Perhaps you can identify with the following scenario . . .  

Emma has identified “getting into better shape” as a personal goal for years. She has made reoccurring annual/monthly resolutions to introduce healthier habits into her daily routine. Exercising three to four days a week is one of several healthy habits she would like to establish, and all things considered, this seems like a reasonable goal.

Emma’s friends, family, and co-workers would describe her as hard working and highly dependable. She almost always delivers on her promises to others. If she makes a commitment to someone important in her life, she follows through, and she makes certain her kids get regular exercise and eat a well-rounded, healthy diet.

And yet, Emma cannot seem to establish any consistency in her own exercise and health routine. Work and family aside, Emma HAS carved out times when she could attend the gym, but she often finds reasons not to go. All of which begs the question, why does Emma struggle to deliver on her commitments to herself when she has no trouble showing up for others?

Emma has wasted untold dollars on unused gym memberships and spent countless hours frustrated by worry and concern over her declining physical fitness. She resolves to begin again, and again, only to fail a couple of months or weeks down the road. Little by little these “failures” erode Emma’s confidence in herself and her ability to accomplish her goals. Moreover, she worries about how a lack of exercise and a poor diet will impact her health as she pushes further into middle age. Even her doctor has voiced concerns about some of her health metrics and advised her to make lifestyle changes that include more exercise.

Obviously, exercise and a healthy diet are important to Emma, so why can’t she actualize habits and routines that align with her values and goals?

The problem might not be a lack of self-discipline or willpower.

 Does Emma’s plight sound familiar? Are you the sort of person who has no problem showing up for others, but you struggle to show up for yourself? If no one is expecting or counting on you, do you feel unmotivated to follow through on a task or goal?

If so, you are in good company. Many folks have no problem meeting the external expectations imposed by others, but they struggle immensely to meet the internal expectations they place on themselves.

Often, we assume our inability to meet personal goals is the result of unrealistic goal setting, poor resources—be it time, money, or knowledge—or a lack of self-discipline. While these are certainly factors to consider when evaluating our motivation and performance, we might be overlooking key aspects of our personality that better explain our behavior.

Understanding how we tend to respond to external and internal expectations can help clarify why we feel hyper-motivated in some circumstances, and conversely, why our motivation quickly flags in others. For example, some people are highly motivated to perform consistently and well when they believe others are counting on them; conversely, some people rebel against others’ expectations because they feel constrained by external commitments.

Author Gretchen Rubin discusses the role internal and external expectations play in motivation and habit formation in her book The Four Tendencies. Rubin develops a taxonomy of typical responses to internal and external expectations. According to her model, most people fall predominantly within one of four categories, or types, based on how they respond to expectations. She characterizes the four tendency types as Obligers, Upholders, Questioners, and Rebels.

Rubin explains that expectations emanate both from within (these are the expectations we place on ourselves) and from outside of ourselves (these are the expectations other people place on us). We each have tendencies or habitual ways of responding to expectations, and Rubin’s tendencies framework helps elucidate and predict our responses to both kinds of expectations.

Obligers & Questioners

Rubin’s research suggests some people respond strongly to external expectation in either one of two ways: They either feel strongly obligated by external expectations (but resist internal expectation) or are mostly resistant to external expectations (but respond to internal expectations).

She labels the first group, those who are responsive to external expectations but resistant to internal expectations, Obligers. Obligers respond easily to external commitments but they struggle to meet their own inner commitments. Opposite Obligers, Questioners are those folks who resist external expectations but who easily meet internal expectations.

Upholders & Rebels

The remaining two categories describe individuals with all-or-nothing tendencies, so to speak. Those who respond equally well to internal and external expectations are known as Upholders, and alternatively, those folks who bristle at and retreat from any expectations, whether externally imposed or self-contrived, are known as Rebels.

Why is it useful to know where you fall within The Four Tendencies framework?

Knowing how you respond to internal and external expectations may enable you to develop tailored strategies aimed at long-term habit formation. By understanding how your personality influences your reaction to expectations, you can dispense with the unhelpful feelings of guilt, frustration, and self-doubt and instead focus on working with, as opposed to against, your tendencies.

So, what about Emma’s dilemma?

As mentioned, Emma never fails to meet the expectations of others, but she lacks follow-through on her personal goals when others are not depending on her. Emma’s tendencies best align with the behaviors typical of Obligers.

Obligers describe feeling confused and frustrated by their inability to establish and maintain habits they deem important to themselves. This is especially frustrating since they are the people everyone else relies on to get things done—they see themselves as dependable doers when others are relying on them. But, when no one is counting on them to perform, they feel unmotivated and lackadaisical.

In other words, people who identify with this tendency respond well to external forms of accountability, but absent external accountability, they habitually let personal obligations slide, no matter how strongly they profess to value those commitments. Taken to an unhealthy extreme, Obligers will prioritize others’ desires and happiness to the detriment of their own needs. This pattern can lead to burnout, feelings of resentment, and a poor self-concept.

However, Obligers can easily develop strategies to work around their habit of neglecting internal expectations. Since external accountability is highly motivating for Obligers, they need to connect their inner expectations and goals to external forms accountability.

A good solution for Emma who struggles to establish and maintain a regular exercise routine might be to hire a professional coach who she meets with on a frequent basis. Her coach might require Emma to keep a daily workout and food journal that is routinely evaluated.

Just knowing her coach is paying close attention to her behaviors and progress, Emma feels a strong obligation not to disappoint her coach. Through her relationship with her coach, Emma has found a way to transform her internal expectations into external obligations which she knows she will be motivated to actualize. The act of hiring a professional coach creates a structure of outer accountability, which is key for Obligers like Emma. In short, Emma is working in concert with her tendencies rather than fighting against them, and as such, she is more likely to establish a long-term habit of regular exercise.

Again, why bother considering our tendencies? Because greater self-knowledge empowers us to better understand why we perform well in some situations and poorly in others, why we succeed or struggle to form positive habits, and why we achieve or fall short of our goals. Armed with deeper self-knowledge we can more effectively neutralize our weakness, amplify our strengths, and improve our relationship with ourselves and others.

If you found this discussion of The Four Tendencies helpful and/or interesting, stay turned for the next blog where I take a more in-depth look at Obligers as well as the three other tendencies: Questioners, Upholders, and Rebels.