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Using the Four Tendencies to Improve Your Health

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As we covered in a previous story, one of the most critical steps toward better health is to identify your unique habit formation patterns. Health is built around a foundation of habits, however, what works for one person often does not work for another.

In the last story, we explored the difference between abstainers and moderators for habit distinctions based on the work of Gretchen Rubin. Her work goes a step further and identifies four different habit tendencies. Identifying your unique tendency is key in setting yourself up for success.

Tendencies are Defined By Expectations

Each tendency is defined by what type of expectations they respond to.

Internal expectations: expectations imposed by the self. For example, New Years Resolutions.

External expectations: expectations others set for us. For example, traffic regulations or deadlines.

The Four Tendencies

Let’s define each tendency and describe how they play out in health habits. As you read, see if you can identify your tendency as this will be a crucial step in developing better health habits. It is possible to be a combination of tendencies.


Upholders meet both internal and external expectations. They are self-directed, take initiative, and do not need much supervision. Upholders thrive on routine and schedules and do not like sudden changes in plans. They are careful in their actions, so they do not like to feel as though they have made mistakes and tend to get defensive when mistakes are pointed out. They often have difficulty delegating tasks. Overall, upholders will do whatever they have set their mind to and are very reliable to themselves and others.

In terms of health, upholders tend to develop habits relatively easily compared to the other tendencies. They follow all “rules” and recommendations from medical professionals. For adopting new health habits, such as exercise, they do well on strict schedule of X amount of exercise at a certain time of day. The downside is they can often have a hard time giving up a habit that no longer makes sense.


Questions meet internal expectation but may have difficulty with outer expectations. They like reason, research, and information. They will respond to an expectation only if it makes sense to them, so they ask a lot of questions. Questioners thrive on efficiency and systems. They will only accept input from an authority figure if it makes sense to them or if they respect the authority. Ironically, they tend to be resistant to questions from others because they have spent so much time reasoning with themselves the answers seem like they should be obvious to everyone. Because they love research, they can often get stuck in analysis-paralysis and at times can have difficulty making decisions. They do not like rules that do not make sense to them and will not follow them, even defying safety at times.

In terms of health, questions will easily develop a habit only if it makes sense to them. As long as they have a clear WHY for adopting a certain practice, they will do it. Medical professional offering advice to a questioner should always give clear and logical reasoning. The downside is a questioner will follow their own judgement despite input from experts, which at times can have disastrous consequences. If a system seems to have too many steps, even if those steps are important, questioners will eliminate steps they feel are not necessary.


Obligers meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. Most of the population falls into this category. They are motivated by external accountability like meetings and tasks given to them by others.They will go above and beyond to meet responsibilities, making them great family members, co-workers, and friends. It can be difficult for them to self-motivate. They thrive on consequences such as deadlines, late fees, or fear of letting others down. They believe that promises made to others should never be broken, but promises made to themselves can be. They need external accountability even for habits they want to have. It can be difficult to develop habits because they will not form a habit for their own benefit, only the benefit of others.

In terms of health, obligers easily develop habits with accountability to others. This can be as simple as tracking systems that will be reviewed by medical professionals, group classes, or having a walking partner. A more creative view of external accountability will reveal more solutions. For example, obligers also thrive if they feel they need to have a certain habit to set an example for others. If their children are involved in a certain initiative, like eating more vegetables, they will do it to set a good example at meal times. The downside is susceptibility to burnout because they have a hard time telling others no.


The final tendency are rebels. Rebels resist both internal and external expectations. They prefer to act from a place of freedom and enjoy not following rules. They resist all forms of control, including self-control. They work toward their own goals in their own way and avoid anything they are “supposed” to do. Rebels value authenticity and self-determination. They are often a voice of dissent and resistance to authority, making their voices are important to society. They are most resistant to anything they are expected to do on a regular basis, even if it is self-imposed. They can be frustrating to others because of their non-compliance with what is asked of them. When asked or told to do something, they will often do the opposite. At times they can even frustrate themselves.

In terms of health, rebels can resist habits that will improve their health. They thrive on choices of what they “might” be able to do. For a medical professional working with a rebel, this sounds like “You might check your blood sugar daily because…” The focus on freedom and choices should dominate their habits, and they often have difficulty maintaining consistency.

In Summary

The process used to develop health habits for each tendency will look very different. You may have been able to identify your tendency just by reading the descriptions of each, but if you were not able to check out the four tendencies quiz by Gretchen Rubin.

  • Upholders: Will follow all advice and habits can be self-directed.
  • Questioners: Will only follow recommendations and form habits that make sense to them, should always seek logic and reasoning when making health decisions.
  • Obligers: Will only form habits based on accountability and thrive with group classes, tracking systems that involve accountability, or being a role model for others.
  • Rebels: Thrive on freedom and choices, should avoid strict or rigid schedules.

Using the four tendencies framework along with identifying if you are an abstainer or a moderator is critical to setting yourself up for success! What tendency are you? In terms of health habits, what do you feel the strengths and weakness of your tendency are? Let us know in the comment section, we would love to hear from you!


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