Book Review: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin Better Than Before. Am I right or am I right/

Here’s a confession: I have discovered my soft spot for self-improvement books. I don’t say “self-help,” because that genre has long been maligned (and justly so, for titles like these), and now it just sounds stupid.

But “self-improvement” books—books based on research, on science, on facts—those I can get behind. So, when Birchbox Book Club sent me a free copy of Better Than Before, I set about reading it.

Better Than Before is an obnoxiously profound read.
I wanted to like it. And I did.

Step 1: Recognize you are just completely, totally flawed.

Rubin writes in a casual, conversational style, which is great when you’re subconsciously comparing yourself to her and losing.

I held off judgment until page 20 or so, when Rubin describes the “Four Tendencies” of people. There are Upholders, who meet both internal and external expectations, but may get exhausted and fail to find time to recharge. There are Obligers, who have no trouble meeting external expectations, but won’t meet a goal if no one’s relying on them for success. There are Questioners, who will only meet an expectation if it seems worthwhile, valid, and reasonable to them. And then there are Rebels, who don’t give a fuck about “expectations”.

I’m not one to dichotomize myself, but it was pretty gratifying to immediately identify with the Obliger tendency. Most people see me as an Upholder, but they have no idea how many of my own projects and commitments are languishing at the back of my mind, slowly starving to death. I know I should do [Certain Thing], but unless someone is counting on me to do it, there’s a good chance I won’t.

For example, my exercise schedule tends to go something like this.

Friend: “Hey, want to run around the park on Wednesday?”

Me: “Yeah, let’s do it!”

Friend: “I can’t go today 🙁 “

Me: *sits at home binge-eating pita chips and re-watching Battlestar Galactica*

The book offers more tendencies and how to identify your own—from things like when you wake up and go to sleep (Owls vs. Larks), to whether you’re able to control your food cravings (Moderators) or you’re better off avoiding temptation completely (Abstainers).

Each idea is framed by Rubin’s own experiences forming new habits, breaking old ones, and inflicting her Type A personality on friends and family members.

Step 2: Be okay with that.

The point is not simply to classify yourself, though. The point is to get a close-up view of the type of person you are–so you can approach forming better daily habits in a way that works for you and will be more likely to stick.

Rubin peppers the book with research citations and other examples that, while less scientific, are at least inspiring. This is another book that makes you think, “Well, why not?” or “What if…?”

She then offers several “pillars” for building stronger habits. These strategies are often rooted in common sense, and more often than not, the need to be honest with yourself replaces the need for iron willpower.

Step 3: Are you enlightened yet?

It’s funny, because I’m not sure if Rubin and I would be friends in real life. She says she doesn’t like music and prefers plain food, and other things that sound, well, pretty boring. But she knows these things about herself, and she is fine with them. She has enough self-knowledge to empower habits that matter to her (like enforced daily “Quitting Time”), and ditch the ones that don’t (like meditation). Seriously, though? Everyone can benefit from meditation.

Her main commandment is “Be Gretchen”. That earned her my grudging admiration (you’re welcome, Gretchen. Surely you were sitting at home, waiting for that).

In some way, it’s almost like permission to “Be Lianna”. It’s a heady feeling for someone already deep in the process of trying to be her best self (still talking about me here). This book is Mindfulness Lite, for people who want to gain more self-knowledge—which makes it especially funny to me that Rubin didn’t see any benefit to meditation.

But far be it from me to call the kettle black. I can’t promise that I’ll stick with my newly re-energized dedication to 10 minutes of daily meditation, or with the  bright yellow blocks of time on my calendar dedicated to twice-weekly yoga. Or that I’ll stop eating sugar. (Hell, I ate half a bag of Hershey kisses while I finished this post.)

But the one  lesson of Better Than Before that stuck in my mind (and was promptly supplemented by this TED Talk) is that once you’ve decided to do something, you’ve decided. You need waste no more time on agony.

I hadn’t thought of my life like that before. It seems like a game-changer. We’ll see what happens.

 

Sharpen Your Focus: 5 Ways to Kickstart Your Freelance Life

Remember this post? It was all about ways to treat yourself for less than $10 on Valentine’s Day, with or without a valentine.

10 Ways to Treat Yourself (For Less Than $10)

It’s not Valentine’s Day today, but I’m always looking for small (read: free) ways to appreciate what I have, and improve my quality of life. Aren’t you?

Today is Friday, though, so I’m thinking it’s an extra-appropriate time to go into the weekend mindfully and kindly–considering how you can get the most from your your body, your home, and your freelance life.

(Spoiler: You can be kind to yourself every day. But somehow, kindness doesn’t seem as accessible on a Monday morning.)

Give these ideas a try this weekend, and let me know how it goes. And don’t forget that sometimes, taking five deep breaths is the best gift you can give yourself.

1. Lay out your clothes every night

Let me tell you how often I don’t do this. But when I do, my day starts much more quickly and smoothly.

Especially when you work from home, it can be easy to sit down in your pajamas with a cup of coffee (or wine, depending on the time of day/level of alcoholism to which you adhere). Before you know it, it’s 11AM, and you feel, well, kind of gross.

Beat that feeling to the punch, and stop stumbling around in the morning, trying to find clean pants through all that crusty eye makeup.

PRICE: Free.

2. Walk around the block every morning

This is the natural next step after getting dressed in your laid-out clothes every morning. I read somewhere that somebody famous did it. You want to be famous, don’t you?

PRICE: Free.

3. Drink a glass of water before you eat

Are you hungry? Are you sure? How bout you drink some water first?

God, I love food. I try to remember to hydrate before I dig in, though. It’s a great tool to keep from overeating.

PRICE: Free, unless you live in California or sub-Saharan Africa, in which case: Damn, sorry.

4. Change your pillowcases

Studies show you’ll sleep better when the fabric next to your head doesn’t smell like morning breath and face dirt.

Okay, no one’s done a study on that, but you’ll have fewer breakouts if you change your pillowcases at least once a week. Plus, it’s my personal opinion that the smell of laundry detergent helps you fall asleep.

PRICE: Depends on how often you do your laundry. Basically, free.

5. Write down what you’re grateful for

Do this either at night before you go to sleep, or take a few minutes before you start work every day. By noticing the little things, you’ll start to build a naturally grateful outlook–which benefits you, your work, and everyone you know.

PRICE: Priceless.

 

Anything to add? Leave it in the comments!

3 Ways Crawfish Boils and Copywriting Are the Same

Crawfish Boils and Copywriting
This little guy should have stayed home today.

Pull up a pile of newspaper, grab a beer, and get comfortable. We’re talking about crawfish, and the qualities it shares with copywriting.

(I’ll admit I was late to the crawfish-eating game. Despite growing up in New Orleans, I didn’t peel my first crawfish until college. But now I’m making up for lost time.)

Last night, I went to a boil, where I ate far more crawfish than I should have. Originally, this was going to be a post about crawfish boil etiquette…but when you’re diving face-first into a pile of tiny, dead lobsters, you can pretty much leave manners by the wayside.

So what do crawfish boils and copywriting have in common?

No pain, no gain.

I developed a bad case of “crawfish thumb” last night around batch three. New Orleanians know that this is when the boil spices begin to creep under the quick of your nails, making the process of peeling each little crustacean a bit more painful.

Similarly, sometimes you have to grit your teeth and chip away at a copywriting assignment, no matter how much it might be hurting your brain (or aggravating your carpal tunnel).

The spicier, the better.

There is nothing more boring than an under-spiced crawfish boil. It’s like traveling to the Grand Canyon and turning the other way. Okay, I might be exaggerating. But if the potatoes aren’t going to make my gums burn, what’s the POINT?

Copywriting is the same way. You’re writing for a purpose. That purpose is to persuade, inform, build trust, create a relationship. Boring writing just isn’t going to get those things done.

Drinking helps.

When it comes to eating crawfish, ice-cold beer is your friend. When it comes to writing, beer will help you come up with ideas, while coffee will help you refine them.

 

Any other ways crawfish and copywriting are the same? Leave ’em in the comments.

And remember: If you get between me and a table of steaming crawfish, I will cut you. Tweet: If you get between me and a table of steaming crawfish, I will cut you.

90-Year-Old Copywriting Advice That Still Works Like a Charm

Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite people. Though long-dead, he’s still a total boss.

Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Claude Hopkins, whom I like to refer to as the Original Gangster of Advertising.

Claude Hopkins is the reason you use toothpaste.

Claude Hopkins
Behind those cute owl glasses and sweet ‘stache lies the cutthroat mind of a killer. A killer salesman, that is.

He’s also the reason you use coupons. (And, if you send email newsletters, he’s the reason you have the option to do an A/B split test with different versions of your letter.)

Who the F*** Is Claude Hopkins?

Our friend Claude was born in Michigan in 1866, and grew up working his face off as a school janitor, paper boy, and other various pursuits.

By working until 2AM in the morning every day of the week, Claude eventually ended up writing advertising for Bissell Carpet Sweepers (yep, the same Bissell vacuum cleaner company you’ve heard of).

Bissell Carpet Sweepers
Claude sold, like, $300,000 worth of these wooden carpet sweepers, back when that amount of money was basically the worth of the entire United States.

From there, Claude snagged himself a position as advertising manager at Swift & Company–by asking every single client of his to write a recommendation and mail it to the person in charge of hiring.

THEN, he got his local newspaper to agree to publish a daily advertising column so he could show off his knowledge. He mailed all of the columns to the Swift & Company hiring manager. (Still think writing a cover letter is too much effort for a job application?)

Job application
Claude Hopkins worked harder as a 9-year-old than you do as an adult.

Long story short, our boy Claude ended up managing advertising for Lord & Thomas (which you might know as FCB, or Foote, Cone and Belding–one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.

In 1923, Claude wrote a book called Scientific Advertising, which he followed up with an autobiography: My Life in Advertising. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy with a lot to say.

Here’s Claude Hopkins’ best copywriting and advertising advice from both books. Bullet-point summaries in bold, courtesy yours truly.

1. How to appeal to people

  • Be trusting. “Try to hedge or protect yourself, and human nature likes to circumvent you. But remove all restrictions and say, “We trust you,” and human nature likes to justify that trust. All my experience in advertising has shown that people in general are honest.”
  • Know your customer. “We cannot go after thousands of men until we learn how to win one.”
  • Frame everything as a benefit. “Argue anything for your own advantage, and people will resist to the limit. But seem unselfishly to consider your customers’ desires, and they will naturally flock to you.”
  • Don’t push too hard. “People can be coaxed but not driven. Whatever they do they do to please themselves.”
  • Promise access to a secret. “Curiosity is a strong factor in human nature, and especially with women. Describe a gift, and some will decide that they want it, more will decide that they don’t. But everybody wants a secret gift.”
  • Offer cures, not prevention. “People will do anything to cure a trouble, but little to prevent it.”
  • Don’t be cheap. “We learn that cheapness is not a strong appeal. Americans are extravagant. They want bargains but not cheapness.”

2. How to write persuasively

  • Write plainly. “Successful salesmen are rarely good speech makers. They have few oratorical graces. They are plain and sincere men who know their customers and know their lines. So it is in ad-writing.”
  • Write to one particular customer. “Don’t think of people in the mass. That gives you a blurred view. Think of a typical individual, man or woman, who is likely to want what you sell.”
  • Spend more time on your headline. “The purpose of a headline is to pick out people you can interest…What you have will interest certain people only, and for certain reasons. You care only for those people. Then create a headline which will hail those people only.”
  • Be specific. “The weight of an argument may often be multiplied by making it specific.”
  • Pick a descriptive name. “Often the right name is an advertisement in itself. It may tell a fairly complete story, like Shredded Wheat, Cream of Wheat, Puffed Rice, Spearmint Gum, Palmolive Soap, etc.”

3. How to avoid wasting money

  • Use space wisely. “Some advocate large type and big headlines. Yet they do not admire salesmen who talk in loud voices…[Large type] may not be offensive, but it is useless and wasteful. It multiplies the cost of your story.”
  • You’re here to sell. “Do nothing to merely interest, amuse, or attract.”
  • Instead of “buy one, get one,” offer a free sample… “Before a prospect is converted, it is approximately as hard to get half price for your article as to get the full price for it.”
  • …but make them work for it. “Give samples to interested people only. Give them only to people who exbihit that interest by some effort. Give them only to people to whom you have told your story.”
  • Imitate what works. “Before you use useless pictures, merely to decorate or interest, look over some mail order ads. Mark what their verdict is.”
  • Sell to new prospects only. “In every ad consider only new customers. People using your product are not going to read your ads. They have already read and decided.”
  • Track your returns. “Never be guided in any way by ads which are untraced. Never do anything because some uninformed advertiser considers that something right.”
  • Know your customer’s financial situation. “We must learn what a user spends a year, else we shall not know if users are worth the cost of getting.”
  • Budget for waste. “The cost of advertising largely depends on the percentage of waste circulation.”

Did I mention that Claude Hopkins published Scientific Advertising in 1923? Ninety-one years later, this man still knows more about successful, efficient advertising than most CEOs.

Do yourself a favor and get to know Claude.

You can find copies of My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising online, but you should probably just buy it.

Scientific Advertising
Yup. Yup yup yup.

What do you think of Claude’s advice? Anything to add? Throw it in the comments.

5 Ways Giving Up Netflix Will Make You a Better Freelancer (and a Better Person)

5 Ways Giving Up NetflixWill Make You a (1)

(Note: You probably won’t understand the introduction to this post if you don’t watch “House“. That’s okay. Just skip to the list for how giving up Netflix made me a better freelancer—at least for a week).

 

It’s 11:29 pm. You’re sitting slackjawed on your couch, watching your third episode of “House” Season 2 because Netflix is on autoplay, and the cat is curled up next to you.

You did not do your laundry. You did not blog. You definitely didn’t do any other work.

You did not cook dinner; instead, you foraged for stray carrots and dipped them into two-week-old hummus while watching House chew out other doctors for thinking it was lupus.

It’s NEVER LUPUS.

 

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I caught myself trapped in the scene above. I was tired, but hadn’t spent my time on anything worthwhile. I was annoyed at myself.

And I had noticed myself opening Netflix by default, almost without thinking. I don’t like being a thoughtless robot.

So I decided to see if I could abstain from watching Netflix—and all other shows and online video diversions—for a week.

Here’s what happened.

5 Ways Giving Up Netflix Will Make You a Better Freelancer (and a Better Person)

  1. I was more creative. I made my own creative escapes instead of diving into “House” reruns.
  2. I was more mindful. I realized how much time I was spending zoning out. Now I can choose when to zone out. Hopefully it won’t be as much.
  3. I read more. Like, a lot more. Like a book a week more. And they were such good books!
  4. I went to bed earlier and slept better. Early to bed, early to rise, and all that crap. Seriously, though. That last 40-minute episode before bed makes a difference in your sleep quality, not just quantity. Though I have f.lux, I suspect watching a screen before bed still fucks with your brain, blue light or not.
  5. I had to be with myself. God, it was uncomfortable. And necessary.

If giving up Netflix for a week seems impossible for you—that means it’s all the more important to do it.

Try it. Let me know what happens. And if it gives you a boost, share this post.

The 5 Easiest Tools for Keeping an “Idea File”

5 Easiest Tools for Keeping an Idea File

Y’all, we’re all geniuses. We have a lot of great ideas, and if we lose them, THE WORLD LOSES THEM. So we write them down and save them for later–but where do we write them?

In an Idea File, of course. Check out the simplest 5 tools for keeping track of your brainwaves–from smartphone solutions to good ol’ pen and paper.

Just remember: However you choose to catalogue your creative impulses, don’t editorialize, judge, or dismiss them. Just write them down, and look at them later to find the ones that shine.

Gmail task list

This is where I, trained as a ninja in the art of digital task management, excel. Like many of you, I use my main To-Do list to check off items when I complete them (and give myself a boost of glorious can-do motivation).

But I also keep a separate list, creatively titled “Ideas”. It’s a good dumping ground for the times when I’m stuck in my email and don’t want to open anything else. And when I use an idea from the list, I can check it off and get that same boost.

Also, if you’re not using Gmail, what are you even doing with your life?

Evernote

I’ll admit: I was slow to come to Evernote. But now that I use it to keep track of my workouts (hello, Stone Age), I’ve come to appreciate its magical capacity to sync across platforms.

Also, I lost my phone during Mardi Gras, and it took losing all of the ideas in the phone’s Notes app to get me to use Evernote. The world will never know about circle bacon.

Fishbowl with scraps of paper

Sorry, no link. This is the most old-school method ever, and I hear it works really well–from the four people who still use it.

Just kidding. If you’re ever hard-up for inspiration, fishing a scrap of paper out of a bowl (or jar) can be the touch of whimsy you need to see an old idea in a new light.

Index card organizer

I like to think of this method as the more tangible, less fire-and-hurricane-safe version of Evernote. You can organize your ideas by alphabetical order, type, or degree of separation from Kevin Bacon. Then, you can use your cards to create an outline for your sixth-grade history paper!

Pinterest, Polyvore and other virtual bulletin boards

Artists, stylists, and other people who think and work more visually should give Pinterest and Polyvore a try. Though Pinterest does have a lot of crap (you only need so many recipes for “green juice,” after all), it’s easy to make private, curated boards that convey a mood or theme without words.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear what other people do. How do you keep track of your ideas?