Gretchen Rubin: How To Use The Four Tendencies To Improve Our Lives

This article was authored by: Dan Schawbel at

I spoke to Gretchen Rubin, who is the author of The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too), about why she decided to write the book, what The Four Tendencies are, how we can use the tendencies to improve our lives, how they improve the effectiveness of teams, and the new research she discovered while writing the book.

Rubin is one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on the linked subjects of habits, happiness, and human nature. She’s the author of many books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before and The Happiness Project. A member of Oprah’s SuperSoul 100, Rubin has an enormous following, in print and online; her books have sold more than two million copies worldwide, in more than thirty-five languages, and on her popular daily blog,, she reports on her adventures in pursuit of habits and happiness. She also has a highly ranked, award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Dan Schawbel: After your previous books on happiness and habits, why did you decide to focus on personality type?

Gretchen Rubin: For years, I’ve been researching and writing about human nature. I’m fascinated by questions such as: Why do we do the things we do — or don’t do? How can we change?

As I was considered these questions, I tried to make sense of certain patterns that I saw. So many people told me, “I can always take time for other people, but I can never take time for myself.” Others told me, “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, because January 1 is an arbitrary date.” Still others said, “When someone tells me to do something, immediately I don’t want to do it.”

I was particularly struck by each of these remarks — because they didn’t ring true for me. I didn’t have trouble taking time for myself. The “arbitrariness” of January 1 had never bothered me. I don’t feel like resisting every time someone tells me what to do. These people seemed to share certain responses — and I didn’t. Why?

I sensed that some hidden pattern explained it, but it took me a very long time to grasp it. But finally I realized that the crucial question is: How do you respond to expectations? Because we all face outer expectations (like a work deadline) and inner expectations (like a New Year’s resolution).

This sounds like a dull question, but it’s actually enormously illuminating and helpful. Your answer determines where you fall in the “Four Tendencies”: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.

Understanding the Four Tendencies makes it far easier to manage ourselves—and to get other people to do what we want! It illuminates the various perspectives people have, and the fact that we have to push different buttons to get different people to act.

The 4 TendenciesThe 4 Tendencies

The 4 Tendencies

Schawbel: What are the Four Tendencies? Which one fits you and why?

Rubin: As I mentioned, the Four Tendencies distinguishes how people tend to respond to expectations, both:

• outer expectations (going to a doctor’s appointment, answering a request from a friend)

• inner expectations (practicing guitar, going for a daily run)

Your answer determines your “Tendency.”

• “Upholders” respond readily to outer and inner expectations. They keep the work deadline, and the New Year’s resolution, fairly easily.

• “Questioners” question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense and meets their own inner standards — so they follow only inner expectations

• “Obligers” meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves. An Obliger journalist has no trouble writing when he has an editor, colleagues, and deadlines, but struggles to write a novel in his free time.

• “Rebels” resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want, in their own way, and if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re likely to resist.

Of the Four Tendencies, my research shows that most people are either Questioners or Obligers — and Obliger is the largest Tendency of all (for both men and women). Of the Four Tendencies, Rebel is the smallest category, and Upholder is also a small category. Not many people are Rebels or Upholders.

I’m an Upholder, and many things in my life became much, much clearer once I realized that I’m an Upholder, and very few people are Upholders!

I have an online quiz at I’m closing in on a million takers of that quiz.

With my sister and co-host, I host a weekly podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, about how to (spoiler alert) make your life better. We often talk about the Four Tendencies, and get a big response whenever we do. For instance, we dedicated episodes 35-38 to talking about each of the Four Tendencies, and we’ve never stopped getting responses.

Schawbel: Once we understand our personality type, how can we use that knowledge to make our lives better?

Rubin: Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding this framework lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively with other people.

Just as important, we can use the Four Tendencies to deal more effectively with others. Managers, doctors, teachers, spouses, and parents already use the framework to help others make lasting change.

The Four Tendencies hold practical answers if you’ve ever wondered…

• People can rely on me, so why can’t I rely on myself?

• Why do people tell me that I ask too many questions?

• How do I work with someone who refuses to do what I ask—or one who keeps telling me what to do?

• How do I stop my teenager from dropping out of school?

• Why can’t I convince my patients to take their prescriptions?

• How can my team become more effective, with less wasted time and conflict?

The Four Tendencies help us to become happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. It’s far easier to succeed when we know what actually works for us — and why.

If we don’t know our Tendency — or someone else’s Tendency — we may pursue strategies that are ineffective or worse, counterproductive.

For instance, if Obligers want to meet inner expectations, they absolutely must have outer accountability. This is the crucial element for Obligers. So if an Obliger wants to exercise, he might sign up for a class, work out with a trainer, exercise with a friend who gets annoyed if he doesn’t show up, think about his future-self, or consider his duty to be a role model for someone else. Obligers respond well to supervision, scheduling, monitoring, deadlines, reminders, and other forms of accountability.

But Rebels resist accountability! They hate to be reminded, scheduled, or being stuck in a routine. They want choice, freedom, authenticity, and self-expression. If a Rebel wants to exercise, she thinks about what she feels like doing right now, what she enjoys doing, and what kind of person she is.

Or think about it in a work context. Say you’re a boss with an Obliger employee and a Rebel employee, and you want each of them to turn in the monthly report. The way you’d deal effectively with the Obliger would be very different from the way you’d deal with the Rebel.

Schawbel: How can The Four Tendencies improve the performance and happiness of a team?

Rubin: When we understand our Tendency, we can take advantage of the upsides of our Tendency, and counteract its limitations and downsides. And if we know other people’s Tendencies, we can shape circumstances to take that into account.

For instance, say your team includes a Rebel. If you ask or tell Rebels to do something, you ignite their spirit of resistance. So you’d be better off not imposing a lot of deadlines, supervision, or oversight on that Rebel. Rebels do their best work when left to do it in their own way, in their own time.

By contrast, an Obliger on the team need accountability, so for that person, you would want deadlines and oversight.

When we understand how the Four Tendencies operate, we become more tolerant and compassionate. You understand: “That Rebel isn’t refusing to do anything I ask, that Rebel refuses to do anything that anyone asks! It has nothing to do with me, or our relationship. It’s just the nature of Rebels.”

Another example? At work, Questioners can sometimes drain and frustrate others with their many questions. Others may feel that Questioners are being obstructionist, stubborn, insubordinate, or not being a team player — but the Questioners are just trying to get their questions answered. Understanding how people have different levels of needing to understand the “why” can result in much less conflict.

Along the same lines, Upholders are often unrealistic in their expectations for other people. They get impatient with people’s questions, or with their need for accountability, or with their resistance. When Upholders see how they’re different from others, they can work better with others.

And so on.

When we fail to take the Tendencies into account, we lower our chances of success. For example, the more an Upholder tells a Rebel what he or she should do, the more the Rebel will want to resist. A Questioner may provide an Obliger with several sound reasons for taking an action, but those logical arguments don’t matter much to an Obliger; external accountability is the key for an Obliger.

Schawbel: What new research did you discover as you were writing the book and what surprised you the most?

Rubin: Once I identified the Four Tendencies, I was surprised by how obvious they are. Whenever I describe the four types to people, they almost immediately know their Tendency, and the Tendency of many people in their lives.

I can see the influence of the Tendencies everywhere—in soft drink commercials, in TV sitcoms, in classic novels and movies, in the signs above office sinks or in hotel rooms.

And I’m also surprised by the degree to which most people do indeed fall squarely into one of the four profiles. While it can sometimes be difficult to identify a child’s Tendency, by adulthood we clearly fit into a particular Tendency that shapes our perceptions and behavior in fundamental ways. Unless we go through some catastrophic, character-reshaping experience — such as a near-death experience, a grave illness, or a serious bout with addiction—our Tendencies don’t change.

Many personality frameworks cram too many elements into their categories. By contrast, the Four Tendencies describes only one narrow aspect of a person’s character — a vitally important aspect, but still just one of the multitude of qualities that form an individual. The Four Tendencies framework explains why we act and why we don’t act.

When you know this one narrow aspect of your own nature, you gain a lot of valuable insight into how to achieve your aims.

I’ve heard people say, “When you define yourself, you confine yourself.” I disagree; I think systems of self-definition are very helpful, because they help shine a spotlight on how we might be different from other people.

The fact is, we’re very much like other people, but the differences are very important.

It’s true, though, that the Four Tendencies framework isn’t meant to slap on a label that determines everything about us, but rather a way to illuminate hidden aspects of our nature.

I’ve also been surprised — and tremendously gratified — to learn about the dramatic benefits people have gained, through the Four Tendencies.

I’ve heard from people who have lost a lot of weight; from parents who have figured out how to persuade a teenager not to drop out of school; from doctors who have learned how to persuade people to take their medication more consistently; from bosses and employees who know how to work together more efficiently.

People who are constantly trying to help people to meet their own aims or to make changes — e.g., doctors, physical therapists, coaches, trainers, bosses, teachers, parents — are excited to learn about the Four Tendencies, because it’s such a helpful tool.

Once people learn about their Tendency—and about other people’s Tendencies — they want more and more information about it. For that reason, I’ve created a free app, the Better app, where people can discuss and learn about the Four Tendencies, about how to manage themselves, how to use it in romance, at work, as a health-care professional, as a parent.

Also—and this is crucial for the large number of Obligers out there — people can launch or join Accountability Groups on the Better app. For Obligers, getting outer accountability is the crucial element that allows them to meet an inner expectation.

The app can be a helpful way to get accountability. You can hire a trainer or a coach, but that can be expensive. You can take a class, but that might be inconvenient, or maybe you’re an introvert who doesn’t relish the thought of meeting in person with a group of people. If so, you can form your group on the Better app — it’s free, more convenient, more manageable, and yet gives that crucial accountability.

Or say you’re a professor who’s trying to get your graduate students to finish their Ph.D. theses on time. You can help your students form an Accountability Group, so they can help each other to write more consistently.

I love reading the discussions on the Better app, or getting responses from listeners to my podcast, or getting emails from people who have read my books or my blog. I’m astonished by how clearly people see the Four Tendencies—how sophisticated their observations and coping strategies are. They really, really grasp it.

With the Four Tendencies, I really feel like I’ve discovered a law of nature: human nature. Or maybe I’ve created something more like a Muggle Sorting Hat.

Dan Schawbel is a keynote speaker and the New York Times bestselling author of Promote Yourself and Me 2.0. Subscribe to his free newsletter.

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