Becoming Better than Before

By Pamela Awad


Do you eat the fabulous artisanal chocolate bar one square at a time over the course of a week or do you eat it all at once? If you eat it all at once, indulging moderately is unimaginable, and Gretchen Rubin would label you an “abstainer” – it’s all or none – having something only makes you want it more. At this year’s PIA Mother’s Day lunch held Wednesday, May 11, Ms. Rubin talked about the differences between abstainers and moderators, Upholders, Questioners, Rebels and Obligers; all tendencies that have profound implications for making and breaking habits.


Of course it’s much more fun to change someone else’s habits, but there are a few strategies (21 to be exact) you can use to make or break your own. Start with that Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself,” which means if you’re a night owl don’t try getting up two hours earlier to accomplish a challenging task. “Set up a habit in a way that will work for you,” said Ms. Rubin. Then give yourself treats (the most fun strategy!) unless they’re one of the three forbidden ones: food and/or drink, shopping or screen time. While one person’s treat is surely another’s idea of torture, Ms. Rubin described a friend’s treat that’s probably a universal delight. Every morning her friend gets up for work, gets her family up and out the door and once they’ve left she returns to bed, fully dressed, for twenty minutes. A perfect example of Ms. Rubin’s belief that if we “give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves.”

Remember when you were young and your mother would tell you to make your bed? That’s the number one habit that “people say make them happier, healthier and more efficient,” says Ms. Rubin. “Outer order contributes to inner health and more initiative.” (Seems like our mothers were right about almost everything.) So in the context of creating a happy life, the crowded coat closet may be trivial but a bit of order gives the illusion of control. She recommends the “one minute rule” – hang up the coat, throw out the old newspapers, do anything you can do in one minute – to “help keep clutter at bay.” And to avoid the “danger of the finish line” she says we should think about milestones when setting up habits rather than setting goals. “Setting goals is a great way to meet a goal but can undermine habits. Crossing the finish line means you’re finished,” she said. “The way to think about habits as a behavior you want to do indefinitely is to think about a milestone. Finish lines can disrupt habits.”

There’s a framework to Ms. Rubin’s philosophy built around “Four Tendencies” as explained in her latest book, Better Than Before. The Tendencies describe our propensity to respond to expectations, both outer (deadlines, work expectations) and inner (our internal desire to keep a resolution, for example). Upholders meet both outer and inner expectations, Questioners resist outer expectations and meet inner ones, Obligers meet outer expectations but resist inner ones and Rebels, those with and without a cause, resist both. It’s like a Myers-Biggs type personality indicator with Rebels a “small but conspicuous group,” and Upholders the “freaky fringe.” Overwhelmingly “people are Questioners and Obligers,” says Ms. Rubin, Obligers being the ‘type O’ who play best with other Tendencies.

Here’s a bird’s eye view of each Tendency:

Upholders: While meeting those outer and inner expectations Upholders can be unsympathetic; “they’re harsh on other people because they don’t understand why they may have trouble following through on expectations.” Ms. Rubin went on the describe Upholders as sometimes experiencing “tightening” – for most people rules loosen up over time, for Upholders rules can become confining.

Questioners: Questioners need justification or a rationale for why it’s important to do something. They’re focused but can “drain people with persistent questions,” explains Ms. Rubin. Questioners love information but can suffer from “analysis paralysis”; the need for more and more information sometimes renders them immobile.

Obligers: The “rocks of the world,” Obligers should pattern their behavior for external accountability. They so consistently meet outside expectations that they exhibit a “striking pattern of Obliger rebellion,” says Ms. Rubin. ‘Everyone exploits Obligers; Rebels, Upholders and Questioners all take advantage of them.” These are the overachievers of meeting expectations and Obligers may suddenly “snap” as meeting great expectations can cause deep resentment or burn out.

Rebels: “Exhilarating to be around,” Rebels think outside the box “but don’t ignite their spirit of resistance,” warns Ms. Rubin. Rebels “want to act from choice and freedom and from a sense of identity and they don’t want to feel controlled.” They want to be given information, have the consequences explained to then and be provided a choice. Beware the parent who has a Rebel child; the simple act of putting on sunscreen can become a test of wills.

The Tendencies all lead to making and breaking habits. “By knowing the pros and cons of tendency you can figure out with age and wisdom how to take advantage of the strengths and box the limitations,” said Ms. Rubin. “In the context of a happy, healthy, productive, creative life it really is helpful to think about your habits because in the end if you change your habits you can change your life.” So for all of us – Upholders and Rebels, Obligers and Questioners – a happy life isn’t so hard to find; the keys to the kingdom lie within us.


Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project and most recently Better Than Before. She has a weekly podcast entitled Happier with Gretchen Rubin.


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