Do you have trouble getting yourself to adopt a new habit even when you know it is good for you? You are told you need to stop smoking, but even though you have the best intentions you cannot carry through. You want to stay on a weight loss program or make it a habit to exercise every other day, but it just isn’t happening. You want to change your career and you have worn out your friends and family complaining about it, but you cannot take the steps you need to take. If creating new habits is a problem for you, you have a lot of company.
In her new book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin, a former law clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, puts the spotlight on personal habit change and identifies four very distinct groups of people who have innately different approaches to change. Her categories can help people understand themselves better, which could lead them to finally make the habit changes they want to make.
Rubin says there are four basic types of people: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Upholders respond to outer or inner expectations. They can give themselves an order and they will carry through. If an order comes from an external source, they can also carry through. Questioners question expectations. They will only carry through if they adopt the order and internalize it, and make it their own. Once they do adopt it, they will carry through. Obligers can meet outer expectations but have trouble with inner expectations. This means that if the directive comes from a teacher or a boss or a coach, they will do it. But if the expectation is one they set for themselves, they struggle with it. Rubin speculates that Obligers are by far the largest group of people out there, which explains why so many people have difficulty changing their habits. When it comes to the Rebels, change that is ordered or even suggested by others triggers their opposition. The more they are told to do something, the more they resist. Rebels will fight changes they should make, or reject helpful suggestions.
I often counsel people who have longed to change their careers but have not made it happen. Part of the problem is that they do not know how to identify the right career direction. When career changers come to work with me, we first figure out the right direction. We identify the building blocks of their personality (what they need to have and need to avoid in their careers to be happy) and match that with current or potential skills and market need to see where they could move their careers to become happier in their professional lives. The process works well to identify the career direction, but then the person has to be able to follow through and take steps to make the necessary changes in his or her life. I can provide information and support, but I cannot make anyone change.
Rubin’s concepts are helpful to me as a career coach. I have worked with some people who are Rebels, others who are Questioners, some Upholders, and many more Obligers. Before learning these ideas I did not have a name for the problem that I saw being enacted by many people who earnestly wanted career transitions but could not follow through to make the necessary changes to achieve their goals. Now I realize that Obligers need more clear directives from me.
But I also believe that once people recognize their habit tendency group, they’ll able to work more effectively to make change happen. For example, Obligers can create change if they give themselves homework and write down directives as though the directives were coming from an external source. I know this is possible, because I am an Obliger who has turned into an Upholder. I’ve taught myself to follow my own orders by assigning them to myself as though they were homework. If you know you are a Questioner, you might shorten the time you question because you understand this is a way you put off change. Rebels who know they are rebels might be able to talk themselves into being more open-minded if they understand how valuable that attitude shift could be.
Do you recognize yourself? What is keeping you from making the changes you want to make in your life? What will you do to change the way you think about meeting expectations?