Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. You're snowed under at work, but when your boss asks if you could take on just one more thing, you agree. Your partner can make it to the gym three times a week, but you find it a struggle to exercise once (if at all). You always put your family/clients/team/patients first, so you have time for other people, but not yourself. You're always busy - yet you never seem to get everything done.
Me too. And, according to New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin, it's not because we're people pleasers, or nobly self-sacrificing, or even that we have issues with procrastination (more on this later), it's because we're Obligers - the "type O" of the four personality types she identifies in her new book, The Four Tendencies.
Your Tendency (be it Obliger, Upholder, Rebel or Questioner - find out which in Gretchen's handy online quiz) governs pretty much every aspect of your behaviour. Ergo, understanding it is potentially game- nay, life-changing.
Rubin is fascinated by what makes people tick. She's already tackled happiness (The Happiness Project, for which she dedicated a year to the pursuit thereof) and habits (Better Than Before); and co-hosts a much-lauded podcast, Happier with her sister, Elizabeth. She's even talked happiness with Oprah ("an out-of-body experience. I mean, it's Oprah").
Your Tendency (be it Obliger, Upholder, Rebel or Questioner) governs pretty much every aspect of your behaviour, both at home and at work. Ergo, understanding it is potentially game- nay, life-changing
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Gretchen tracks the origins of the Four Tendencies back to a conversation with a friend, who wanted to get into the habit of running, but couldn't, even though she'd had no trouble sticking with it when she was on the track team at school.
Ah well, she rationalised, it's so hard to find time for ourselves. But, thought Gretchen, I don't have any difficulty making time for myself. What made her friend so different? Rubin posted a set of questions on her website, and noticed striking patterns of behaviour emerging: "The answers fell into subsets, almost as though people were answering from the same scripts".
"I was at my desk, surrounded by papers, my brain was melting - and suddenly, I saw it. The answer was in the simple question: how do you respond to expectations? The minute I realised this, I saw there were outer expectations (those others place us on, like work deadlines) and inner expectations (those we put on ourselves). It was thrilling. It was also so obvious that I couldn't believe no one had worked it out before."
As an Obliger, I meet deadlines (when imposed by others). But when I promise myself I'll do a weekly Pilates class/start writing that novel, it doesn't happen.
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Can Gretchen (a classic Upholder) spot the types at fifty paces? "I can get a flavour of someone pretty quickly. Sometimes people will talk to me for one minute and I know, especially another Upholder - I get that Upholder vibe. There aren't many of us, so it's always nice to find one."
I was, I confess, mildly disappointed at first to discover I was an Obliger - the most common Tendency by some distance. I'm not alone: Obligers and Rebels are the two Tendencies most likely to feel stymied by their type's natural inclinations. They'll ask Gretchen if they can change type. (Sorry, the answer's no.)
But, as Gretchen kindly points out, "Obligers have the most to gain from understanding their Tendency - it can be transformative. They are the rock of the world. They get on best with others. Whereas I was at cocktail party, talking to a Rebel about the way I saw the world, and he literally started backing away from me, repelled."
I am an Obliger married to a high-achieving Upholder. Work permitting, my barrister husband exercises thrice-weekly. Meets self-imposed deadlines. Writes to-do lists that inspire palpitations in me
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As she talks, it is like my children's toy cash register pinging in my head. As an Obliger, I meet deadlines (when imposed by others), volunteer and willingly fulfil obligations to my family and friends. I am the woman who went to a wedding with a trapped gallstone (read: debilitating pain). But when I promise myself I'll do a weekly Pilates class/make that doctor's appointment/start writing that novel, it doesn't happen.
Moreover, I am an Obliger married to a high-achieving Upholder. Work permitting, my barrister husband exercises thrice-weekly. Meets self-imposed deadlines. Writes to-do lists that inspire palpitations in me. Gets twitchy if a plan changes. Not only does he believe in New Year's Resolutions, he has a document, categorised by "life role". He sets himself high targets - and meets them. (I realise this doesn't make him sound like much fun. I promise he is.)
"The thing that's interesting about your marriage," says Gretchen, after she has laughed delightedly at how "classic" we are ("I just love seeing the Tendencies play out!"), "is that often people who are married to Upholders criticise themselves because they live with someone who finds it relatively easy to be disciplined and get things done. But they're the rare ones. They're the freaky friends! Not many people are like them and you shouldn't compare yourself."
There is no "happiest" or "most productive" Tendency, but the happiest, most productive people are the ones who have figured out how to harness the strengths of their personality. Master your Tendency, promises Gretchen, and you take control of your career, relationships and habits. Even - oh, Holy Grail - start getting things done.
"As an Obliger, what you need is outer accountability to motivate you. So, an Obliger retires with all these plans, but finds he does nothing. Or an Obliger journalist is prolific on staff, but goes freelance and develops writer's block. It's not writer's block and the retiree isn't procrastinating, they both simply lack accountability."
Got that? What looks to the uninformed eye like procrastination is in fact a lack of outer accountability. But how do you lay your hands on it? "There are millions of ways! You just have to find the accountability that works for you. Book that gym class - paying for something motivates some Obligers, or do it with a friend (so you'd be letting them down if you don't go).
"Think of how you are responsible for role-modelling healthy habits for your children. Tell yourself to say yes to something is to say no to something else. Your boss wants you to go away on another work trip - but what does that mean for your family? Discipline yourself to wait before replying: 'I would love to take help out, but let me check my diary first'."
Obligers imagine others understand the pressure and resentment, but they don't. The resentment builds and builds until they tip over into Obliger rebellion and they explode. I've known it [to] end marriages,
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Or make yourself accountable to what Rubin calls "your future self". If, like me, you suspect your future self would be far too lenient, appoint an 'accountability partner': "Ask a Questioner or a Rebel," she suggests. "Simply by articulating the expectation that you ought to say no often allows you to do just that. There are even apps with accountability groups - like my Better app."
A word of warning: if you don't conquer the inclination to yes to everyone else, you're at risk of more than never getting through your own to-do list. "Obligers imagine others understand the pressure and resentment, but they don't. The resentment builds and builds until they tip over into Obliger rebellion and they explode. I've known it end marriages," she adds, breezily.
Time to create that outer accountability, fellow Obligers. You wouldn't want to let Gretchen down.