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Why You Get Stuff Done: What the Four Tendencies Mean for You

Habits & Productivity Happiness
Why You Get Stuff Done: What the Four Tendencies Mean for You


  • What your tendency is (and what others find annoying about it)
  • Why Gretchen Rubin crowdsourced her initial research for her insights
  • How our culture can determine which tendency is in vogue

Gretchen Rubin is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project and, most recently, The Four Tendencies. She recently sat down with writer and acclaimed cultural critic Virginia Heffernan to discuss the origin of Gretchen’s new approach to personality types, the role of sage wisdom in popular psychology, and how the tendencies can help you understand yourself and those around you.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Gretchen: I stumbled into the Four Tendencies framework when I was writing my book, Better Than Before, because I was trying to understand certain patterns that I saw in how people could or couldn’t break habits. It turned out that has implications far beyond habits. It has to do with how you respond to expectations.

We all face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations, [like] a work deadline or a request from a friend, and inner expectations, your own desire to go running on the weekend, or to keep your New Year’s resolution. There are upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. They meet their work deadline. They keep their New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what’s expected of them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.

Virginia: Let’s face it. That’s the best one. That’s the winner.

Gretchen: No, actually, in all of these, the strengths are the same things as the weaknesses. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, Stannis Baratheon is an upholder in all of [the tendency’s] strengths and glories, and all of its weaknesses and vices. He is so committed to his right to be king that he will destroy everything because he feels like that is what’s right. You don’t feel like he really wants to be king, but it’s like he must be king because that is what’s right. That’s the outer expectation and the inner expectation, and nothing can get in his way.

There’s upsides and downsides. Because I’m an upholder, I do feel like, “Upholders are the best.” Getting all this feedback from people revealed to me how other people do find upholders to be difficult or annoying. Now, I have much better insight into the dark side of being an upholder, because people have explained it to me.

“I was trying to understand certain patterns that I saw in how people could or couldn’t break habits. It turned out that has implications far beyond habits. It has to do with how you respond to expectations.”

Virginia: I love this about you. Instead of making yourself this avatar to be the subject of idolatry, you always lead with your eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. In the beginning of The Four Tendencies, you discovered you were an upholder. It’s a relatively rare tendency, and you were surprised that you have this odd personality, not that your family was surprised. Let’s get to the rest.

Gretchen: Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. They hate anything arbitrary, inefficient, or irrational. They make everything an inner expectation. If it meets their inner standard, they will meet that expectation, but if it doesn’t meet their standard of what makes sense to do, they will resist it. Then there are obligers. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. As I described in the book, somebody said something to me which set me off on the whole process of understanding the four tendencies. She said, “I know I would be happier if I’d exercise. And the weird thing is when I was in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice. So why can’t I go running now?”

In trying to understand what the difference was for her, I identified the [difference in her] outer expectations. When [obligers have] a team and a coach, or a boss or a deadline, somebody’s outer expectation, obligers will meet their expectations, but when it’s only their inner expectation, they struggle.

Then there are rebels. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want to do in their own way, in their own time. If you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. They typically don’t even want to tell themselves what to do.

Virginia: I find that by turns, I show up as a rebel and a questioner. I hate being a rebel. I feel like that one makes me seem like [I’m] a flake, but trying to call it something else.

Gretchen: No, the thing is rebels can do anything they want to do. This is a really important point. If we lined up 50 rebels, they would be very different from each other, depending on how ambitious they are, how considerate of other people’s feelings they are, how intellectual they are, how introverted or extroverted they are. All these things would be different. The tendency only explains one very narrow slice of your personality.

[Rebels can] be super successful and caring, because anything they want to do, they will do. Rebels [are] super powerful because they can do everything they want to do, but people often get in the way by trying to tell them what to do. That does not work.

Virginia: That sadly rings true. I guess, I feel like it’s not very adult. It’s like you’re still an adolescent, but there’s probably a little bit of abashedness for all of us with our tendencies.

Gretchen: That’s true. They all have strengths and weaknesses. All these tendencies have people who are very successful and also very unsuccessful.

Virginia: Is it possible that the tendencies don’t actually show up all that differently? You could have a rebel that tells herself, “I work hard because I want to. I stay late in the office because I want to. I get a lot done because I want to. I go to people’s weddings, and give them a gift early because I want to,” but they look to all the world like an upholder.

Gretchen: Yes. You cannot judge someone’s tendency by what they do. You have to know their reasoning.

Virginia: I got some ideas from parenting from this book. For instance, I think my son is some kind of rebel. He likes to win. Early on, we would get him to wear a coat in the cold by telling him “Bonnie Chill” was coming to try to defeat him, and that he could only fend it off by putting on this warm coat to defeat Bonnie Chill. It was a way to set up a competition between him and the elements. It didn’t feel just like manipulation and advertising. It felt like telling the story in a way that was true to the facts of the story and also to him.

Why You Get Stuff Done: What the Four Tendencies Mean for You

Gretchen: You’re reaching him in a way that’s effective, which is what we all want to do. We all just want to be effective in our communications with other people, but often, you assume that other people see the world the way you do. You just assume that everyone is going around with the same perspective, and so you don’t realize how you could be getting in other people’s ways, or pushing their buttons, or driving them crazy. A lot of times, a 30-second conversation would make a whole conflict go away, if you just understand what people need.

Virginia: I want to hear about what’s annoying about each tendency. Tell me how might questioners be annoying.

Gretchen: Questioners can often drain and overwhelm people with their questions. Maybe I’m a boss, and you keep asking me questions, [and] I feel like you’re not respecting my authority. You’re not trusting my judgment. You’re starting to make me feel defensive, because why are you asking me all these questions? That’s something that questioners need to manage.

Questioners can [also] send themselves and others into analysis paralysis, when they [continually] want more information, and don’t want to act or decide. Sometimes, we have to move forward without perfect information. That can be a source of strife for questioners themselves and for people who are dealing with questioners.

Virginia: Does it seem like certain tendencies are ascendants of certain times? With obligers, there’s so much talk among mothers in particular, neglecting themselves to please other people. I really want to hear about this, because in the insistence that we have boundaries, and detachment, and self-care, I don’t know why just my wanting to take care of my children’s needs, which feels very natural to me, is not enough.

Gretchen: It’s not that these people are mothers—it’s that they are obligers. They are meeting outer expectations, but they’re frustrated by the fact that they’re not meeting their inner expectation, [by] ascribing to this motherhood ideal. It’s a function of being an obliger, and they’re experiencing it through that lens.

A journalist [once] asked me, “Why is it that busy moms like us can’t take time for ourselves?” I said, “I don’t have any trouble taking time for myself actually. I’ve been busy, but that is not a problem that I face.”

She said, “Actually, I don’t feel that way either, but it’s a cultural thing that we’re all expected to [experience.]” Some people criticize themselves for it. Sometimes people valorize it, and say, “I’ll do anything for a client. Anything a client needs, there I am.” But at a certain point, you get obliger rebellion and burnout—meeting outer expectations, [but] not meeting inner expectations.

Virginia: My aunt was a nun. There are lots of nurses in the family, lots of people in some service [occupation] or another. They never got a blowout, a pedicure, wore any makeup. But people thought that that was heroic, and they walked around with a gratified ego on the grounds that they were so obliging, and so beautifully differential to higher ideals or to expectations of their church or the people they were taking care of.

Gretchen: So too, you can see how one person’s a nurse and one person is in private client services, but what they’re both doing is going to every length that they can to meet the need of their constituency. In certain circumstances and in certain times in culture, being a questioner, or a rebel, or an upholder, or even an obliger, sometimes, has been terrible and maybe gets you killed, and then other times, it’s heroic and very highly valued.

Virginia: I’m not totally sure where rebels stand right now, but I definitely feel like I’ve been on the receiving end of lots of preaching about how being an obliger is the worst possible thing you could be, and by contrast, the better thing is to nurture yourself.

Gretchen: Obligers are the biggest tendency. So either you are an obliger, or you’ve got lot of them in your life, which is good because they’re the rocks of the world. They’re the good team members. We all rely on them, and they’re the ones [who are] the most easy exploited. The other three tendencies absolutely will go first to an obliger to try to get them to help out.

Virginia: What motivated you to customize The Happiness Project for different tendencies? Did your platform serve as a kind of net in attracting these different voices, and complicating your original model?

Gretchen: Seeing how things play out for different people in different contexts is really interesting to me. With The Four Tendencies, I was getting people’s examples and questions that were so nuanced and so rich, and in circumstances that I couldn’t possibly have predicted or imagined. I would hear from all these people, and so for me, it deepened my understanding of everything that I was writing about so much. A reader picked up a major pattern of questioners that I hadn’t.

They emailed me and said, “Have you ever noticed that questioners hate to be questioned?” I never noticed that pattern, but my husband (a questioner) hates to answer questions so much that it’s a running joke in our family. I just thought it was his quirk, but when you look around, it’s actually another annoying thing about questioners. They don’t like to explain their judgments or their decisions. They’re like, “Just trust me. Like, I made the best choice. Leave it to me.”

I’ve learned that if somebody’s a questioner, they [often] use the word “arbitrary.” This is the thing they hate the most. If I didn’t hear from all my readers, I don’t think I would be able to perceive these patterns, because I just wouldn’t have a big enough data set.

“There are a lot of things that are important about you. There’s a lot of things that make you different or like other people, and the tendency is just one.”

Virginia: Yes, resistance to arbitrariness sounds really interesting. The fact that you are alert to data, and actually read the comments is so interesting and telling. A design critic was telling me that she finds the most interesting design criticisms in Amazon comments now. People often tell stories about their relation to something, a swaddling garment for babies, for example. They’ll start with, “I couldn’t sleep. I was fighting with my wife. We were on the brink of divorce, and then we discovered this swaddle, and the Velcro works really well to keep the baby snug and asleep. Our marriage was saved.”

Likewise, you use anecdotes that illuminate a central object, [or tendency] and then use all this advice from sages. There is, I think, less science and more wisdom, more of the humanities in your books than in a lot of would-be self-help books.

Gretchen: One problem with science is it’s not that stable. There’s a finding, and then several years later, there is another finding that doesn’t support it, or it hasn’t been replicated. Research can point in a lot of good directions, but I feel like experiments are [necessarily] limited, and so the conclusions are limited.

Virginia: One of my favorite pieces of criticism that came out on Gary Taubes’ high fat diet was a [blogger] who looked at six eggs and bacon on a plate, and decided, “This is a little gross. That doesn’t look like breakfast.” Sometimes, it’s just not your aesthetic, not your vibe. You’re just not going to do it.

Gretchen: That’s exactly right. The four tendencies are meant to illuminate just that. There are a lot of things that are important about you. There’s a lot of things that make you different or like other people, and the tendency is just one. It’s an important thing, I think, but there’s many things. Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you like abundance, or do you like simplicity? Are you a finisher or an opener? Do you like to work with style? Are you a sprinter or a marathoner? There’s a million ways that people are alike and different, and the more you can identify that, then you can figure out how to shape things to suit yourself.

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