Dr Roxana Bahar
Many of us have experienced this pattern: at the end of the year, we feel ready to make a change, committed to a fresh start, excited about healthier habits. We make a resolution, or few of them, and tell ourselves that starting January 1, we will begin the journey to becoming the best version of ourselves. But by the time February rolls around we realize we haven’t made the progress we wanted to and feel disappointed in ourselves for not having the will power to achieve the goals we set. But what if the problem is not your willpower or motivation, but the ways in which you respond to expectations in the first place?
Consider, for instance, the concept of the Four Tendencies – a personality framework developed by the writer Gretchen Rubin to understand how people respond to outer expectations (what our friends/peers/work colleagues expect of us) and inner expectations (what we expect from ourselves).
The four types within this framework are:
- The Upholder,
- The Obliger,
- The Questioner and
- The Rebel
The framework is narrow, but it is especially helpful in thinking about something like a New Years’ resolution, which is a type of inner expectation: something we’ve decided we want to do but that no one else is requiring of us. Below we explore how each tendency deals with New Years’ resolutions and share some strategies to help make it easier to keep our promises to ourselves.
The Upholder: Upholders readily meet both outer and inner expectations, and therefore often have little difficulty keeping their New Years’ resolutions.
Upholders might have more difficulty being flexible with their resolutions when life gets in the way (when inclement weather makes your daily walk untenable, or when travel plans make it difficult to stick to your healthy eating habits). Upholders might want to carefully consider the kinds of resolutions and commitments they make and how reasonable they are in the context of daily life. For instance, how much time spent exercising each week is doable given your busy job or intense family obligations?
The Obliger: Obligers readily meet outer expectations like a work deadline but have a hard time meeting inner expectations.
Resolutions tend to be difficult for Obligers, unless they put into place a system of external accountability, thereby turning an inner expectation into an outer one. If you are an Obliger and resolve to walk 20 minutes a day, three times a week, you could enlist a friend to walk with you so that you are accountable to someone besides yourself. An important note: spouses/significant others are often not very effective accountability partners because they are so close to us that their expectations can feel more like our own expectations rather than the expectations of an external person like a boss or friend. Choose your accountability partners wisely!
Obligers are also likely to find that apps or other tracking tools and systems (step counters, weight loss programs with regular check-ins, meditation apps that keep track of number of sessions completed, etc.) can provide enough accountability to help achieve their goals.
The Questioner: Questioners readily meet inner expectations but struggle to meet outer expectations.
Questioners need to know why an expectation exists and they need to agree that it is reasonable and important to meet that expectation. Because Questioners can respond to their own expectations, they typically don’t have much trouble keeping the resolutions that they make. However, even more so than the other tendencies, Questioners should think carefully about why they’re making a specific resolution in the first place.
A Questioner who wants to exercise more might want to periodically remind themselves of the evidence surrounding regular exercise and better overall health, if they find that data meaningful and convincing.
The Rebel: Rebels struggle to meet both inner and outer expectations.
Rebels dislike being boxed in or doing something because someone (including themselves) tells them to, but they will easily do anything that aligns with their sense of self and allows them to express their identity. Rebels likely will bristle at the idea of making a New Years’ resolution in the first place, finding the practice constraining rather than useful; just making a resolution can ignite the spirit of resistance in a Rebel and lead to the opposite behavior. “I’m going to eat more vegetables this year” can lead to a Rebel eating less healthy foods just to reassert their independence and sense of free will, if only to themselves.
Tools like apps or accountability partners that are crucial for Obligers will backfire with Rebels, leading them to feel even more caged in by expectations. If you are a Rebel who does want to make a healthy change in your life, the most effective strategy is to frame it as a matter of choice, and to appeal to your identity and individuality: “I am the kind of person who eats a lot of vegetables” instead of “I need to eat more vegetables”.
To find out your type by taking the quiz: https://quiz.gretchenrubin.com/