Showing up and Better Than Before, a short book review

This is the last post in my Heart of the home series.

I've been really sick (very sick) during the period of time in which these posts were published. They were already written before I was sick so it wasn't too onerous to get them published. And showing up here made me feel human. But I have no more photos. My photography dried up in the middle of February.

Very rarely will I apologize on my blog or in life for a "state of being". Apologies should be reserved for when you do something unkind, etc. But I am apologizing for the state of the photography in the last few posts and this one, because I actually want readers to have a certain experience when they visit my blog, and the photos are part of that. Oh well. I'm sick, life and this blog are far from perfect.

In a lot of areas of my life, I'm noticing it's more helpful to focus on showing up vs. doing something right or good or even making progress.

At first glance that sounds kind of lame. Like showing up but not actively participating, or even trying to improve, which is not what I'm talking about.

Some of the habits I've been working on in my life over the past year and the mindsets I'm trying to establish do not lend themselves to easy evaluation and assessment against a metric. It's hard to measure progress because I don't see immediate improvement.

Learning how to manage my anxiety, meditating, writing, exercising, and even relationships - I've applied the principle of showing up to all of these.

Take writing for example. I used to sit down to write a blog post and I would be frustrated if I didn't publish those thoughts within a couple days. The hike writing sabbatical changed all of that.

And when I came back from the hike and simply could not publish my thoughts within a couple days and everything needed hours and hours of processing, I had to shift my focus from publishing to simply showing up.

Am I writing? Ok, good. Showing up to do the work became more important than finishing the work. This was a huge change for me in focus. And in showing up, over and over, I naturally progressed, very slowly.

Meditation is another example. I'm not a "good" meditator. I am monkey-mind all over the place. This can be discouraging so I don't focus on getting better, or being "good". I focus on showing up. Just making it happen in my day. Looking back I'm able to see that when I consistently show up I make improvement. I love meditating and truly feel it's made a difference in my life and my overall state of being.

My exercise/movement goal is to simply get outdoors every day. Once I'm out there I know I'll be moving somewhere - to the library, a walk around the neighborhood, etc. I'm not looking for progress in this area, I'm not training for anything. What's most important in this season is to just do it. Showing up, moving my legs, enjoying the fresh air - that's all I'm hoping to achieve.

In my relationships, I'm trying to not to get so hung up on finding resolution to problems. I am a resolution seeker and don't like ambiguity and unresolved issues, but in life with three teenagers, and a husband fundamentally different from me, there are tensions and unresolved issues. So I've shifted my focus from resolution to showing up, listening and being present for the hard stuff. We may not find the answer to the problem in that discussion, or the next, or the next but we actually do make progress in understanding each other and learning to listen.

Most of the habits I'm trying to work on seem do-able if I focus on showing up and take my eyes off "measurable progress". Progress is happening, but often it's only apparent in retrospect.

Better Than Before, a book about habits

As an anxiety-prone, perfectionist-tendency person I very rarely read self-improvement books. Anything that hints at doing more, or being more efficient, being "better", improving your productivity, working smarter, I stay away from. I'm highly responsible but also very critical of myself (working on this) and deeply insecure at times, so the last thing I need is more pressure to improve.

I'm wired to optimize so I need to learn the skills of being, not doing: which is why I love writing so much, and quiet contemplation, and slowing down, meditating, and even watching TV.

I have spent most of my adult life eschewing the time-suck of television, not because I was worried about addiction but because I don't like to squander time, it's inefficient. But enjoying a television show with my teenaged daughters is hardly a waste of time or resources. It's actually an investment in our relationship. Go figure.

(Of course my quality-time husband has been trying to communicate this to me for years. But unfortunately our media tastes are so different it's a space in which it's hard for us connect. )

I recently read Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before, even though the title grates me the wrong way. Which is one reason I avoided it for months.

The copy I got from my library is Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives which is a huge improvement over Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits--to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life. Maybe it's the Canadian publication, because Canadians have more refined and less "flashy" tastes. :)

I had pretty much dismissed reading the book but when I learned it was about self-knowledge as the key to understanding habits and motivation I was keen to read it: self-awareness and motivation are two of my very favorite subjects.

My main motivation in reading this book was to gain insight about my learners, aka my kids. Habit formation is a huge part of homeschooling and Damien and I place a bigger priority on the development of healthy life habits than we do the learning of specific facts and data. Habits, like character formation, are an important part of the foundation that life-long learning is built upon.

Learning good habits is a big focus in how we raise and educate our kids. So I'm really keen to understand how different "types" of people acquire habits. Basically, I'm always trying to understand what makes my children tick and how I can come alongside that to help them be successful in learning and in life.

I can't give a blanket endorsement to the book mostly because there's no angst, really no personal struggle at all. Gretchen is quite clinical in her pursuit of better habits (to help reach goals): she sets a goal, she determines a strategy to acquire that habit and then she does it, or she determines matter-of-factly she didn't need really want to reach that goal in the first place. The only person who seems to struggle with her habits is Gretchen's sister Elizabeth, whom Gretchen tests her ideas on.

I don't jive with that sense of emotional detachment because a lot of things are angsty and emotional for me. I wrestle with things I'm not good at, wondering if I should be. That's a lack of self-confidence I guess.

Also, I'm an Upholder with strong Questioning tendencies so I don't need someone telling me what to do or keeping me accountable, and a self-improvement book can feel this way to me. "What do you know about what I need? I can manage myself, thank you very much."

But once I got over these insecurities (and some others that I won't get into) I started to really enjoy the book and gained insight about how I can help my kids with habit formation and goal setting. And I'm also learning a bunch of stuff applicable to myself. I think the Power Hour could be a great tool to help me get done some of the tasks I just keep procrastinating. I think I'll start, next week (ha, if you've read the book you'll catch the irony).

My concluding thoughts about self-improvement projects, including habit formation, is that if you feel better about yourself doing those things, if your health improves and you have more energy, you feel more capable, you feel "better" than before, than those seem like worthy pursuits. And if you keep running into a wall with the things you want to change in your life, you just can't make it happen, Rubin's book might help you understand why.

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  • Kathleen

    Kathleen on March 3, 2016, 7:07 p.m.

    I recently read Better than Before and I am finding it a regular source of inspiration and reflection. I am an Upholder too so I'm naturally drawn to establishing habits. I really appreciate her focus on finding the strategies that work for you when it comes to establishing and breaking habits. I am also looking forward to her next book that dives deeper into her "Four Tendencies," especially since she is focusing at least some of it on how to parent children with different tendencies. Last, I've been enjoying her podcast, Happier, which she does with her sister. They are really different people and it is fun to hear their very different perspectives and approaches to habits. 


  • Beth

    Beth on March 3, 2016, 8:36 p.m.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!  It was exactly what I needed today.  When I read it I had just finished a brain dump of ways to cope during a hectic and somewhat challenging few months for our family.  I've hit a wall in a few areas but need to soldier on for a few more weeks and the concept of Just Showing Up is what I need to embrace.  Now to figure out what that looks like in my particular life.....

    For what it's worth, I have found all three of Gretchen Rubin's books difficult to read.  I ended up skimming the last third of Happier at Home and only got about a quarter through the habits one before I gave up and returned it to the library.  She kind of annoys me on the page.  But.  In general I love her ideas and enjoy listening to her podcast.  I have managed to gleam quite a few good bits from her in spite of my dislike of her books.  Go figure.

    I'm also an Upholder so maybe that's just our makeup!  ;-)


    • renee

      renee on March 4, 2016, 1:10 a.m.


      This is interesting and I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one. I started but could not finish The Happiness Project because it was just that, a project, a year long to-do list of things to change/do that would make Rubin happy. I just couldn't get into that. I have been hestitant to listen to her podcast because I don't particularly like her ideas on the page, as you say (which is exactly the words to describe how I feel about it). I stuck with Better than Before for professional (homeschooling & homeschool writing/coaching) reasons and personal reasons, there was a lot to learn and it wasn't about some habits being better than others, thank goodness. 


      • Beth

        Beth on March 4, 2016, 5:48 p.m.

        I think what makes the podcast is the relationship between Gretchen and her sister.  What I enjoy, and have tried to gleam from her books, is the problem solving and strategic component to her methods.  How seemingly mundane things, like cleaning your closet or having a stack of simple white tees to wear every day, really can make a significant difference in overall happiness.  She frequently references the friend who cleaned out her fridge and realized she was ready to change careers.   I just don't need to read an entire book, or three, about these things. Especially since I tend toward the angsty and obsessive! The 25 minute Podcast is a nice taste, in my opinion.


  • Sarah MacDonald

    Sarah MacDonald on March 3, 2016, 11:38 p.m.

    Thanks Renee. I continue to enjoy this series of posts. I've heard the "showing up" phrase before, but it's never connected for me in the way it has reading your post. (It's always come across as a bit glib and overly chirpy!) Your articulation is much more gentle and reserved and I like it (I don't do chirpy). This is a really helpful way for me to think about developing more helpful habits for life, parenting, work, well-being and relationships. Hope you are feeling better :)



  • Krista

    Krista on March 3, 2016, 11:49 p.m.

    I'm a questioner and love studying the WHY of things. Habit formation, personality make up, learning styles, hapiness all gets me excited. I am a very angsty and emotional person, too, and a recovering perfectionist; I regularly use the idea of "just show up" in my life as it is very freeing and gentle. Precisely what I need.  Love you. xo


  • Joy

    Joy on March 4, 2016, 6:20 p.m.

    Love the "just show up" principle. There are days when I can't even manage that, but it's the kind of realistic action I need in order to see some gradual, barely-perceptible-but-still-there forward motion in areas of my life. As always, I so appreciate your real-ness. Thank you for sharing yourself.


  • Grace

    Grace on March 4, 2016, 7:01 p.m.

    Renee-  I rarely post comments, primarily because I'm reading on my i-phone, and it just isn't as user friendly as my computer.  But, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your posts - ALL of them.  They often give me food for meditation about myself.  Thank you.


  • Marcia from OrganisingQueen

    Marcia from OrganisingQueen on March 8, 2016, 11 a.m.

    Oh, I love all her books and this one was my favourite! But then again, I listened to it and Audible makes everything better (!). You really should round out your research by listening to the podcast - it is by far my favourite. I just love the format - bite-sized chunks of goodness - and the banter between her and the sister is AMAZING.


    PS I'm an upholder with strong questioner tendencies too.


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