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Better Than Before (Book Review)

written by Lisa Sansom 18 March 2015
Better than Before Cover

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

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Better than Before Cover


Review of Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Released yesterday.

Dear Gretchen:

I read your first book about happiness titled The Happiness Project and enjoyed it. I had just started my Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, and your book was part science, part philosophy, and part experimentation where n=1, as you tested various happiness interventions on yourself. I thought it was a good book, and I later used it as the basis for my own (now defunct) Very Slow Book Club where we read one chapter every two weeks and discussed our own insights and trials via online conference call. Like you, we found that some of the ideas worked and some didn’t, and such is life because we’re all so different from each other. Overall though, I wasn’t sold. In my coaching practice, I used some of your ideas for my clients, but they didn’t much work for me.

I then bought your next book titled Happier at Home because I too am a mother with two children (yours are girls, mine are boys) and I felt the stresses that you wrote about: how the days are long but the years are short, and how I also wanted to be more deliberate in my choices as a mother, and I wanted my children to have the best shot at well-being in life.

I enjoyed reading about your family and what you did and how it worked, or didn’t. I love your honesty and forthrightness in your books. You aren’t afraid to share everything. But when it came to my family, they didn’t climb on board. Maybe I don’t have the same persistent personality that you do, or maybe I just caved in too soon. But my boys didn’t care so much unless soccer or downhill skiing or food were involved, and so that book also went on my shelf. Another good idea, but collecting dust.

Now I’ve read your third book Better Than Before. I admit, I wasn’t quite sure how this would go. While I enjoyed your first two books, they didn’t wow me. I know I’m looking for the “aha” moment, for the magic wand, and I also know it doesn’t exist. But hope springs eternal, and I do like your writing style, and it’s heartwarming also to see your family grow up and how they change through the ages and stages. At least I feel like I’m not alone in trying to make a positive difference in the lives of my children, because I know you are doing the same. Just you’re writing books about it while you experiment.

The subtitle of your book is Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Habits (not the kind you wear, but your unconscious and automatic daily actions) intrigue me. I have also read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, which was extremely astute. I teach change management to masters-level students, and we talk about how subtle changes to one’s environment can provoke major behavioral changes, almost without trying. I have also read Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein as well as Succeed by Heidi Grant Halvorson, and it was fun to find elements of all those books and theories in your book. They draw on work by several researchers and writers to whom you also refer, such as Roy Baumeister, Ed Deci, Liz Dunn, the Heath brothers, Sheena Iyengar, Dan Kahneman, James Prochaska, Tom Rath, and more.

But what you have done is taken those theories out of academia and into your own life and the lives of your family and friends as you change their eating habits and exercise routines for the better.

My favorite part of your book was your introduction because that’s where you laid out your thinking about and interest in habits: where they came from, your discussions with your husband, your observations about yourself and those in your life. I’m always interested in the thinking of my favorite authors and researchers. I love knowing where those ideas came from and what they are thinking about next. I also thoroughly enjoyed your chapters on scheduling, first steps, and clarity. Those resonated with me, and I can see using those insights to make positive changes in my life. I will probably copy your Habits Manifesto for my desk. #12 is particularly meaningful for me: “Once we’re ready to begin, begin now.” I’ve been ready on some of these potential changes for years!

I have to admit, however, that I didn’t like your Four Tendencies, where you expect your reader to self-categorize as an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel. People who are interested in what these are and what they mean can take a tendencies quiz on your website to find out their own primary tendency. You do state that everyone may have a little bit of each, but generally people tend to one or another.

After such a strong introduction in your book, I was disappointed to find that the next chapter focused heavily on Self-Knowledge and the Four Tendencies. Another typology? Another observational personality categorization? Oh please… I am already underwhelmed with numerous personality types based on colors, numbers, MBTI, HBDI, and others… well I wasn’t interested. I read the rest of the book, gleaning nuggets here and there, but skipping over the parts where you said that Rebels do this and this or Upholders (like yourself) do that and that.

Overall, what I really appreciated about your book is that there are very practical tips and technique to hack my life, as the online kids might say, for the better. I don’t have to go to the gym for a full workout every day. I can just do a few minutes here and there at home. It’s a start, and that’s good enough. I should personalize my strategies for myself because what works for one person may not work for another. Really good insights.

After I read the acknowledgements, I noticed that there was a print copy of your Four Tendencies quiz. I hadn’t taken it online so I read through the questions with some interest and approached it the way I would a horoscope or Reader’s Digest quiz. Yes I do this, no I don’t do that, very amusing. The first category was Upholder and while it makes me uncomfortable to see someone breaking obvious rules, the rest didn’t apply so much to me. On to the next one, the Questioner. Yes, I’ll make changes right away instead of waiting until Jan 1. Yes, I need to make well-reasoned decisions. Yes, arbitrary reasons for change bother me… and then I had to laugh out loud. Yes Gretchen, I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework! Gretchen, for the win!

Gretchen, you are indeed an accomplished author and I do enjoy your books. You achieve a lightness and self-discovery that many academic books lack, and yet you still root much of your work in the scientific findings that I value. You also recognize the difference between the science and the self-help, which is a rare trait in popular authors these days. Reading about your own journey as you explicitly realize that everyone is different (and this has made you change your advice-giving) has been delightful. I wish you many good habits and look forward to your next book.




Rubin, G. (2015). Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Rubin, G. (2013). Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life. Harmony.

Rubin, G. (2011). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Harper Paperbacks.

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House.

Halvorson, H. (2010). Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. New York. Penguin Group.

Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C.R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc
Bird at home courtesy of FU510N
Healthy food courtesy of @PaulDCocker

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Mark 19 March 2015 - 9:36 am

A very informative review, Lisa, and I love the letter as a literary device!

Angus Skinner 19 March 2015 - 10:49 am

Very nicely done Lisa. I had hesitated to buy this book precisely because of the Four Tendencies thing and doubt still that I will warm to that. But I did succumb and from what I have read so far I share your enthusiasm. Anyway it is quite irresponsible of Gretchen to take all this knowledge into real lives and real places (New York for heaven’s sake) and all such irresponsibility must be swiftly encouraged.

Sherri 19 March 2015 - 2:20 pm

Lisa, This was a delightful read! I hope Gretchen gets to see it. Maybe you can interview her, which you do very well. 🙂

Angus Skinner 19 March 2015 - 6:02 pm

Sherri – what a good idea!

Amanda Horne 22 March 2015 - 8:15 pm

Hi Lisa

I love the style of your PPND post, in the form of a letter. It’s engaging and readable. The comments are also great to read, including the importance of swiftly encouraging irresponsibility (Angus!)


Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 22 March 2015 - 9:00 pm

Thank you all for your very kind comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the review and the format. If you do read the book, please let me know what you think!

Homaira 23 March 2015 - 5:33 am

What a great piece Lisa! Really enjoyed reading it. I will get the book now – and let you know what I think.

chuck 8 May 2015 - 10:17 am

Nice review. I agree and feel many ways you said.

chuck 8 May 2015 - 1:14 pm

Simply put: Bad habits gives us pleasure, easy to do. Good habits are difficult to do, often not pleasant, rewards comes later. To change the habit, you need to convince yourself, need determination, learn to take pain, resist temptation, find or substitute some faster reward.


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