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Gretchen Rubin Excerpt: Better Than Before

I’m not sure how or where I discovered Gretchen Rubin, but her book “Better Than Before” seemed like something I needed on my reading list.  It was January, I was determined to make a fresh start in several areas of my life, and the sub-header read: “What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits – to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life

I was only a few chapters in when I PMed my friend, colleague and accountability partner and said “Drop everything…  whatever else you’re reading right now… and order this book!”  She had it on her Kindle before we signed off!  There are just so many Aha! moments.

Here’s the excerpt she often shares with the world:



First Steps

“Some habit-formation strategies are familiar and obvious—like Monitoring or Scheduling—but others took me more time to understand. As I studied habits, I slowly began to recognize the tremendous importance of the time of beginning.

“The most important step is the first step. All those old sayings are really true. Well begun is half done. Don’t get it perfect, get it going. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started, and strangely, starting is often far harder than continuing.

“That first step is tough. Every action has an ignition cost: getting myself to the gym and changed into my gym clothes can be more challenging than actually working out. That’s why good habits are a tremendous help: they make the starting process automatic.

“Without yet having a name for it, in fact, I’d invoked the power of the Strategy of First Steps as I was starting to write this book. I’d spent months reading and taking copious notes, and I had a giant doc­ument with a jumble of material about habits. This initial period of research for a book is always exhilarating, but eventually I have to begin the painstaking labor of actual analysis and writing.

“What was the most auspicious date to start? I asked myself. The first day of the week, or the month, or the year? Or my birthday? Or the start of the school year? Then I realized that I was beginning to invoke tomorrow logic.

“Nope. Begin now. I was ready. Take the first step. It’s enough to begin.

Now is an unpopular time to take a first step. Won’t things be easier—for some not-quite-specified reason—in the future? I have a fantasy of what I’ll be like tomorrow: Future-Gretchen will sponta­neously start a good new habit, with no planning and no effort neces­sary; it’s quite pleasant to think about how virtuous I’ll be, tomorrow. But there is no Future-Gretchen, only Now-Gretchen.


“When taking the first step toward a new habit, a key question from the Strategy of Distinctions is “Do I prefer to take small steps or big steps?”

“Many people succeed best when they keep their starting steps as small and manageable as possible; by doing so, they gain the habit of the habit, and the feeling of mastery. They begin their new yoga routine by doing three poses, or start work on a big writing project by drafting a single sentence in a writing session.

“As an exercise zealot, I was pleased when my mother told me that she was trying to make a habit of going for a daily walk.

““But I’m having trouble sticking to it,” she told me.

““How far are you going?”

““Twice around Loose Park,” she told me, “which is about two miles.”

““Try going just once around the park,” I suggested. That worked. When she started smaller, she was able to form the habit.

“Small steps can be particularly helpful when we’re trying to do something that seems overwhelming. If I can get myself to take that first small step, I usually find that I can keep going. I invoked this principle when I was prodding myself to master Scrivener, a writers’ software program. Scrivener would help me organize my enormous trove of notes, but I dreaded starting: installing the software; synchronizing between my laptop and desktop computers; and most difficult, figuring out how to use it.

“Each day gave me a new opportunity to push the task off until tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’d feel like dealing with it. “Start now,” I finally thought. “Just take the first step.” I started with the smallest possible step, which was to find the website where I could buy the software. Okay, I thought. I can do that. And then I did. I had a lot of hard work ahead of me—it’s a Secret of Adulthood: things often get harder before they get easier—but I’d started. The next day, with a feeling of much greater confidence and calm, I watched the tutorial video. Then I created my document. And then—I started my book.

“However, some people do better when they push themselves more boldly; a big challenge holds their interest and helps them persist. A friend was determined to learn French, so he moved to France for six months.

“Along those lines, the Blast Start can be a helpful way to take a first step. The Blast Start is the opposite of taking the smallest possible first step because it requires a period of high commitment. It’s demand­ing, but its intensity can energize a habit. For instance, after reading Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem!—which explains how to write a novel in a month—I wrote a novel in thirty days, as a way to spark my creativity. This kind of shock treatment can’t be maintained for­ever, but it’s fun and gives momentum to the habit. A twenty-one-day project, a detox, a cleanse, an ambitious goal, a boot camp—by tackling more instead of less for a certain period, I get a surge of energy and focus. (Not to mention bragging rights.) In particular, I love the retreat model. Three times, I’ve set aside a few days to work on a book during every waking hour, with breaks only for meals and for exer­cise. These periods of intensity help fuel my daily writing habit.

“However, a Blast Start is, by definition, unsustainable over the long term. It’s very important to plan specifically how to shift from the intensity of the Blast Start into the habit that will continue indef­initely.

“There’s no right way or wrong way, just whatever works.


“Taking the first step is hard, and every first step requires some kind of transition. Adults help children to manage transition—by giving them bedtime routines, cleanup reminders, and warnings of “Five more minutes!”—but we adults often expect ourselves to careen effortlessly from one activity to the next. I’m in the habit of writing a blog post every day, yet every day I have to gear up to start. Running activities too closely together makes me feel harried and irritable, and habits of transition help me to switch gears more calmly.

“I love my morning transition from sleep to family time. I wake up early, even on the weekends, because I never want to miss that time to myself.

“Other people have their own transition rituals. A friend said, “I drop my son off at school, then I buy myself coffee and read celebrity gossip from 9:15 to 10:00, then I start work.” Another friend explained: “When I was working on my daily writing habit, I didn’t think about writing, I thought about my prewriting ritual. I sat down at the computer, put on my headphones, and turned on my Writing Music mix. By the second or third song, I wouldn’t even hear the music anymore, but it was a clear signal that it was time to write. I’ve listened to it 267 times.” Another friend said, “I can’t just show up at the gym and work out. There’s a cafe there, so I take my laptop and work on my thesis. After an hour or so, I’m ready to exercise.” 

“Jamie has a transition habit when he comes home from work. He gives everyone a hello kiss, then disappears for twenty minutes or so. He changes out of his suit, sends one last round of emails, glances at a magazine, and then he’s ready to join the family. Because I’m always eager to cross things off my to-do list, I often want to hit him with scheduling issues or chore requests as soon as I see him. Thinking about the importance of transitions made me realize that I should respect his habit and save my questions until he’d settled in.

“A friend’s husband has a more idiosyncratic transition. He sits on a sofa that faces a built-in bookcase, and, one arm flung over the sofa back, looks at the bookcase. “He calls it ‘staring at the bookcase,’” she told me. “He’s not meditating or anything like that, and I can talk to him, but he wants fifteen minutes to stare at the bookcase when he gets home.”

“Regular bedtime habits can ease the challenging transition from waking to sleeping, and help us fall sleep faster and sleep more deeply. A friend who works in finance and travels all the time, and who definitely doesn’t seem to be the bath type, needs a bath before he can get into bed, no matter how late his day ends.

“I wish Jamie had a habit like that, because he really struggles to fall asleep. Habits cheerleader that I am, I kept pointing out good sleep habits, such as “Don’t watch TV before bedtime,” “Don’t check your email before bed, it gets you all riled up,” “Don’t stare into a glowing screen, the light will make you more alert,” and “Let’s open a window, because cooling the body down helps to prepare for sleep.” He ignored all these suggestions—except for the open window.

“Finally, though, I dropped the issue. If Jamie didn’t want to change his habits, I couldn’t change them for him. I remembered a joke that a psychiatrist friend told me, “How many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.” My lightbulb didn’t want to change.

“I had a problem nighttime habit myself. For me, and for many people, transitions often trigger the urge to snack or drink—and choices are generally not of the celery or chamomile tea variety. I’d fallen into the habit of wandering into the kitchen around 9:00 to forage, because even though I wasn’t hungry, I craved a snack. The evening felt incomplete without it. But I didn’t like this habit, so I decided to quit eating after dinner.

“I’d often heard the advice to brush my teeth after dinner, as a way to quit night snacking. I doubted that this could make a difference, but decided to give it a try. Instead of brushing my teeth right before I went to bed, I started to brush my teeth after I finished tucking in Eleanor, around 8:30.

“To my astonishment, this simple habit proved highly effective; my urge to snack drops after I brush my teeth. As I brush, I think, “No more eating for today, that’s finished,” and that thought, along with the clean feeling in my mouth, helps to end the eating portion of my evening. Also, many years of nightly brushing have made me connect the experience of toothpaste with the transition to bedtime.

“By examining these moments of transition, we can make small changes that yield big benefits.”


To order a copy of this great read, go to Gretchen’s website by clicking the link below: