Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Better Than BeforeI recently picked up a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s book “Better Than Before.

I bought it because I really enjoyed her Happiness Project book and I’m a little obsessed with efficiency in general and optimizing my habits and routine.

When I started reading “Better Than Before”, I intended to enjoy it privately and use the suggestions in my personal life. But as I read, I was struck I was by how many of the ideas she laid out could be applied to clean eating.


Better than Before

Before I share the insight I found the most fascinating and relevant to eating habits, I want to be clear that none of this info is intended as a guilt trip.

I’m not suggesting building habits that foster an extreme or overly fastidious approach to eating- I firmly believe that eating should be a source of pleasure and not of guilt. At the same time, I believe there is a strong connection between how we eat and how we feel, and am therefore always looking for ways to keep up and strengthen healthy eating habits.

I really like how Rubin summed this up in the opening pages:

“Habits have a tremendous role to play in creating an atmosphere of growth, because they help us to make consistent, reliable progress.

Perfection may be an impossible goal, but habits help us to do better. Making headway toward a good habit, doing better than before saves us from facing the end of another year with the mournful wish, once again, the we’d done things differently.”

Rubin insists that in order to shape our habits successfully, we must know ourselves. She argues that it is paramount to understand our own values and temperament if we are to reap significant gains in developing good habits, such as healthy eating.

An important thing to know about ourself is whether we are an “Abstainer” or a “Moderator.” She introduces the concept of abstaining versus moderating with this reference:

“I came across the answer in a casual remark made by one of my favourite writers, the eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnosn. When a friend urged him “to take a little wine,” Dr. Johnson explained, ‘I can’t drink a little, child; therefore I never touch it. Abstinence is as easy to me, temperance would be difficult.’

That’s me, I realized, with a sudden thrill of identification. That’s exactly how I am.

Like Dr. Johnson, I’m an abstainer: I find it far easier to give up something altogether than to indulge moderately. And this distinction has profound implications for habits.”

Rubin’s explanation struck a chord with me. I have always wondered why I found it easier to follow an extreme elimination diet than a more moderate-yet-still-healthy way of eating. The answer is that “abstainers” do better when they follow all-or-nothing habits. For example, it is much easier for me to give up chocolate entirely than to eat a small amount of chocolate now and then. I either eat no chocolate or I eat an entire bar of chocolate. It is very difficult for me to indulge just a little.

This all-or-nothing approach has always made me feel a bit odd, but Rubin explained it so succinctly:

“When we abstainers deprive ourselves totally, we conserve energy and will-power, because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster… Ironically, I feel much less rigid, and far more relaxed, now that I use Abstaining to maintain some habits.”

And then there are the Moderators, who have also always been a bit of mystery to me.

“For Moderators, they first bite tastes the best, and then their pleasure gradually drops, and they might even stop eating before they’re finished. For Abstainers, however, the desire for each bite is just as strong as for the first bite- or stronger, so they may want seconds, too. In other words, for Abstainers, having something makes them want it more; for Moderators, having something makes them want it less.”

Rubin explains that a person might be both an Abstainer and a Moderator, depending on the circumstances. For example, I could easily eat just a few bites of ice cream and be totally satisfied, but if I open a bag of chips, I will most certainly want to finish it. Knowing our own quirks help us to develop good habits so we don’t sabotage our healthy eating habits.

Do you identify as being an Abstainer or a Moderator? Do you think that knowing this about yourself is helpful?

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