Different Strokes for Different Folks – How Gretchen Rubin’s 4 Tendencies Can Help Identify the Right Strategies to Change a Habit

When I want to make sure I do something, I do it first thing in the morning. For me, this is the time in my day that is most in my control — before other tasks, emails, and the laundry get in the way. Before things have the chance to go off the rails. For years, I have been advising clients to do the same: exercise in the morning, write in the morning, etc. And while this advice works for me and for many others, for some it is a complete flop. When it comes to cultivating a new habit – whether a personal goal or a leadership aspiration – we are not one size fits all.

According to happiness guru, Gretchen Rubin, a critical element of how to change our behavior has to do with how we respond to expectations. According to Rubin, we tend to fall into four groups that she calls the Four Tendencies with regard to how we respond to deadlines, rules, and commitments (to others and to ourselves).  Each tendency suggests different change strategies.

The four tendencies are: the Obliger, the Upholder, the Questioner and the Rebel. Spoiler alert: I’m an Upholder.

Upholders strive to meet both other people’s expectations of them and their own commitments to themselves. Obligers work hard to meet outer expectations and hate to disappoint others, though they may not meet their own expectations or needs. Questioners – you got it – question all expectations and do what they think is best, according to their own judgments. Rebels do what they want, when they want, and may react negatively to expectations and rules. Do any of these resonate for you? Intrigued? Take Gretchen’s quiz.

I recently took the quiz. First, let me say that even though I am an upholder, I don’t always meet my own or other’s expectations (ask my husband about the state of our basement). Upholders are just like everyone else in that we sometimes fall short of both external and internal obligations. However, the strategies that Rubin recommends are spot on for me – embarrassingly so (and I thought I was so unique!) In fact, I have been unconsciously applying several of the recommended strategies already. For an Upholder like me, Rubin suggests putting commitments the calendar (the strategy of Scheduling) and tracking progress (the strategy of Monitoring). She also stresses the importance of clarity, which is vital to upholders in keeping commitments to themselves. This is spooky. For the last month, after having had mushy goals about writing and mindfulness for a long time without progress, I clarified my goals. Specifically: meditate daily and write 5x a week. Since then, I have been monitoring my progress on a resolution tracker (think a sticker chart without the stickers), and last week I began putting blocks of writing time on my calendar. It’s working!

Questioners, like Upholders, also need clarity; they must understand what they are doing and most crucial: why? For Rebels, it helps if they identify themselves with an activity, so that it becomes a species of self-expression rather than a constraint. Obligers often need strong accountability – an external deadline,  a writing group or a class. Each tendency responds to various different strategies. Here’s a full list.

Gretchen is unabashedly pragmatic – no navel-gazing as to why we are the way we are. What works, works. So far, despite some slip-ups, it is working for me, and several of my clients find this framework useful as well. Try it and see what strategies are likely to work for you!

P.S. In 2 weeks, some people will be making New Year’s Resolutions. This is a strategy that works best for Upholders, but will really backfire with Rebels. Questioners will reject the arbitrariness of the start date, and obligers will likely be more successful if they resolve with a buddy.