Habit Forming

There’s a reason why so much of the advice about creating good habits isn’t working for you.

Author and Convening Leaders 2016 speaker Gretchen Rubin
Author and Convening Leaders 2016 speaker Gretchen Rubin

Our habits, according to author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin, are the invisible architecture of our lives. They wield an outsized influence because we repeat about 40 percent of the same behaviors — good or bad — every day. “If you want to be happy or healthy and more productive, it’s just going to be really hard to do that if you don’t have a system that works for you,” said Rubin, whose best-selling book The Happiness Project introduced readers to her talent for turning voluminous amounts of research and experience into practical suggestions and tools.

But given the fact that there is no shortage of advice about how to create good habits or drop bad ones, why is it so hard for us to change? asks Rubin, who will deliver a General Session at PCMA Convening Leaders 2016 in Vancouver in January. The key that unlocks that question is self-knowledge, she writes in her recent book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. “The fact is, no one-size-fits-all solution exists,” Rubin writes. “It’s easy to dream that if we copy the habits of creative, productive people, we’ll win similar success. But we each must cultivate the habits that work for us.

But we don’t have to figure it all out on our own. In Better Than Before and on her blog at, Rubin introduces a framework to help people understand key aspects of their nature, so they can choose the strategies that are likely to lead them toward success. She identifies four basic patterns — or tendencies — that describe how each of us responds to expectations. 

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Illustration by Joyce Hesselburth

The 4 Tendencies

When it comes to changing habits, people fit into one of four categories, Gretchen Rubin writes in Better Than Before. By far, most are Obligers or Questioners.

› Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations.

› Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense.

› Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

› Obligers  meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

“To a certain extent, you are who you are,” Rubin told Convene in a recent interview. When you accept yourself, “you can expect more from yourself in a way that’s compatible of your true nature. Don’t judge and think that you have to change yourself. You just have to change the way things are set up, and you can get the results you want.”

Is any of your work on habits an outgrowth of what you learned in The Happiness Project? You added a lot of new habits during that process.

One hundred percent. At the time, I’d been framing this as resolutions — sort of like New Year’s resolutions — but really, they could just as easily be characterized as habits. When I look back at a lot of the research that I did, I was really circling around the idea of habits, but I just hadn’t quite put my finger on it yet.

One of the insights that I found most satisfying in Better Than Before was that we build our habits on the foundation of our natures.

It’s funny that no one else points that out. Truly, if you look at all the habit experts, they really argue for one-size-fits-all solutions. Which clearly is not the case. I kept thinking, Am I really the only one who’s getting this?, because it seemed so obvious to me.

It’s very hard to realize that other people see the world in a different way from you — to grasp how people can just be approaching something completely differently. Especially if you’re a very high-functioning person, you tend to think, Well, I’m efficient, successful, and happy and healthy because I do things the right way. If everybody did things the way I do it, they would be just as happy and successful, too.

For me, a huge step forward was when I identified the four tendencies. And I’ve done much, much more work since, going deeper, deeper, deeper in trying to understand these four tendencies.

When you look at organizations, how can they use the frameworks offered by the four tendencies to their advantage?

It’s actually a super-important tool for managers, I think. I talk to a lot of people about it, both in terms of being part of a team and being a manager. It can be really important if you’re managing or working with Obligers, because they do tend to burn out. They tend to have this pattern that I talk about — “Obliger rebellion” — where all of a sudden they snap and won’t meet an expectation. These are really hard on organizations.

Questioners are exhausting in a different way. A lot of times they exhaust teams and managers, because they just won’t let things go: “Why are we doing this? I don’t agree with your decision.” They have this constant desire for information that can be super-positive — it could be extremely helpful and healthy for organizations to have people like this. There can become a point where it can become paralyzing or draining.

The dark side of the Upholder is you get the person who can’t see the forest through the trees. They’re the person who spends all their time finding typos instead of handing in a document in a timely way, or is furious because something is an hour past the deadline when it doesn’t matter that it was an hour past the deadline.

Rebels are rebels. If you ask or tell them to do something, they are very likely to resist. That is a big challenge for managers and teams. The more you micromanage, the more you supervise, the more you’re going to create the spirit of resistance.

There is organizational value in having diversity of thought. Is there value to a team in having diversity of these tendencies?

It would really depend on the group and task. I think [in general] it’s good that there are all these things mixed together. For a particular team, it might be better or worse. Let’s say you were in a highly regulated industry; you might want to have a lot of Upholders there. But Upholders sometimes get carried away with doing things. Then somebody like a Questioner needs to say, “Why are we doing this at all? Isn’t there a better way?” There is value in all these different voices, although in any particular case, you might want to have a particular mix.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.