walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

_Better Than Before_, Gretchen Rubin

Subtitled: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives
Published by Crown, 2015

First off, I find habit adoption, abandonment and management to be generically fascinating. As annoyingly bad as most writing on the topic of the lifecycles of habits is, I've finished more books about habits than I have quit in the middle. And I finished this one, too.

Operating against Rubin: it's difficult to read a book written by a work from home mum of two in a NYC apartment big enough for her to have her own home office (albeit described as tiny) and think it has any meaningful relevance to, well, anyone. Her father-in-law is Robert Rubin (yeah, the former Treasury Secretary guy -- but the Jamie Rubin in wikipedia is not the Jamie Rubin who is her frequently mentioned husband in the book. Here is the NYT Style section mention of their wedding: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/09/04/style/weddings-gretchen-a-craft-james-s-rubin.html).

Operating _for_ Rubin is her self-deprecation, ability to absorb vast amounts of written information, basic goodness and recognition that not everyone is exactly the same and they shouldn't be encouraged to be so. She genuinely supports self-agency, in a way that few people thinking and writing in this space do.

What this book offers: a taxonomy of people in terms of how they respond to commitments (whether externally or internally opposed); a taxonomy of strategies for establishing and maintaining habits (interestingly, she has a lot more to say about positive actions and positive habits, rather than stopping or negative actions and negative habits -- that's unusual, and unusually wonderful); a lot of fantastic anecdotes of habit tinkering, and "lessons learned" from those anecdotes.

Rubin is very up front that while she reads widely, she finds the people she meets and talks to more compelling that a bunch of studies. I think that is, in part, because her mechanisms for critiquing scientific work are comparatively poor (they are much better than average, but compared to everything else she does, not as good). Thus, at least in how she presents herself, she is much more capable of spotting lies, misunderstandings and misrepresentation in person than buried in a study. The effect of that is to make this book, like virtually every other book about habits and their lifecycles, extremely dependent upon the social circles of the writer. (See above, socioeconomic status observations.)

Rubin mentions throughout the book, typically towards the end of the chapter, how various habit decisions reflect her values. Putting these observations at the ends of chapters does provide a natural "wrapping up", but the "moral at the end" is also a bit heavy handed (where "a bit" should be thought of as weaponized understatement). Further, there are some indications within the book that a particular key life insight hasn't really gotten through to the author yet, and the result is unfortunate. She describes attempts to adopt the habit of meditation, and like many people attempting to meditate in the early stages, she does a fine job describing all the annoying stray thoughts and sounds and so forth that plague one at the beginning. And I (honestly!) don't mind that she decides not to meditate (particularly as she has chosen to define meditation, sitting with a particular posture, etc. Arguably, the kind of book Rubin writes is itself meditation, both in process and product. Doesn't even require much argument!). However, I feel that her willingness to assume the presence and identity of "higher values" (vs. "worldy" -- her word -- or physical values) and her assumption that "in the long run" is the only way to assess the value of something indicate a degree of resistance to being present that is breathtaking (as in, get me out of here, I can't breathe, this is suffocating me).

I haven't decided whether I think this is a book anyone should read. I will say this. It's a fast and compelling read, it is well-thought out and well-researched, the author has a sense of humor that comes through in the text and she seems like a really good human being.

But as much as I love habits, I really wonder about someone who invents categories like "Abstainer" and "Upholder" to self-describe, and has such negative things to say about Moderation. Or, for that matter, who seems so utterly determined to create and reify a self-identity that involves so little value on the physical pleasures of food, movement, etc.

I'll be skipping her books on Happiness, if that helps you calibrate my feelings on this book and its author.
Tags: book review, non-fiction
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