BlogBook Summary

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin – Top 5 Takeaways

Due to recent events, I thought I would share my top 5 takeaways from the book Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. Learning these techniques had a huge impact on my productivity and habits, which I find especially useful during these times. For those of you who are more visual learners, you can skip to the end of this article and watch my video animation or download my visual (sketchnote) summary as a PDF.

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5. Abstainer or Moderator

My husband and I have been doing a ketogenic diet for almost 5 years now, but it was always a struggle for me to explain to others why I won’t try “just a bite” of a delicious dessert that has flour or refined sugar in it.  Reading Grethen’s book made me realize that this is because I’m an abstainer.

There are two types of people: abstainers and moderators. I’m an abstainer, but except for my husband, everyone else in my family is a moderator. So what does this mean? It means that while my sisters, for example, are able to have a stash of candy, cookies and other snacks in their cabinets for months without a problem, my husband and I would destroy the entire stash within 20 minutes. Our mantra in these situations is always “Out of sight, out of mind.”.

Because of this, I have no difficulties with fasting for 18 hours or even 2 days but I really struggle to stop eating once I have started. For abstainers, like Gretchen and me, it is easier to resist some temptations altogether by never giving in to them than to indulge moderately. Because of this, knowing whether you are an abstainer or a moderator can help you a lot in building habits.

As Gretchen puts it: “When we Abstainers deprive ourselves totally, we conserve energy and willpower, because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster. “Abstainers” do better when they follow all-or-nothing habits.” Simply put: We love going cold turkey on things. “”Moderators,” by contrast, are people who do better when they indulge moderately. “

A simple way to find out whether you or your loved ones are Abstainers or Moderators is to ask this question: 

“Could you eat one square of chocolate every day?”

As Gretchen explains:  “for Abstainers, having something makes them want it more; for Moderators, having something makes them want it less.” I hope this will help my family understand all the crazy experiments I love doing that seem too extreme and restrictive to a moderator.  And I hope it will help you too to explain why it’s easier for you to go to the extremes if you are an abstainer, or to better understand someone you know who is an abstainer, if you are a moderator.

4. Break down the day

The next big idea that I took away from the book is to break down a day into 4 separate entities. Especially during this time of self-isolation and social distancing, it’s quite easy to fall off the wagon if you’re on any type of diet. (If you’re currently struggling with emotional eating my “Stop Emotional Eating Reminder” might be helpful.) 

For example, whenever we visited my family in Budapest in the past, my “Out of sight, out of mind.” mentality got me into an f*** it mode. I justified this by saying: Well… I had some paleo sweets already today, let’s get it out of my system now, so that I can get back to my dessert-free keto lifestyle tomorrow.

For me, this happens with keto-friendly desserts, for you, it might happen when you’re having an unproductive morning or you have been procrastinating on something for a while. I haven’t done the work this morning, so what the hell, I’ll take the rest of the day off and start tomorrow.

As Gretchen puts it: When we break a habit, “we act as though it doesn’t matter whether it’s broken by a little or a lot.” She calls this the “abstinence violation effect”: I broke my diet by eating this one thing, so now I’m going to eat even more stuff that I usually wouldn’t. So Grethen recommends to “Instead of feeling that you’ve blown the day and thinking, ‘I’ll get back on track tomorrow,’ try thinking of each day as a set of four quarters: morning, midday, afternoon, evening. If you blow one quarter, you get back on track for the next quarter. Fail small, not big.”

3. Schedule worry time

My big idea number 3 from the book is to schedule worry time. Grethen found that even Johnny Cash used scheduling to “Worry”. Although scheduling time to worry might sound weird, it can help in reducing anxiety. Instead of worrying all the time, you can save the worry until the scheduled time and only worry in that time frame.

 This is especially important right now. Worrying is a waste of time. Seneca once said:

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

This is a very uncertain time right now, and I’m not saying that we don’t have hundreds of reasons to worry. Unfortunately, we do. And probably most of our worries are even very real right now, whether you worry about your finances, your business or your job; your health, or your family’s health. All I’m saying is that when you are in a state of worry you are paralyzed.

Worried people don’t make good decisions because they make decisions based on fear.

And I’m able to say these things because I had been the queen of worrying for a very long time. That’s why I found Gretchen’s tip in the book on scheduling worry time very useful. In January, I was in a very different mental state from where I am right now and scheduling worry time by putting it in my calendar once a week made a huge difference

For example, back then, I had a job interview coming up and I found myself being nervous about it one week before the interview. But then, I made a conscious decision to worry about it only 2 hours before the interview started. So whenever I caught myself worrying, I was like: ‘No! Worry time is scheduled for next week!’ and I got back to work. I know this sounds silly but just try it out. Whenever you have an anxious thought, collect it on a piece of paper, or in a note on your phone. It’s like creating a to-do list for your worries. Once a week or if needed, even once a day, check that list in a specific time and either use that time to find a solution to the problem, if it is within your control; or if it’s something completely outside of your control, like your and your loved one’s health, then use this time to kick, scream, cry, and then when time is up, go back to a worry-free state. Even though we can’t control whether we or someone we know gets sick, we have some control over the likelihood of that happening. And worrying definitely won’t help us boost our immune system.

2. Set a timer

The next big idea is about setting timers. Whether it’s a 10-minute timer that I mentioned in my Indistractable summary or a 25-minute timer for the Pomodoro technique, timers have so many unexplored benefits

Whenever Gretchen is tempted to break a good habit or indulge in a bad one, she uses a 15-minute rule. For example, when she’s at her desk answering emails -that she scheduled to do ahead of time – but she has an urge to do something else right away, she tells herself that she can leave her desk and do that, but only in fifteen minutes. 

When we try to get rid of a particular thought, as Grethen puts it, we may trigger the “ironic rebound,” that paradoxically makes us think about it even more. But sudden distractions and urges usually subside within about 10 to 15 minutes. 

So just try this: When you have a sudden urge to clean up while answering emails or preparing for a meeting, tell yourself:

If I want, I can do this, in 10 / 15 / 20 minutes.

See which time frame works for you best.

1. Stare or Write

Alright, and my favorite big idea is, as I call it “Stare or Write”. Thanks to this final idea, I was able to finish my Master’s thesis 10 days before my personal deadline was set. I use this same strategy now, to write new blog posts for my website and video scripts for this channel.

So here it is, Grethen suggested to a fellow writer to write from 11 AM to 1 PM every weekday. During that time, he had to write or do nothing. Either write or stare out the window. Because, as Gretchen puts it

“working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

You want to use your writing time for writing only. Nothing else, including no other kinds of work. I decide, “I’ll stay in the library for two hours,” and then I’m stuck. I end up writing just to pass the time”

What I took away from this advice for writing my thesis was this. I did 25 minutes (1 Pomodoro) of thesis writing or otherwise just stared out the window or at my screen. I was not allowed to do anything else. So what’s the difference between this and the Pomodoro technique? The part that made a huge difference for me was that I committed to only writing. This means that for 25 minutes, I couldn’t open a new tab on my browser or look up any literature, which would spiral into me checking 10 more papers without writing a single word.  With this technique, all I was allowed to do was to type in my word editor or otherwise stare at the screen and just stare until the time was up.

Final thoughts & Animated Video

Alright these were my top 5 takeaways from Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. If you’re interested in the book, just click on the button below. Let me know down in the comments section below what you took away from the book that helped you the most in building better habits. As promised, you can also find my animated book review here:

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