Book Review: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before 

Gretchen Rubin 

Crown 2015 320 pp. 


Some of the best advice I ever got was from an old soldier I met in England. I remember it well even though it was some forty-odd years ago. I was lugging a big plastic bag of dirty clothes into the laundromat. It was a mucky night, squally and cold and I was looking forward to the warmth inside the glass doors and the eventual store of clean clothes that awaited me. “A young lad like you should be doin’ his own dobeyin’” I heard a voice say. Looking ‘round I saw this old lad sheltering up against the wall from the rain. “And then I’ll hang them out in the garden” I said. “Well, there is that” he replied, smiling and looking up at the falling rain. “I’ll just spend a few bob here” I said “and nip across the street to the pub and let the machines do the work”. “Fair deuce” he replied. So I went in, got the laundry churning in the washer and headed out for the afore-mentioned pub. The old soldier was still there — I knew he was a soldier from his use of the term ‘dobeying’. His bus hadn’t come yet so I invited him for a pint and we both went across the street to The Flower Pot. 

We chatted over a couple of pints and, as I surmised, he was an old retired soldier who had last served in India. He had some great stories and a low opinion of today’s ‘yoof’ (youth)— though he did mention a couple of times that he thought I was “all right”. 

Somewhere in the conversation he mentioned that the best thing he had learned in the army was the habit of making his bed every morning. “You should try it” he said “it helps get you started the right way for the rest of the day. An’ do it proper: it doesn’t count unless you do it proper”. And he was right. It was a couple of years before I tried it. I’d been laid off my job at the car factory and the days had turned into tedious, formless boredom. So I started trying to impose a routine and making my bed when I got up was the first part of that routine. The simple process of taking care of just one basic thing each day brought a whole new energy and structure to life. It’s been my habit ever since. 

Which brings me, in a round about way, to this month’s book review — Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. 

When you’re your own boss it’s absolutely crucial that you be disciplined about your working habits. It’s far too easy to put things off, to prioritize the wrong things or do far more than is required by doing ‘busy’ work for fear of not getting things done. Over the years I used tricks, treats, punishments and will-power to keep myself in line. Some of it worked, some of it failed — sometimes I knew why, sometimes not. So when I saw this book advertised on Facebook (now, there’s a habit I need to rein in), I was curious and a got myself a copy.

It’s a pretty smart book. First of all, it recognizes that that not all methods work for everyone. Some people are more self-motivated than others, some will only adopt a habit if it makes the most sense to them. Some people like to please others, some are rebels and resist expectations. 

After this she lists some techniques that may help to change old or establish new habits depending, of course, on your personality — there’s not much point in encouraging a rebellious type to de-clutter their office — especially if they like working in a cluttered office. It also, though, allows for loopholes — lapses that will happen are prevented from derailing an otherwise sound routine. 

There’s a lot of good and helpful information in this book. It’s well-reasoned, clearly laid out and realistic about what is likely to work or not. As with some of these types of book, there are a lot of anecdotal examples as well as comments that readers left on the author’s blog, but these do help to add insight to ideas and are not just ‘filler’. The book has thrown light on some of my failed routines and also shown me why my more successful ones worked. And I think it will make a great ‘how-to’ book for future habits — I’m looking forward to it.

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