You are what you repeatedly do… (Part 1: Self Knowledge)

…Therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”  Aristotle.


Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

One day on an aimless internet white rabbit hunt, I stumbled across something that actually bore some productive fruit.  It led me to an online book club that was reading “Better than Before”.  It seemed interesting so I signed up.

This book is a comprehensive look at why and how habits are kept and broken.  The strength of her approach lies in the fact she emphasises the individual temperament and its role in habits, so as to debunk the one-size-fits-all myth of habit formation.  This can be applied to any person about any habit.  It can be used in any sphere of life : to cultivate better spiritual, physical, intellectual or emotional habits.

Rubin begins by highlighting the need for self-knowledge before seeking to ensure a good habit gets implemented and lasts for life.   The need for self-knowledge is a fundamentally God-given trait that is uniquely human.  It helps us to reflect on and grow in perfection as the person God made us to be.

Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons.  Catechism of the Catholic Church: 357

Rubin proposes there are four basic tendencies in people, which we are essentially born with:  The Upholder, The Questioner, The Obliger and The Rebel.  Each type has its own unique way of cultivating change, and therefore requires a different approach to habit formation. I discovered I am a Questioner with some Upholder traits.  What does that mean?  Well, I like to know the why behind any habit that I am going to expend energy cultivating.  I like to research the options and be sure I am choosing the best course for me.  I don’t like rules just for the sake of it and tend to only respond to expectations if they make sense to me.

Questioners… wake up and think, “What needs to get done today, and why?”  They decide for themselves whether a course of action is a good idea, and they resist doing anything that seems to lack sound purpose.” Better than Before. pp.19 & 20

One of the challenges for me, as Rubin points out, is that Questioners can drive those around them crazy asking questions and probing for information that others would consider unnecessary (sorry family and friends!)  The flipside of this observation for me, also, is that I can also become easily exasperated with those who don’t approach life in the same way, who do things that don’t think make any sense, constantly questioning others on their motives or behaviours which may seem random to me.  I guess you could call me the perennial “Why child”.  She also makes the point that they are sometimes considered crackpots (that’s me!) as they may reject mainstream or conventional beliefs if they don’t feel that personal experience or their own research backs it up.  I suspect there may be a lot of ‘Questioners’ in homeschooling community!


Being a Questioner, I have to of course ask myself: “Why is self knowledge important?  What does it lead to?”  One of the aspects that is important for me as a parent, is that any habits I follow are being constantly watched and observed by my children, who see past the ‘talk’ to the ‘walk’.  I really want to live a consistent life that reflects my beliefs in the way I live.  This is a moral obligation for me, and I see self-knowledge as a means to grow in sound judgement and self mastery.  One of my favourite parenting quotes of all time from one of my favourite books, the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, sums it up for me:

Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.”  Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them.  Catechism of the Catholic Church 2223

Rubin goes to great lengths to assure the reader that over-simple classifications cannot give you the whole picture, so her self-knowledge section then goes on to elaborate distinctions within each type that help to translate this knowledge into practical strategies for successful habit formation.

And of course there is the great JP2 to back up her sound beginnings:

In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply. It is a journey which has unfolded—as it must—within the horizon of personal self-consciousness: the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing. This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life. The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings”, that is as those who “know themselves”. John Paul 2. Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason): 1

Temple Portal. Delphi
Temple Portal. Delphi

Rubin goes on to pose some important questions which help the ‘habit apprentice’ to hone their self-knowledge.

Am I a Lark(prefers mornings) or an Owl (prefers evenings)?  She particularly hones in on the myth that Owls can become Larks with a bit of practice.  I can vouch for this, and although I am disciplined about going to bed early, I still could never regularly make myself wake up at 6am every day without feeling the ill effects, and I have tried!  It has actually made me accept that part of myself more easily, and realise that as an Owl I could be tempted to stay up waaay too late then sleep in, so I have to be quite disciplined about deciding to get to bed by 9pm each night.


Am I a Marathoner (prefer slow and steady & detest deadlines), A Sprinter (quick bursts of intense effort and look for deadlines) or A Procrastinator?

Am I an Underbyer (hate to shop and buy – that’s me) or an Overbyer (find excuses to buy and always think: this will come in handy someday) ?

Am I a Simplicity Lover (like bare surfaces, clean closets) or an Abundance Lover (prefer ampleness and having more than enough) ?

Am I a Finisher (someone who likes to see the end  of  a project.  They gain great satisfaction from finishing the last of the toothpaste tube, or egg carton.  Reading this was a major a-ha moment for me, as I realised how much enjoyment I derive from finishing things.  A downside to finishers is they can be overly cautious about taking risks in trying to form new habits.)  or an Opener (someone who opens packets and never finishes them, who has a lot of projects half-finished and on the go.  Openers may struggle with over committing to projects which they don’t see through to their conclusion) ?

I can't wait for that last little bit to be used up so I can throw it away
I can’t wait for that last little bit to be used up so I can throw it away. Source

Am I a Familiarity Lover ( Those who like to eat the same thing every day, and have a set routine.  A habit becomes easier as it becomes more familiar)  or a Novelty Lover (Tend to do better with a series of short-term challenges, and enjoy the variety.  This definitely suits me better)  ?

Am I Promotion-focused ( concentrate on achievement and advancement) or Prevention-Focused (focus on avoiding loss and minimising danger) ?

Do I like to take Small Steps ( most of us tend to do better with small changes over a period of time when forming habits) or Big Steps (some actually have more success when they make sudden drastic changes )  ?

Something I really applaud about Rubin’s style is how she is not prescriptive about which habits are the best ones for any particular person.  She concludes this section with a list of famous people who were truly exceptional in cultivating habits of excellence, but who all differed substantially in how they applied these to their lives.

There’s no magic formula – not for ourselves, and not for the people around us.  We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses;  we must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best. Better than Before. p.42

As there was so much good content in this book, I will be doing a series of posts covering this.  Stay tuned for Part 2.. Pillars of Habits.



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