Most of us set our goals with the best of intentions: We want to exercise, or finish that project, or get an A, or clean the house. And when we set goals for others -- giving tasks to our subordinates or responsibilities to our children, for example -- we want to help them succeed. But between the idea and its completion lies the crucial piece: motivation. And that, as we all know, is where things often break down.
Gretchen Rubin has become an expert on that part of the "getting stuff done" equation, and she's authored several books to share the understanding she has gleaned over the years, among them Better than Before, The Happiness Project, and The Four Tendencies. In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick interviewed her about the four broad motivational personality types -- Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel -- the best ways to incentivize each group, and how to use your understanding of which type you are to make it easier to build better habits.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Nov. 28, 2017.
Robert Brokamp: This is Motley Fool Answers. I'm Robert Brokamp solo hosting while Alison Southwick is in Malta living out her Game of Thrones fantasies. But have no fear, Alison fans, because this episode is dedicated exclusively to an interview Alison did here at Fool HQ with Gretchen Rubin, the author of several books including Better than Before, The Happiness Project, and The Four Tendencies. They discussed how to motivate others, how to acquire better habits, and how to use the threat of embarrassing pictures on Facebook to get stuff done. Take it away, Alison!
Alison Southwick: Gretchen, thank you for joining us today!
Gretchen Rubin: Thank you! I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.
Southwick: Traditionally when we think about motivation, we think about carrots and sticks. If I'm going to lose weight, I am going to have to run every day and then I get a piece of cake at the end of the week [a carrot]. Or if I eat a piece of cake, I have to go run on the treadmill for three miles [a stick].
But your book gets more into what really motivates us at our core, and I thought it was incredibly helpful. Not only does it show that we're all different, and that we all have to respond differently to motivate each other, but also how we are inside. How we motivate ourselves is going to be dependent on our types. Some of you might be resistant to types, but stick with me, here, because I found it incredibly rewarding.
Your framework lumps people into four tendencies which we have up here on the screen, and they're tendencies for motivation that all relate to how you respond to both inner and outer expectations [do you meet them or not meet them]. You can see, out of that, we get four different options. Before we get into them, can you tell us about the Eureka! moment?
Rubin: Well, I had been working on a book, Better than Before, which is my book about habit change, which gets into the carrots and the sticks, and how you get yourself to actually change a habit. I was constantly looking around for trying to understand when people could and couldn't change their habits, and I had this conversation with a friend over lunch. She said something that I heard many people say similar things before, but for some reason it just hit me so hard.
She said, "I know I would be happier if I exercised. And the weird thing about me is when I was in high school I was on a track team, I never missed track practice; so why can't I go running now?"
And I thought, "Well, why? It's the same person. It's the same behavior. At one time it was effortless. Now she can't do it. What explains it?" And then I started seeing other patterns. There's certain people that if I said to them, "What about New Year's resolutions?" they would say, "Well, I would keep a resolution when it makes sense for me, but I wouldn't do it on January 1st, because January 1st is an arbitrary date." And that struck me because I was like, "Well, the arbitrariness of January 1st never really bothered me." I sensed all these patterns and many other patterns, and I couldn't tell how they were related or not to each other.
And then one day I was staring at my to-do list at my computer, just looking down. Half the things were crossed off and all of a sudden, I just was like, "It's about expectation. That's what explained my friend on the track team. That's what explains the New Year's resolution and the arbitrariness of January 1st. That's what explains a lot of patterns that I've been struggling to figure out." It really comes down to how a person meets an outer and an inner expectation.
Southwick: Let's get into the nuts and bolts of it and we can start at the top, here, with the Upholder who meets outer expectations and inner expectations.
Rubin: Upholders keep the work deadline. They keep the New Year's resolution without much fuss. They want to know what's expected of them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.
Southwick: And then let's go Questioner.
Rubin: Questioners resist outer expectations, but they meet inner expectations and they make everything an inner expectation. If they think something makes sense they'll do it. If they think it doesn't make sense, they will resist, and they tend to hate anything arbitrary, inefficient, unjustified. They always want to know why.
Southwick: Then we can go Obliger.
Rubin: So Obligers meet outer expectations but they struggle to meet inner expectations. This is my friend on the track team. When she had a team and a coach waiting for her, she had no trouble showing up. When she was trying to go on her own, she struggled.
Southwick: And then finally, the Rebel.
Rubin: Yes. Rebels are outer and inner expectations alike. They want to do what they want to do in their own way in their own time. If you ask or tell them to do something, they're very likely to resist, and typically they don't even want to tell themselves what to do. They don't like to commit to a schedule. "I don't know what I'm going to want to do. Why would I want to bind myself into a calendar?"
Southwick: And in your book, you had an example of defining them by lightbulb jokes.
Rubin: Oh, good. I love these.
Southwick: How do you get an Upholder to change a lightbulb?
Rubin: He's already changed it.
Southwick: How do you get a Questioner to change a lightbulb?
Rubin: Why do we need a lightbulb anyway?
Southwick: How do you get an Obliger to change a lightbulb?
Rubin: Ask them to change it.
Southwick: And how do you get a Rebel to change a lightbulb?
Rubin: Do it yourself.
If there was a sign, here, that said "No Cell Phone Use," and I pulled out my cellphone and started using it, how would you feel about it? If you would feel very uncomfortable with the fact that I was using a cellphone, you're either an Upholder or an Obliger. And if you were thinking about, "Well, maybe you're going to get caught. Maybe they're going to see you coming in here and you're going to get caught on yourself," that means you're probably an Obliger.
If you're all about, "What's the reason for the rule? It's not hurting anybody. That's not going to hurt any equipment. It's not going to interfere with any kind of wave or whatever. So, fine. It's a dumb sign," then you're a Questioner. And if you're a Rebel when you're like, "Oh, man. Go ahead. Use your cellphone. Who cares what the sign says?" That's Rebel.
Southwick: And how does it break down in the population?
Rubin: What we see in the population, generally, is that the biggest tendency, for both men and women [the one the largest number of people fit into] is Obliger. Obligers are the rock of the world. They're the type O. They're the group that pairs up most easily with the other tendencies. They're the biggest tendency.
Behind them are Questioners. Questioners, also, a very big tendency. So, if you're dealing with a big team. If you're designing a program that's meant to appeal to a lot of people, you're going to be dealing with a lot of Obligers and Questioners.
Rebel is the smallest tendency. It is a very conspicuous tendency, but it is a small tendency. And my tendency, the Upholder tendency, is only slightly larger. Those are the two polar extremes. I remember saying to my husband, "Oh, my gosh. I'm kind of this extreme, fringe personality." He was like, "Well, you think?" He was not surprised. They're the extreme personalities and there are not that many Rebels or Upholders.
Southwick: I always knew from reading this book that I was an Obliger. Immediately as I read it, I was like, "I'm an Obliger." For example, do you guys know the "break the chain" method, where if you want to institute a habit, you put a big calendar on the wall and every day you do the thing you put a big "X" through it. And it's like, "Oh, this is supposed to be a great way to motivate you to do stuff." No, please. That doesn't help. Only I can see the calendar. No one knows when I break the chain. Why does it matter?
And this last year I told my brother that I was going to pay for his rehearsal dinner. "I'm going to pay for it," I said, "by not eating lunch out." I'm going to go home and eat. I'll save money, and that will save up money.
Rubin: This is brilliant.
Southwick: Thank you! I did set up an Excel spreadsheet, so I could track it and I did it. I really only ate out maybe a couple of times in this last year for lunch, and I realized the reason why I was able to actually do that was because [a] I told my brother I was going to pay for his rehearsal dinner, and [b] I didn't want my husband, who's right there, to have to feel the burden of paying for this rehearsal dinner. I was like, "Ugh. I said I was going to do it. I'm going to be the one paying for it." And it worked! Ah! Stupid break the chain. Maybe that would work for an, I don't know, Upholder?
Rubin: A Questioner or Upholder. And I think the important thing that your example illustrates so beautifully is that when Obligers are struggling to meet inner expectations, which by definition they are since that's the definition of an Obliger, the solution is always outer accountability. Having inner accountability doesn't work for Obligers. There has to be a form of outer accountability.
You had three forms of outer accountability. One was your brother, and one was the idea that you were going to pay for something, so you had to save in order to be able to afford something. And then also your husband, which is like, "If we can't afford it because I've saved, then we're going to have to spend our money," so you had a triple layer of outer accountability there.
Southwick: And I crushed it. And you did a great job. Here's an interesting thing, because there are a lot of Obligers, here, to point out. All Obligers need outer accountability to meet inner expectations. That's the solution. That's the easy fix. Like don't think about your priorities. Don't try to make time for yourself. Don't think about the reasons. Just create the outer accountability. That's what works.
But what's interesting is that people are very different. Obligers are very different in what they feel accountable to. Some Obligers can be accountable to something like an auto reminder from an app; but some Obligers actually have to get in trouble from a real person. Some Obligers feel very accountable if they've paid for something. "Well, if I pay for this class, then I'm going to go, because I don't want to waste the money."
But some Obligers, no. I talked to a woman who was like, "Well, I was going to work out with a trainer to get myself to exercise, but then I realized. If I don't show up, he gets the money and he gets the time back. It's really better for him if I don't go."
And I'm like, "OK, this is not working for you as an accountability structure." For some people that would work, for others not. Some Obligers can think about their duty to their future self. The "now" Gretchen wants to order out. The future Gretchen's going to be really disappointed that the now Gretchen didn't make a different choice. Has to do it for future Gretchen.
Sometimes people trade things. Like if your brother had wanted to do it, he could say something like, "OK, with the money that I save from eating out, I'm going to pay for you guys to have a weekend in the country. If you don't do it, you're going to let me down, and if I don't do it, I'm going to let you down." So, it's not like we're earning it for ourselves, which means no accountability, but doing it for others.
But it was also interesting that you picked your brother, because often with Obligers, spouses and sweethearts count as inner expectations, so this is kind of romantic. It's like, "Oh, I love you so much that I'm going to ignore you, just like I would ignore myself."
Southwick: You love me no matter what!
Rubin: They don't let you down. "I don't care about letting you down." For many people, people who are too close don't make good sources of outer expectations. It needs to be somebody who's sufficiently outer, and this is fluid. You could have a person who will do everything for his kids unless a client needs something, and then the client will always take priority as being the more outer than the children, but the children will take priority as to the wife, because the wife is more inner.
It can be confusing, because it's not always the same. It depends on who's the more outer. I'll do anything for a patient, a client, a co-worker, a student, so why aren't you doing something for me? Well, because I'm too close to you, and so I don't have that outer expectation status.
Southwick: Let's move on to talking about Upholders and how they can motivate themselves, because I think they're probably already there.
Rubin: They don't really have trouble with that. If anything, Upholders have kind of the opposite problem, which is tightening, and that's when the rules get tighter. You mentioned I have the "Happier" podcast. Our first producer, Henry, is an Upholder like me. He was saying how his girlfriend, as a Questioner, got really into using a budget app.
She was like, "Oh, this is amazing. You have to use it." And he's like, "No, I can't use that because I know if I started using it, I would spend way too much time and energy accounting for every single penny. It would just become so tight on me, it wouldn't be a good use, and so I'm not even going to do that because I can just see, already, how it would make me crazy." Upholders need to make sure that they don't become like the mindless bureaucrats of their own paperwork.
Or let's say you're talking to an Upholder. You don't want to overemphasize expectations. A physical therapist was saying that sometimes Upholders will do something. Like if you tell them to do an exercise once a day, they'll do it three times a day, and you have to say, "One time a day, and no more than one time a day," because you don't want them to start following the rules [more than they should].
Southwick: How about a Questioner? How can they motivate themselves?
Rubin: With Questioners it's always about justification. When Questioners are stalling out [when they're not able to do something like exercise, or change the way they eat, or work on a side hustle or something], my first advice is always to go deep into your reasons. Why do you want to do it? Because a lot of times when Questioners are stalling out, it's because really in their minds they haven't truly committed to thinking that something is the right answer.
Let's say you're trying to get yourself to exercise. What is the highest, best, most efficient form of exercise for you? You need to have clarity on that in your own mind. Also, Questioners tend to love to customize. They like to do things in the way that's right for them. They might say, "Yeah, I think that's a good way to exercise." But have you figured out how to make it the best way for you?
Sometimes Questioners can fall into analysis paralysis, which is when they will try to do more, and more, and more research and that causes them not to move forward. Let's say you're not exercising because for a year you've just been researching [this program and that program].
At a certain point you want to say, "It's more important that I start exercising at all than I find the best way, but I'm going to commit to why I think there's justification for this. This is the most efficient thing for me to do. I trust the authority of the person who's telling me to do this that I'm working with, and I'm going to customize it in a way that's right for me."
Questioners always want to bring it back to this idea of justification and reason. That is what is most powerful for them.
Southwick: And the last one is Rebel.
Southwick: Good luck!
Rubin: Yeah! Rebel is the smallest category of people and it's the longest chapter in the book because the Rebel is the most different from the other tendencies. You really have to wrap your mind around the idea that if you ask or tell a Rebel to do something, or if the Rebel asks or tells themselves to do something, they're very likely to resist.
Things like to-do lists often do not work for Rebels. Now some Rebels like it. Rebels can do anything they want to do. They can do anything they choose to do. There are some Rebels who can do anything because that's just what they like to do, but many Rebels can't use to-do lists. They can't use scheduling. The minute they say, "I'm not going to eat flour," they run right out and get a giant loaf of sourdough bread.
It can be hard to work or live with somebody who if you ask or tell them to do something they're very likely to resist, and you have to pay very close attention to the way you might be accidentally tripping up that spirit of resistance. If you ever find yourself saying something like, "Well, you have to do this. We have to do this." "No, we don't have to do it." "You said you would do this!" "No, it doesn't matter what I said I would do."
Rebels will often change their minds. This can be frustrating to Questioners who are like, "Well, yesterday you said this, but now you're saying that. I don't understand why." It's like, "Who cares why? I'm just telling you." And to Obligers and Upholders it can be hard because it's like, "Well, this was the plan. Why aren't we going to meet the plan? Everybody's counting on the plan. This is what we said we'd do." It can be hard to manage that.
Of course, Rebels are very tied to their authentic self. They know exactly what they want. They can do anything they want to do, so there's enormous power there. Somebody said to me, "I realize that with my Rebel the less I ask for the more I get." And you don't even realize how often we are imposing expectations on each other; even something as simple as, "Oh, you've got to read this book. You'll love it." "No, I'm not going to read it. I hate it."
Somebody said to me she refused to ready Harry Potter [for 10 years] because everybody told her how great it was. Or, "Tell Aunt Jane what a lovely time you had." "No, I won't." Because you're telling me to tell Aunt Jane something, so I won't. You've ignited that spirit of resistance in me.
Southwick: It seems like when you're talking about motivating others, it's not necessarily about incentives so much as how it is that you frame the argument. How you frame the project. How you communicate with them, which I thought was incredibly fascinating.
Rubin: You put your finger on something really important, which is that a lot of times it's not that you're setting something up in a fundamentally different way. It's just that you're communicating it in a way that's pushing the buttons in the right way or the wrong way for a particular tendency.
There's two avenues to deal with Rebels. One is to appeal to their identity. They always want to project their identity into the world. They want to be this kind of person. I choose to be a responsible, responsive leader. I want to be an active, respected part of this team. I want to be a loving, reliable parent. I'm going to do the things that are consistent with that because that's my identity. I'm a strong, energetic, athletic person. That's always who I've been. That is who I am. I do the things that a strong, energetic, athletic person would do.
The other thing is information, consequences, choice. You give them the information that they need, you tell them the consequences of their action, and then you look and choose what to do. Let's say you had a Rebel on your team, or you're managing a Rebel, you might say something like, "Hey, we had a client come in who has this cool project. This is their budget. This is their timeline. If we did a great job for this client, it could mean more projects like this, more interesting work for everybody, and more money. Do you feel like this is something you want to tackle?"
Information, consequences, choice. You're not telling them what to do. You're not telling them they have to do it. You're saying, "This is the situation. How do you want to act?" This is easier said than done, but that's what works.
Southwick: And what works with an Upholder?
Rubin: Upholders are not causing anybody much grief.
Southwick: Just ask them and they're like, "Yeah, got it."
Rubin: The thing about an Upholder is Upholders can seem cold and they can seem judgmental. They can seem judgmental because things come very easily to them that don't come as easily to other people. They often don't understand why Questioners keep asking questions. They feel like that's obstructionist. They don't understand why Obligers need outer accountability. They keep wanting to say, "Well, if it's important to you just do it. I don't want to be your babysitter. I don't want to look over your shoulder. You be the boss of you. I'll be the boss of me."
Rebels confound them. They have no understanding. It took me a long time to understand the Rebel perspective. It's very important for Upholders to understand Rebels. That there's so much power in understanding the Rebel perspective for Upholders. And they can seem judgmental because they don't understand what other people need in certain situations and they can also seem cold because their own inner expectations are just as important to them as outer expectations, and this can seem cold to others.
For instance, "The big reports are due tomorrow. Everybody's big report is due tomorrow," and you're like, "Hey, can you proofread my report?" "I'm sorry. I don't have time to proofread your report. I've got to work on my own report." Like I'm going to take care of me. This is something that people often say, is that Upholders are very self-reliant.
I didn't really understand how annoying this was to other people. If somebody was saying, "Oh, I'm a working mother," what I found is the other Obliger working mothers are really good about pitching in at the last minute, and being flexible, and the vibe that you get from Upholder parents is more like, "I've made my plans, so I don't really have the flexibility to help you out."
And I so understood both perspectives, because as an Upholder, one of my mottoes is, "Your lack of planning is not my emergency. Like why are we only hearing about this on Wednesday morning? You knew about this conflict Monday, so I don't really feel like I have to change my plans." This is cold, right? This feels cold. But to an Upholder it's like once that plan is made, it causes a lot of uneasiness not to follow through on it and that can seem cold.
Southwick: How about Questioners? If you've got a Questioner on your team, how do you motivate them?
Rubin: Justification. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing it this way? Why are we doing it by Friday? Why is it 20 pages? Why are you listening to me? Saying something like this is what corporate said we should do. This is what the experts say we should do. This is not satisfying to Questioners. They always need to have justification.
Now, this can sometimes drain and overwhelm mothers who don't understand. Oh, my gosh. Why are going over this? Everybody agreed to this 45 minutes ago. It's not that big of a deal. Why are we asking question after question? This is really important for Questioners.
And you have to realize that they need those robust justifications. If you're a doctor they're not going to do it if they don't understand why. If it's a child in a classroom, they're not going to do it if they don't understand why. A big tip-off for Questioners is whenever I hear, "Oh, my Questioner child does really well on a test and is super smart, but does badly in school because he or she refuses to do the homework." I'm like, "It's probably a Questioner who understands the value of study, but thinks that writing this stupid, dumb book report is a big waste of time and so is refusing to do it."
And the fact that the teacher says so. I'm telling you to. All sixth graders have to. You're going to get a bad grade. It doesn't matter to them. Those are not real justifications. But if somebody would sit down with that child and say, "Yes, it might seem like a waste of your time, but let me tell you about the real skills that you're building and why we feel like this is a really important thing for sixth graders to learn how to master. And this is why it's going to help you do higher thinking and more intense work, and it's going to save you time later in your school life when you're working with more difficult materials." Give that child the explanation they need, and then they will get with the program.
Southwick: And finally, how do you motivate an Obliger? We already got into this a little bit. But I know. I know, well.
Rubin: Outer accountability. That's the answer. That's always the way. It's got to be outer accountability. Obligers sometimes resist this. Other people resist this. From my observation, this is what works. There's a million ways to create outer accountability. My favorite example, still [and I've been collecting thousands] is a woman who wanted to get up early. She lived by herself, didn't have a dog, and was completely immune from snooze alarms.
What does the person do? An interesting question. She used the social media management platform Hootsuite to make a very embarrassing Facebook post that posts every morning at 6:30 a.m. until she gets up and disables it. That's a good idea. So many ingenious solutions. But like your solution -- relying on inner accountability -- is very frustrating. Plug in that outer accountability, and you went a year with almost no exception. It's really the outer accountability that can do it.
Southwick: One thing that really surprised me is that you say that this is hardwired into our DNA and that it doesn't have to do with our upbringing or our culture, and it doesn't change when we go home vs. work. I'm not a Questioner, but I'm still going to ask. Really? Really?
Rubin: Yeah, I know. Obviously, it's going to be shaped by your experience. If you're a Questioner in North Korea, you're going to learn to tamp that down. Here maybe that would be very rewarded and valued. Certainly, your experience can shape it, but I really do think that these are hardwired into your personality. You're not one at 20 and one at 40. You're not one at home and one at work.
But one of the things is it's a very narrow aspect of personality, and so it doesn't tell you whether you're creative, or ambitious, or controlling, or neurotic, or extroverted or introverted, or considerate of other people. Sometimes people say to me, "Well, all Obligers are people pleasers." No, they're not. I know tons of curmudgeonly Obligers. Some people say all Upholders are really driven. I know slacker Upholders. Some people say, "All Rebels are narcissistic." No, I know many idealistic, very creative, very ambitious Rebels.
All you know is how somebody responds to expectations. It doesn't mean anything else about how you might look in the world. And with time, experience, and wisdom you can learn how to harness the strengths and offset the weaknesses and limitations.
As an Upholder, one of my weaknesses is I too readily meet expectations. I'm really good at meeting expectations and I'll do it, even when sometimes it's a waste of my time and energy. One thing I've learned from my Questioner husband is to say, "OK, my instinct is to say yes, but I can learn to hold back, and to think, 'OK, I could do that, but why would I do that.' Sometimes I literally call him and say, 'Should I do this?' And he's like, 'Well, why would you?'"
But I've learned from understanding the value of questioning to add that step into my process, but I still have to add it in. My first instinct is I'm still coming from that Upholder place, but I've learned to manage it better.
Southwick: Again, the book is The Four Tendencies. You can also listen to Gretchen's podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin.
Rubin: Oh, I have a better app. There's an app if you want to talk to other people about The Four Tendencies, like other parents or people in the workplace, or if you want to start or join an accountability group. It's very easy to join accountability groups on the app. It's called the "Better" app. Everything is like happier, better. Onward. All these.
Southwick: Who doesn't want more of that? Gretchen, thank you so much for joining us!
Rubin: Thank you! Thanks so much for having me!
Brokamp: And that's the show, which was produced obligingly by Rick Engdahl. Questions? Concerns? Favorite holiday traditions? Send them to Answers@Fool.com or over Twitter at AnswersPodcast, or post your embarrassing photos to the MotleyFoolPodcast Facebook group. For Alison Southwick, I'm Robert Brokamp. Stay Foolish, everybody!