Habits Help You Become Better Than Before

The author Gretchen Rubin writes about happiness and she asked questions like “How can I make myself happier?” She realized that certain actions increased her happiness, so by making these actions a habit and removing the decision-making, she could greatly increase her happiness. She began reviewing the habit-making literature and discovered that she has a relatively easy time making and keeping habits but that most people do not.

Better than Before

Rubin sees a strong connection between a person’s tendency toward dealing with expectations and their ability to establish and maintain good habits. This helps to explain why some habit strategies work really well for some people and fail others’ depending on the person’s tendencies. These concepts are helpful to understand ourselves and to more effectively manage others.

The author is an Upholder, which makes it much easier to keep habits, because she is motivated to meet external expectations as well as her own internal expectations. Rubin is likely to meet a deadline from her publisher and keep a personal commitment to work out at the gym twice a week. Upholders are a small part of the population, hence the popularity of books on habits.

Rubin's tendencies

Most of the population is either a Questioner or an Obliger. I reared a Questioner daughter and I could try to assert a good habit in her life—like brushing her teeth every morning and evening—and she would ask questions about why she should. I learned that if I didn’t lose my patience and say “because I said so,” she would usually establish some internal reasons that benefitted her and happily settle into the habit.

Obligers are also good at making habits with the help of outward accountability. They can be terrific employees if managed with clear expectations and regular reporting. Since a large part of the population are Obligers, it is very important to have clear accountability. These same people can also be taken advantage of because they will overextend themselves to meet others’ expectations.

Other types also benefit from accountability; however, you have to include other processes to engage them in the habits. Questioners and Rebels both need to be engaged in establishing the standards, such as everyday we will have a safety meeting before starting work, and then the habit is more likely to be supported.

As a manager, Rebel employees sound like a bad employee. Rebels like choice and freedom and resist internal and external expectations. This does not mean they cannot establish habits, but they are likely to have fewer regular habits and prefer to find their own way of doing things. True confessions: I am a Rebel. I highly value keeping commitments so I am able to get along in the workplace. To get the most from a Rebel employee you have to provide some flexibility in how tasks get accomplished.


Rubin has developed a short quiz to help figure out your tendency.

Better Than Before is organized around the pillars of habit: monitoring, scheduling, accountability and habit foundations. The latter consists of sleep, move, eat & drink, and unclutter.

There are other tendencies that need consideration when forming good habits or breaking bad habits:

  • Are you a Lark (early bird) or a (night) Owl?
  • Are you a marathoner or a sprinter?
  • Do you tend to overbuy or underbuy? (love to spend vs. hate to spend)
  • Do you love simplicity or prefer abundance?
  • Do you finishing projects or opening/starting projects?
  • Do you prefer familiarity or novelty?
  • Do you take small steps or big steps to reach a goal?
  • Do you find it easier to abstain altogether or does moderation work for you?

Rubin includes observations and strategies for habit-forming depending on your tendencies.

As we consider our workplace environment, it is easier to change our surroundings than ourselves. Rubin questions free snacks at work and promotes the treadmill desk. Essentially, we do better when we make good behavior convenient and bad behavior inconvenient. And everything is more fun when we make it a game.

Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making an Breaking Habits—to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project, co-host of Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and a blog at GretchenRubin.com)