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The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin.
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Introduction to the Four Tendencies

Gretchen Rubin is a writer interested in human nature and patterns in human behavior, what actions we take and why we take them. Why do some people who are strong performers at work find it hard to keep themselves accountable to diet or exercise? Why do others seem to find it easy to do whatever they put their mind to?

Rubin mulled this over and had an epiphany. She designed a simple personality test based on one question: how do you respond to expectations? From people’s answers to questions around this subject, she devised the Four Tendencies.

The Four Tendencies describe four different personality types based on response to expectations, both internal (the expectations you have for yourself) and external (the expectations other people have for you). Expectations are things we act on, or not. An example of an internal expectation would be, “I want to be a famous writer” or “I need to clean my room.” External expectations would be more like, “my boss needs this report by Friday,” or “my mother wants me to dress more modestly.”

According to Rubin’s research and system, these are the 4 tendencies: the Upholder, the Questioner, the Obliger, and the Rebel. The way each tendency generally responds to internal and external expectations is:

  • Upholders meet all expectations, internal and external.
  • Questioners meet internal expectations, but not external.
  • Obligers meet external expectations, but not internal.
  • Rebels resist all expectations.

Because this is based on one simple consideration, everyone falls pretty squarely into one tendency. However, the Four Tendencies have some overlap, and can be illustrated this way:

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As you can see from the diagram, each tendency has two “tips” of other tendencies -- Upholders can tip either Questioner or Obliger, and so on.

About Tendencies

People are certainly more complex than just how they respond to expectations, and Rubin’s 4 tendencies only cover the scope of how you respond to expectations.

Your tendency can’t be changed: it’s a part of your nature. All the tendencies have strengths and weaknesses, and no one tendency seems to be more successful or happier than the others. The happiest, most successful people are the ones who can learn to work with their tendency instead of against it. Any tendency can thrive in any career, given that they adapt the role to meet their strengths and weaknesses.

In this 1-page summary, we’ll cover the four tendencies at a high level, discussing each one’s strengths and weaknesses and how to interact with them. The full summary has far more detail on each tendency, tips on how to do better as your tendency, and strategies to interact with the tendency in different scenarios (your romantic partner, your children, your colleagues at work).

Upholders

Overview

Upholders readily respond to both external and internal expectations. They think expectations, in general, are important, and enjoy fulfilling both their own and others’. They appreciate balance between doing what other people expect of them and doing what they expect of themselves -- in the age of self-care, they’ve figured out how to take care of themselves without losing their productivity.

For example, if an upholder’s their boss asks them to stay late to finish a project and they know it’s important, they’ll stay (fulfilling external expectations); but if they happen to have an event they signed up for months ago and are excited about, they’ll most likely go to the lecture (fulfilling internal expectations), and work on the project later.

Strengths of Upholders

Upholders like schedules and routines, form habits easily, and don’t make feel pressured or trapped by expectations -- Upholders feel free, creative, and productive when they have expectations placed on them. If there’s an expectation, they’ll fulfill it; if expectations conflict with one another, Upholders will figure out what expectation is most important to them, and prioritize that one first (they’d probably still try to fulfill the other expectation, if possible).

Upholders are good self-preservationists, for the most part. They take care of themselves and have good habits. Being able to fulfill their internal expectations on their own means they often lead satisfied lives, finding ways to be productive in their work and careers without sacrificing their personal values or getting burnt out from doing too many things for other people and not enough for themselves.

Weaknesses of Upholders

Upholders sometimes follow the rules even when it’s better not to. Rubin (an Upholder herself) recounts waiting at a boat taxi stand that was clearly non-functioning when a taxi stand a few yards up the river was active, all because someone told her that’s the taxi stand she should wait at. In a related weakness, Upholders generally have good habits, but can rigidly keep the habit far after it’s necessary or good for them.

Upholders also aren’t very adaptable or flexible in their schedules and routines. Because they have no difficulty meeting expectations, when other people do have difficulty, Upholders can be disdainful, impatient, or rude.

Dealing with Upholders

At work, upholders make great colleagues and bosses because they believe expectations are important. However, occasionally an Upholder might need help prioritizing tasks and making priorities clear -- since all expectations are important to them, they might not get to the right things first.

**Upholders also occasionally need help...

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Introduction: The Four Tendencies

Life is full of expectations, ones we have for ourselves and ones other people have for us. How do you respond to expectations? Do you fulfill them, or resist them? When, and why? Gretchen Rubin has developed a simple yet powerful personality test based on expectations that can change the way you get things done.

How Rubin Created the Four Tendencies

Gretchen Rubin is a writer interested in human nature and patterns in human behavior, what actions we take and why we take them. Over lunch one day, a friend of hers was complaining that she wanted to keep up her running habit, but she was finding it difficult to maintain. She used to be on the track team in high school, and had no problem running then. But now, as an adult, she couldn’t make herself go running.

Why did this happen? This conversation stuck in Rubin’s head, and the more Rubin thought about it, the more she begin to suspect that a bunch of habits people do or don’t have -- being able to run without a coach, or needing a trainer to get anything done at the gym; happily taking responsibility at work, or bucking under authority -- came down to a simple “bedrock distinction” that set people apart.

From this...

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Chapter 1: Identifying Your Tendency

This chapter contains our adaptation of the quiz Gretchen Rubin offers in the book and on her website. When answering these questions, choose the answer that is most generally true for you: don’t look for exceptions to the rule or focus on one area of your life.

Keep track of your answers so you can score yourself at the end of the quiz. Questions 1-6 are multiple choice, and questions 7-13 are statements for you to agree or disagree with in regards to yourself.

Take the Quiz

  1. Have you been able to keep a New Year’s resolution if no one else knew about it?

    1. Yes, I’m good at making and keeping resolutions, even if no one else knows about them.
    2. I can keep resolutions, but I don’t just make them on January 1 -- I make them whenever I need to.
    3. I give up my resolutions if there’s no one holding me accountable, so much so that I’ve stopped making them.
    4. No. I don’t like resolutions -- I don’t like to feel restricted.
  2. How do you view commitments to yourself?

    1. I honor commitments to myself only if they make sense to...

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Shortform Exercise: Identifying Your Tendency

Sometimes who we think we are or who we’d like to be differs from who we actually are. Use this exercise to compare your expectations, record your results, and unveil your biases.


What tendency did you get? Record your result from the quiz here. Did you already have a guess, or did your answer surprise you?

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Chapter 2: Upholders

Now, we’ll go into detail on each of the four tendencies, breaking them down into:

  • An overview.
  • Strengths and weaknesses.
  • Specific challenges or things to keep in mind.
  • The variations of each tendency based on the tips.
  • How to deal with them effectively.

We’ll also help you identify who in your life fits into each tendency, and how you can better communicate with them. Finally, we’ll wrap up the summary with a look at how the tendencies generally interact with one another, and how best to speak to someone else’s tendency.

Overview

Upholders readily respond to both external and internal expectations. They think expectations, in general, are important, and enjoy fulfilling both their own and others’. They find it easy to take action and follow-through, and have no problem forming habits. They like schedules, routines, and rules. They dislike making mistakes or letting themselves or others down.

If their boss asks them to stay late to finish a project and they know it’s important, they’ll stay (fulfilling external expectations); but if their boss last-minute asks them to stay late to finish a project and the Upholder has a lecture that evening...

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Shortform Exercise: Understanding the Upholder in your Life

Use this exercise to identify an Upholder in your life and how you can communicate with them better. If this is your own tendency, skip this exercise.


Name a person in your life who you think is an Upholder. What do they do that makes you think this?

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Chapter 3: Questioners

Overview

Questioners readily respond to internal expectations, but not external expectations. They’re committed to logic, information, and efficiency, and refuse arbitrary, inefficient, or illogical expectations. They gather information, then make their own decisions and act with good reason. The Questioner responds best to her own internal expectations because she’s already thought through these expectations and made sure they’re justified, achievable, and logical.

External expectations need to be justified -- once they are, the Questioner will view them as internal expectations and will have little trouble fulfilling them. For example, a Questioner might receive a text from her husband asking her to pick up lunch meat on her way home. If that’s all the text says, the Questioner might not do it: her husband can pick up lunch meat if he really wants it, they have plenty of other food in the house. But if the husband texts that they need lunch meat because their daughter has two field trips that week and needs bagged lunches, the Questioner will do it: now it makes sense and has justification.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Questioners

Strengths of...

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Shortform Exercise: Understanding the Questioner in your Life

Use this exercise to identify a Questioner in your life and how you can communicate with them better. If this is your own tendency, skip this exercise.


Name a person in your life who you think is an Questioner. What do they do that makes you think this?

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Chapter 4: Obligers

Overview

Obligers readily respond to external expectations, but not internal expectations. They meet deadlines and follow through for bosses, colleagues, spouses, and so on -- but don’t follow through on things they want to do for themselves. If there are no external expectations, Obligers almost always fail to complete the task, no matter how important it is to them. Obligers have to learn how to create outside accountability that works for them.

Obligers make up the largest tendency, for both men and women. Furthermore, Obligers are most likely to wish they were a different tendency. Rubin suggests this might be because the other tendencies cause others frustration but are generally satisfied with themselves, whereas Obligers cause themselves frustration: they beat themselves up about meeting others’ expectations but not their own.

Obligers often frequently misdiagnose their issues, as well: because they can meet external expectations easily, they assume that laziness or self-sacrifice causes them not to meet their own internal expectations. And it doesn’t help that other tendencies, who have an easier time doing what they want to do and resisting the...

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Shortform Exercise: Understanding the Obliger in your Life

Use this exercise to identify an Obliger in your life and how you can communicate with them better. If this is your own tendency, skip this exercise.


Name a person in your life who you think is an Obliger. What do they do that makes you think this?

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Chapter 5: Rebels

Overview

Rebels are the smallest tendency, with the fewest members. Rebels resist all expectations, internal and external -- they do what they want to do. Another way to think of this is the Rebel “motto” that Rubin gives: “It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.”

They value choice, freedom, and self-expression or identity, and enjoy bucking convention and expectation. Sometimes this resistance to expectations gets them in trouble though, and they make a choice that goes against their own self-interest or desires.

Shortform Example

A Rebel might want to be a writer, so she starts writing, no problem. But then her friends tell her they love her work and they’re sure she’ll go places. “Have you got an agent yet?” “When are you going to publish?” Suddenly there are expectations -- more than just her wanting to be a writer, people expect her to do certain things or accomplish certain things.

Best case scenario, she’ll keep writing but resist following all the conventional expectations such as getting an agent, or seeking to publish. Worst case scenario for a Rebel, the external validation and expectations will interfere with her...

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Shortform Exercise: Understanding the Rebel in your Life

Use this exercise to identify a Rebel in your life and how you can communicate with them better. If this is your own tendency, skip this exercise.


Name a person in your life who you think is a Rebel. What do they do that makes you think this?

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Shortform Exercise: Processing Your Tendency

Whether you knew your tendency or just discovered it, it helps to go through the ways this tendency presents itself in your life, and how you might already be working with or against it. Use this exercise to help you start the process.


Having read more information about all the tendencies, how do you observe your own tendency manifesting positively in your life? List 3 examples.

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Chapter 6: How the Tendencies Pair Up

Tendencies don’t doom a relationship of any kind -- work, marriage, or family -- but they don’t guarantee success either. Remember, your tendency as outlined here only defines how you respond expectations: people are much more complex than just their tendency.

But patterns do generally emerge when two people of the same or different tendencies are colleagues, spouses, or family.

(Shortform note: Every pairing is represented here, but your tendency might come second.)

Upholders with Upholders

According to Rubin’s research, this pairing is actually rare, perhaps because Upholders themselves are rare.

The Upholder-Upholder pair makes great colleagues and bosses because they’ll get their work done, don’t need supervision from each other, and want to fulfill each other’s expectations.

However, if Upholders pair up romantically with other Upholders, it might actually be an intense situation for other people. One woman in an Upholder-Upholder marriage wrote in that she and her husband are both coaches and are empathetic and caring with their clients and students -- but behind the scenes, they actually both feel a lot of judgment for people who need motivation,...

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Shortform Exercise: Pinpointing the Pairs

Watching two people interact varies drastically based on their tendencies, but every pairing has its high points and its low points. Use this exercise to think about how they interact.


Most of us have some important pair of people in our lives: parents, grandparents, team members, coupled friends, and so on. Pick one pair, write down who it is, and what you think each person’s tendency is. List 1 example for each person that helped you identify their type.

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Chapter 7: Communicating Effectively with Other Types

The best general rule of thumb is: let others do what works for them. As long as tasks are getting done, people should be allowed to do them however they want to do them.

When trying to persuade someone else to do something, most of us only consider what works for us, not what works for the other person. This only works if someone responds to the exact same things we do. None of the tendencies is shameful or problematic, and none of them is right or better. Whatever works for that tendency is fine. What “should” work for someone else isn’t a useful idea: finding what works for every person should be the goal.

Remember these general rules about the types and what they need to do things:

  • Upholders just want to know what needs to be done, and they’ll do it. They value self-command and performance.
  • Questioners want good reasons for doing what needs to be done. They value purpose and justification.
  • Obligers want someone to hold them accountable for what needs to be done. They value teamwork and duty.
  • Rebels need freedom and choice to accomplish tasks. They value identity and authenticity.

There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for persuading other...

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The Four Tendencies Summary The Four Tendencies Guide Conclusion

Life is about taking action, and taking action requires us to analyze how we respond to both internal and external expectations. Our tendencies shape our perspectives and experiences. They shape what language we respond to, and what circumstances and environments we thrive in. Once we better understand our own...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction: The Four Tendencies
  • Chapter 1: Identifying Your Tendency
  • Exercise: Identifying Your Tendency
  • Chapter 2: Upholders
  • Exercise: Understanding the Upholder in your Life
  • Chapter 3: Questioners
  • Exercise: Understanding the Questioner in your Life
  • Chapter 4: Obligers
  • Exercise: Understanding the Obliger in your Life
  • Chapter 5: Rebels
  • Exercise: Understanding the Rebel in your Life
  • Exercise: Processing Your Tendency
  • Chapter 6: How the Tendencies Pair Up
  • Exercise: Pinpointing the Pairs
  • Chapter 7: Communicating Effectively with Other Types
  • Conclusion