyable as possible, and ways to foster habits by seeing ourselves in the context of other people, and not just as individuals.

I found this book to be helpful. In her fourfold typology, I tend to be an obliger, which helped me to better understand why I’ve been successful or unsuccessful at forming habits in the past and made me think about how best to form habits in the future. I am extremely good at meeting deadlines in situations where I will be letting someone down if I don’t meet them, and not so great at meeting self-imposed deadlines that no one knows about but me.

While I enjoyed the book, I did come away with a mild sense of relief that I am not Rubin’s friend, since throughout the book she came across to me as slightly pushy when it comes to getting her friends to adopt a habit. Rubin also does not spend much time delving into the  “why” behind habit formation besides the pursuit of happiness, defined (as far as I can tell, not having read her earlier books) as a general sense of well-being. I think there are positives and negatives to this approach. On the positive side, she does not try to fit everyone into a single mold. She knows that people are different and form habits in different ways. On the negative side, I do think that there are good and bad habits, as well as better and worse goals to have, and Rubin’s reluctance to pay attention to the telos of human existence might make it harder for some people (especially questioners) to benefit from her advice.

Here are a few other helpful reviews of this book:

New York Times

Brain Pickings


Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.