A Groundbreaking Framework

I want to provide a primer on a truly insightful framework by Gretchen Rubin called the Four Tendencies. Before doing so, I have a few notes.

First, I want to acknowledge the gravity of the term groundbreaking. It’s not a term I use lightly. Some may find it generous, but I stand firmly behind my choice. I believe the Four Tendencies framework is a game-changer. It is brilliant in its simplicity, and its impact is far-reaching.

Second, I want to acknowledge it may seem at first glance like a strange first post for a “health and mindset” blog. But it really is foundational. If you do not understand your tendency, you may be working against yourself without knowing it.

The Four Tendencies

Gretchen Rubin first introduced the concept of the four tendencies in her book Better Than Before. It resonated with readers, and she recently released a book entirely about the framework: The Four Tendencies.

It’s all about how individuals respond to expectations

There are two types of expectations:

Internal Expectations – expectations you place on yourself (e.g. drinking more water, daily meditation, journalling, etc)

External Expectations – outside expectations (e.g. attending a doctor’s appointment, handing in an assignment, meeting a friend for lunch, etc)

There are two ways to respond:

Meet expectations or Resist expectations.

You can meet both, resist both, or meet one and resist the other.

The combinations result in the following four: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels.

Four Tendencies

Why it matters so much

Figure out what works best for you

Since each tendency responds differently to expectations, there is no one way to approach to reaching your goals. A technique that works for one person may have the opposite effect on another. For example, an activity tracker that reminds an Obliger or Upholder to get up and walk after an hour of no activity could be helpful. The same reminder may bring about the opposite reaction for a Rebel who does not want be told when to get up and walk or a Questioner who does not agree that walking once an hour is not how they want to reach their movement goals.

Same tracker, very different results.

It also matters because we often feel bad when we compare ourselves to others. The trap is that we may be comparing apples to oranges.

About number of years ago, I worked with an amazing student leader who had her act together. She was organized, accomplished, driven, fun, and always got her work done on time, if not before. I spent more time than I would like to admit wondering how I could be more like her. She made it look effortless. Now I realize she is an Upholder. I, on the other hand, am not. Understanding the four tendencies – and your tendency – can free you from wondering why you aren’t like someone else.

It also means you can figure out what works best for your tendency and stop working against the grain.

Upholders, one of the less common tendencies, have the easiest time when it comes to meeting expectations since they respond to both and do not require figuring out a “best” way to work with their tendency. For Upholders, they can find it confusing and frustrating why others simply can’t meet their expectations.

The largest tendency – Obligers – can stand to benefit the most from this framework with regards to self-improvement. Obligers can make progress on internal expectations by using outer accountability. Essentially, you can turn an internal expectation into an external expectation. This will look different for each person since there are so many ways to add outer accountability. And, there are different types of Obligers, so while paying for a class may work for one person, for another, they may excuse themselves since the instructor gets the money either way.

What are some examples of outer accountability that could help an Obliger?

  • Meeting a friend
  • Enrolling in a course or club that meets at a specific time
  • Using an app with reminders or check-ins
  • Paying money to an organization you oppose if you don’t meet your stated expectation
  • Imposing limits, like getting rid of your credit and debit card to only use cash; or setting a credit card limit of $200, etc.
  • Have a friend or partner change your password and only share it once you have met your expectation

Here are some inventive examples the author has shared:

  • Setting an embarrassing social media post to be automatically posted at 8am to ensure waking up in time to stop it from going out
  • Two friends go to the gym and take each others’ gym shoes home so they are responsible for showing up at the next scheduled visit, otherwise the other person can’t do their workout
  • Tell your son or daughter they don’t have to brush their teeth if you don’t wash your face at night

As you can see, there are a number of ways for Obligers to implement external accountability in order to meet internal expectations. It’s a way to work with your tendency instead of against it.

Now, for Questioners, the key thing is figuring out inner expectations. Questioners are able to meet external expectations so long as they align with inner expectations. A Questioner can respond well to external expectations and might look like an Upholder or an Obliger, but really, they are responding well because it matches their own expectations. If an outer expectation does not align internally, a Questioner will resist. In other words, they won’t follow a rule for the rule’s sake. If you are a Questioner and you wonder why you aren’t meeting an expectation, perhaps you don’t actually believe the expectation is necessary.

A Rebel, the least common tendency, resists both inner and outer expectations, which may seem like they would never accomplish anything, but that’s far from the truth. Rebels can do whatever they want, and often do accomplish amazing things, but it needs to be something they want to do. They act from a sense of choice and freedom. Rebels respond well to identity – who do they want to be?

Rebels do not work well with convention, so when they accomplish something, the process may look very different from how the other tendencies would approach it. And since they resist outer expectations, they fare better when they are in charge instead of having a supervisor tell them what to do. That being said, the author found a number of Rebels in highly structured organizations, like the military, and found Rebels drawn to these as it gives the individual a boundary against which to bend, flex and break.

Figure out what works for others

Where I think every single person can benefit the most from this framework is understanding those around you. When you figure out why a person acts a certain way, it can alleviate frustration, reduce friction, and improve relationships. And, if you are trying to help someone you care about, you can tailor your approach to their tendency.

For example, Obligers may respond well to you following up on a project or goal to see how they are progressing. Conversely, following up with a Rebel may cause them to stall or even stop making progress.

Same approach, very different responses.

There is No One-Sized Fits All Approach

The next time a friend recommends doing something that worked amazingly well for them, look at what it is they were doing and why it worked. When someone finds a tool or process that makes a positive impact, they want to share it with people they care about. I know this well – I do it almost daily.

However, there is no perfect tool or process or app or approach for everyone. The Four Tendencies highlights this fact really well. And, knowledge of the framework can release feelings of guilt or failure when we try and do not succeed at something that worked well for someone else. And when it comes to health and mindset, this is critical.

Want to find out your tendency? Take the quiz online