Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies and Healthy Habits: Four Case Studies

New, year, habit.

In an earlier post about Gretchen’s Rubin’s Four Tendencies model, I point out: “Understanding your personality and your ‘Tendency’ – whether you are an ‘Upholder,’ ‘Obliger,’ ‘Rebel,’ or ‘Questioner’ – can help you choose wellness strategies that fit your motivational framework and improve your chances of adherence. Remember, adherence equals results. If you are a ‘Rebel’ and you pick a mode of fitness that would better fit an ‘Obliger,’ you are setting yourself up for failure, because you will have difficulty adhering!”

In other words, it’s not how motivated someone is – it’s how someone is motivated.

That blog post resonated deeply with my readership, because many people felt intuitively understood for the first time – not mis-identified as lazy or unmotivated, but instead appreciated for the effort that, while misdirected, was genuinely exerted.

If you don’t know your Tendency, take the quiz here. Here’s a quick run-down, as explained by Gretchen herself:

“Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%). Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense — essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations. Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.”

As you may be able to guess from Gretchen’s words above, most of my clients are Obligers, because they often seek external accountability to succeed. But in the ensuing two years (and two new books from Gretchen) since that blog post went live, I have had the opportunity to observe which members of my online community seem to fit the various Tendency profiles as defined by Gretchen.

Today, I’m going to take my original Four Tendencies post to the next level and profile four members of my online community. It was incredibly fun to collect their stories and gather their insights, and – as always – I learn so much through this kind of interviewing.

Before I get started on these case studies, however, I have a caveat.

Personality typing systems are not designed to let you “off the hook” for doing what needs to be done.

Regardless of your Tendency, no one will ever do “the work” for you.

However, by identifying a noticeable trend in your behavior, you may be able to harness powers you didn’t know you had, stop banging your head against the wall when it comes to strategies that just aren’t working for you, and pivot into a more productive and peaceful direction.

So let’s get started with our Upholder!

The Upholder: Lisa

“I really like being spontaneous when it’s on my list.”

The strength of the “Upholder” is the combination of intrinsic motivation and response to external accountability.

Let’s look at Lisa, my example Upholder!

When it comes to exercise, she says:

I monitor my eating and exercise a lot and when I set my mind to making a change I make a plan, I write it down, and I execute it.  For example, I try to start new exercise regimens with specific goals often, to mix things up and to work on different aspects of fitness.  I plan them, write them down, come up with a tracking system, and then I do exactly what I planned.  I have no outside accountability mechanisms.  I wear a fitbit and will pace around the house til I meet my internally set fitness goal (that no one else is tracking).

When it comes to nutrition, she points out:

I absolutely love food so much and if I ate whatever I wanted I would be the size of a house.  So, my upholder tendencies help to keep this under control.  I have come up with a system of a weight range I want to stay in that is healthy for me.  If I’m in the range, I try the moderation approach – eat what I want, but make sure a lot of it is healthy and try not to overstuff.  But, if I am on vacation or out to dinner (I don’t eat out a lot), then all bets are off and I can have what I want.  If I reach the top weight in my range, I pull back a little on indulgences.  If I go over the range more than 2 days in a row, I plan healthy lighter meals until I am under two days in a row.  I typically gain weight on vacations (when I don’t weigh daily) and then I don’t panic, I just eat lighter til back in the range.  

As I’ve pointed out for Upholders in the past, the biggest drawback can be rigidity and self-criticism when the high (self-set) standards aren’t met. For example, Lisa acknowledges, “I think it makes me more rigid when things go wrong – and if something inevitable gets in the way of my well-laid plans I get stressed.”

It may be obvious that I don’t have many in-person Upholder clients, because their internal drive is sufficiently strong that they don’t need strict external accountability. However, online coaching is a good fit for Upholders, as they simply get the weight training and nutrition instructions and run with it! In fact, this kind of coaching can be a lot of fun for Upholders, because it allows them to take their natural excellence to the next level because they have more accurate and effective guidance.

The Obliger: Erica

“I don’t want to disappoint.”

Many of my clients (especially in-person) are natural Obligers, because this Tendency thrives with the external accountability of workout buddies, personal trainers, and teams. The strength of the Obliger is their strong response to outer expectations.

The weakness of the “Obliger” emerges when external motivation disappears – they can struggle with persisting with habits once accountability has been removed (i.e. the end of a gym challenge). They can also tend to beat themselves up when they fail… or rebel when too much pressure is endured over time.

Erica, a classic Obliger in my online community (and a former client), notes her strengths:

I have always thought of myself as a really disciplined person – it’s easy for me to follow rules, I have always been a perfectionist, an A student, all those other markers of how to succeed. In those pursuits, and in other things that feel like they need systems, it’s easy for me to create and maintain the rules I make for myself. 

However, she also acknowledges the importance of accountability for the Obliger tendency:

I have done much better, as when working with you, when I have some measure of accountability (although it has to be the right kind of accountability – when I tried DietBet I didn’t feel any sense of accountability to the moderators or my group and abandoned it right away) and a system to follow that feels like it was given to me. I think then I don’t want to disappoint or don’t want to feel I failed at something I “should” be able to maintain.

Like many high-achieving Obligers, Erica has this weakness:

The weakness is that I really beat myself up when I don’t do something I really want to! I tell myself I want to eat healthy and I’m usually so good at getting things done that I can’t understand why I’m so bad at following through. Then I sink into this cycle of being disappointed in myself and self-soothing usually with the same “bad” decision, then being disappointed again and trying a new scheme, and so on.

What I have observed over time, when it comes to Obligers, is that they seem to benefit from external motivation with specific project-based outcomes. For example:

I did the Couch to 5K program a few years ago as a way to get myself better at running. I stuck with the system religiously, following the instructions for what to do each day, and really enjoyed my 5K experience.

So if you’re an Obliger, my tip for you is to surround yourself with a community that propels you forward in your healthy habits! Join (or start) a running club. Hire a personal trainer. Make a gym buddy. Join an accountability group.

Do anything to get yourself connected with others to tackle various health and wellness related projects!

The Questioner: Cheryl

“I can’t make myself do it, without deciding that it needs to be done.”

“Questioners” respond well to inner expectations but tend to resist outer expectations – that means that they are highly principled and follow a strong inner north star for guidance. They are confident in their personal beliefs and ask a lot of smart questions if they work with a trainer or dietitian.

Their weakness, however, is that they are not motivated to work on things that they don’t deem to be important or relevant, and they can also fall into “analysis paralysis” when trying to make a decision.

Now, let’s talk to Cheryl, my Questioner from my online community!

Cheryl says about her powerful internal motivation:

As a Questioner, once I decide that something is important to do for my health, I don’t have a lot of trouble sticking with it. For example, I pack salads to take to work for lunch and don’t feel tempted to purchase something else. I try to fit in exercise and activity whenever possible by scheduling regular workout sessions and trying to meet friends for walks rather than meals. I notice what actions make me feel better and find ways to make them habits — drinking seltzer is easier for me than drinking plain water and I know I feel better when I’m hydrated, so I bring a La Croix with me to work every day.

But she also recognizes this Tendency’s blind spot:

It’s a weakness due to the tendency to fall into analysis paralysis. I want a lot of information before I make a decision. I need to be really convinced before I commit. This can make it hard to get certain things done. In the health context, my Questioner nature has me stuck right now between deciding whether to lose the last 5 pounds or be happy with myself as is. Of course, if I decided to lose the weight, I could probably get it done in a month, but I can’t make myself do it without deciding that it needs to be done.

My advice to all Questioners? Do your research, and then do something. If you get personal training or work with a nutritionist, choose someone who shares your passion for knowledge and reasoning, because they will be sufficiently expert to both convince you and prod you out of analysis paralysis.

The Rebel: Shelley

“I set my own rules.”

In a more recent blog post, I discussed how “Rebels” succeed with unconventionality, anti-orthodoxy, and individualism. It is crucial that Rebels feel in charge of their choices, and I often find that they will not take the easy way out once they commit to something. Their ultimate strength is that they have no problem sticking with healthy living strategies that others would find extreme – as long as it was their idea, and maybe even are trying to prove someone else wrong.

The potential challenge of “Rebels” is getting motivated at all. Because they tend to buck at both their intrinsic expectations of themselves and external societal expectations, they can struggle to lock into the motivation that identity provides, and it can be a bumpy road to finding the right path in terms of healthy lifestyle change.

Shelley, a classic Rebel in my community, freely says:

I set my own rules… I think being free from expectation is a key strength. I don’t go about my day – or my life – concerned about how others view me or judge me. It opens up a lot of doors for me to be authentic to myself and make unconventional decisions. I’m pretty fearless about trying new things and going to new places.

But she also recognizes the drawbacks of being a Rebel.

For me personally, not holding my own expectations can be a weakness. I have a hard time sticking to a diet. I have a hard time going to a gym. I fight against structure and expectation, but in truth sometimes those are really keys to productivity. Often, I can have all the intention in the world, but that doesn’t always lead to action. 

For so many things, I “know” what I should be doing. I have an action plan in my mind. I just don’t always execute on it. 

Shelley, however, knows how to leverage her Rebel-ness.

If I make plans to meet a friend at the gym, then I am way more likely to go. Not because I want to go to the gym anymore, but because I want to meet up with my friend. Because that’s fun, even if the gym isn’t.  I make plans with friends to go walking, because that is fun – not just exercise. And because I’m so social, it is the social meet-up aspect that motivates me. Not the exercise… In general, I prefer spontaneity – I like to have lots of options on the table and to be able to pick between them and change my mind.

Much like I’ve observed in other Rebels, Shelley does follow a unique set of self-imposed rules around nutrition.

I keep a kosher home. I, as a Rebel, willingly take on some archaic Jewish rules on eating and apply them in my life…with some loopholes.

Finally, I see in Shelley the Rebel tendency to embrace health and wellness through radical and unexpected experiences that push the comfort zone.

I was roaming the hippie village of San Marcos La Laguna and checking out the flyers on the walls, trying to figure out how to spend my days. (I arrived with no other plans other than my first night’s reservation and knowledge from travel blogs that tons of yoga classes abounded.) I saw a poster for a 4 day “goddess workshop” that was starting that afternoon. I knew nothing about it. Did it sound totally foreign and out of my comfort zone? Yes. Did I go? Of course! And had an awesome 4 days of feminine energy activities and learning that pushed me out of my comfort zone each minute of each day!

If you’re a Rebel, I recommend that you tie your success not to accountability or to “inner motivation,” but to identity. Be you – fearlessly, authentically, and radically. Make fitness work your way.

“Make it easy to do right, and hard to go wrong.”

Whether you identify as an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel, even Gretchen herself would admit that an important aspect of health is to “make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong” (Better Than Before).

To that end, I’ve created easy, 10-minute home workouts that require absolutely no equipment, and you can download them for free by:

… Clicking here!

Also, if you found this post interesting, you may enjoy being a part of my online community, where we discuss the habits of healthy living and how to stick with them!

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