How was your day?
The morning meeting went on for an hour longer than necessary, because Tim from Sales would not stop asking questions about the arbitrary new policies handed down from HR. Even though everybody else had started fidgeting in their seats and glancing at their phones, Tim still piped up with ‘yes, just a few’ when HR Henry asked, ‘any more questions before we wrap up?’
You planned to go to the gym at lunch, but your co-worker needs to talk to you about a presentation she’s doing – you’re the only one who can help her, apparently. She seems stressed, so you tell yourself you’ll go to the gym after work, but you know that’s not going to happen, don’t you?
You come home from not-going-to-the-gym to find last night’s dishes still piled up in the sink and your son playing video games in his room. You knock on his door and say: ‘Uh, hey kiddo. Can you do the washing up after you’ve finished your game? That’d be lovely.’ He pauses his game, turns to you, and says ‘No.’
Frustrated? Me too. Everyone is so exhausting, all the time, and they never stop. Like, I know murder is wrong, but surely it’s not so bad if it’s Tim from Sales?
What if you could find a better way to navigate difficult people? What if, when people made demands on your time, you could tell them ‘no’ without feeling guilty for the rest of your life? What if you could find a way to stop your son from being such an arse all the time?
Author, podcaster and keynote speaker Gretchen Rubin was halfway through a multi-book investigation into human nature when she asked herself an important question: How do I respond to expectations?
She realised that zooming in on that specific question turned up some particularly interesting nuggets of self-knowledge. After asking other people the same thing and comparing their answers, she determined that society could be split into four groups: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels.
For the really juicy results of her research, I recommend reading Gretchen’s book The Four Tendencies – but I’ve laid out some of the basics here, because they’re fascinating, and because murder is widely frowned upon.
What are the Four Tendencies?
When it comes to making and breaking habits, sometimes the biggest obstacle is the way you respond to expectations – both your own (internal) and the expectations of others (external). These are called the Four Tendencies. Some people are able to find the one that fits them best by simply reading a brief description. For everybody else, there’s a handy questionnaire. Remember, there’s some crossover between the Tendencies, so you might fit into more than one group – but it’s likely that one of them will be dominant.
‘Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations – they meet the work deadline, they keep the New Year’s resolution without much fuss.’
Upholders tend to be self-directed – they can put their mind to something, and they’ll usually be able to follow through with no problems. They’re the ones who can do Dry January without moaning about it – in fact, they actively enjoy setting rules for themselves.
Upholders are most satisfied when they’re moving through their daily schedule with ease. Tight deadlines? No problem. A solid 8 hours of sleep every night? Totally normal. The HR department has rolled out some new policies that’ll need to be factored into the way everybody works? That sounds like fun to them!
Life isn’t perfect for the Upholder, though. Delegation is absolutely not an option, which has some pretty obvious consequences in terms of workload. They can be a little rigid when it comes to rules, which can cause problems too. Upholders struggle to take a break from their habits, or violate the rules, even if they really want to, or if it would make things easier for everyone else.
So when you’re frustrated that Sharon is causing a fuss because she’s doing Veganuary and you’ve only provided a vegetarian option at your dinner party, it’s probably not because she likes torturing you – it’s more likely that she’s made a rule for herself, and breaking that rule now goes against her very core.
If you’re the Sharon in this situation, we understand and appreciate you. I’ve never run a single marathon and you’ve done four this year already. But remember not to turn your rules into someone else’s headache. Give yourself permission to unclench.
‘Questioners question all expectations – they’ll do it if they think it makes sense. They hate anything arbitrary or inefficient.’
Tim from Sales probably has a few habits that he sticks to – but he’ll have been through a somewhat exhausting process before taking them on. A Questioner needs to have an expectation carefully and completely explained before they’ll accept it. They have to view it as something useful and efficient, or they just won’t consider it worthwhile. The same applies to the people Questioners interact with. If somebody they don’t respect gives them a direction, they’re very unlikely to follow it.
When it comes to decision-making, Questioners often find themselves paralysed by the lack of perfect information. So, a simple question like – ‘can you guys follow these new policies that HR have brought in?’ becomes hundreds of smaller, absolutely pertinent but completely fatiguing questions.
(If up until this point you’ve been cocking an eyebrow at everything I’ve said, you are probably a Questioner.)
Gretchen has some excellent advice for Questioners in her book, but here’s a piece from me: Tim, I see that hand going up in the air even though we’ve been in this meeting for 90 minutes already, and I want you to know that I have needed to pee for a solid hour. I’m sure this question is important (to you, at least) but couldn’t it be asked in an email, when the rest of us aren’t obligated to listen to the answer?
‘Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. The largest number of men and women fit into this category.’
I am an Obliger, and so are most of you. When asked to do something, an Obliger’s immediate reaction is to agree to it, even if it gets in the way of promises they’ve made to themselves. Rather than letting somebody else down, Obligers often put their own needs to the side.
Because they struggle to do things for their own benefit, it’s really difficult for them to form a habit. Another issue is that once people with other Tendencies spot an Obliger, they tend to start bombarding them with obligations – after all, they never seem to mind.
As the martyred group of the Tendency framework, it can be very easy for Obligers to position themself as victims. As a result, resentment can start to simmer beneath a smiling surface. Have you picked up on it in my writing? It’s practically dripping from every word.
But here’s a great trick that I’ve learned in order to cope with the crippling guilt that comes with telling somebody you’re not going to take on their obligations.
Say ‘no, and…’
‘No, and you don’t need to be nervous about the presentation – but I hate doing them too! Why don’t you run through it in front of a mirror, and try to focus on your breathing?’
‘No, and since you must be really struggling to find a dog sitter at such short notice, have you tried this great app I read about?’
‘No, and in future could you send this sort of thing to me in an email so I can get round to it once I’ve finished my to-do list?’
Yes, you’re rejecting someone, but it’s not so blunt that it feels rude. You’re still offering them some value, you’re leaving them better off than they were when they came to you for help, but you haven’t had to take on a whole load of extra work in the process.
The key to conquering habits when you’re an Obliger is the curation of external accountability. Use your own kryptonite in your favour: if you can only get stuff done when other people expect it of you, then you just have to make yourself accountable for the things you want to do. Want to run a marathon, Jonathan? Then get some people to sponsor you. That way you’ll have to do it.
‘Rebels resist all expectations – they want to do what they want, when they want, in their own time.’
Rebels make their decisions based on what they, personally, feel like that day. Join a gym? Rather not, thanks. Deadlines? Get out of my face, capitalism. Take the bins out? You’re not my Dad.
Frustrating, yes – but the Rebel quite enjoys your frustration. It’s just another sign that they’re successfully subverting your expectations. Rules are for nerds, and if that means smoking precisely because you said they shouldn’t, then who’s got a light?
In stark contrast to Obligers, Rebels don’t really care if other people are counting on them. That’s rude? Suck it up. It’s against the rules? Oh, good.
They can end up frustrating themselves, though – especially when their rebellious nature leads them to pick up unhealthy habits, or give up on healthy ones they might actually quite like to keep. If you’re a Rebel who’s struggling, you can embrace habit-like behaviours by tying your actions to your identity. Focus on why you want to build the habit, or follow the habit in a way that sets you apart from other people. Above all, consider how building or breaking the habit might allow you to be true to yourself.
Learning to play guitar, for example, requires a habit of daily practice and commitment, which is something Rebels rage against. If they manage it, though, the benefits could be incredible. What better way to rebel against society than joining a band? Guitar too mainstream for you? Pick up a singing tesla coil instead. You can act with choice and freedom, even when it comes to habit building.
If you’re somebody struggling with getting a Rebel to conform, there are a few strategies you can use, but none of them are fool-proof. Because they aren’t persuaded by the arguments that work on people with other tendencies, you’ll need to get creative. The real trick to telling Rebels what to do is to avoid igniting their spirit of opposition – they have to think they’ve chosen to do whatever it is you want them to do.
So, your son won’t wash up? That’s fine. How does he fancy cold baked beans out of the can for dinner tonight, and every night until the pots and pans are clean enough to use? If threats aren’t really your vibe, you could try explaining why it’s important to you that he does the dishes – remember, Rebels aren’t unsympathetic, they just don’t like being told what to do.
In Conclusion: Murder – Best to Avoid It, Really.
If you recognise aspects of yourself (or others) in these descriptions, it can be a really good place to start when it comes to managing day-to-day confrontations.
Understanding your tendencies when it comes to expectations can be a massive aid in managing your life in a more productive and insightful way. It’s helpful when you’re communicating with or leading others, too – once you know how somebody is likely to react, you can plan accordingly.
So, while Tim from Sales asks his next absolutely pointless question, take a deep breath and look around the meeting room. Everybody in here has a tendency, or a combination of them. You probably already have a pretty good idea of what those tendencies are. Barbara from Finance is definitely an Obliger. HR Henry’s an Upholder for sure. Sit quietly with the knowledge that, if you put the effort in, you could have them all wrapped around your little finger.
If you want to learn more, there’s plenty of stuff online about the Four Tendencies, but I really do recommend picking up a copy of the book, which offers a lot more in terms of lessons, techniques and things to remember.