Why Do We Resist Good Habits?

Daily Habits and Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies

tick-tockIn my post on the power of doing something every day, I mentioned how Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before was just about to inspire me to start some positive new habits when Mars went retrograde and my “new start” energy seemed to dissipate into thin air.

Since the Mars Rx ended, I’m back to reading the book and trying to apply Rubin’s insights to motivate myself.

The biggest insight I’ve gained from the book so far (and believe me, it is full of fun, piquant observations) is looking at my habit patterns through the lens of Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework.

Rubin created this categorizing schema when, after months of research, she still hadn’t found an author who had managed to make sense of the fact that some people just love having habits and adopt new ones easily and others….well, not so much.

Rubin thinks people fall into one of four categories, based on how they tend to react to expectations1:

  • Upholders – respond readily to inner and out expectations
  • Questioners – question all expectations and only feel responsible for meeting expectations that make sense to them
  • Obligers – tend to struggle with inner expectations but readily meet the expectations of others
  • Rebels – resist all expectations

Take the quiz to see if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.

Know Thyself, If Thee Dare

“I’m a rebel so I rebel” – Chuck D.

The chapter on the Tendencies totally blew my mind. At first I thought I was probably an Obliger (the people-pleasers) with Rebel tendencies. But Obligers tend to require some form of external accountability in order to meet expectations. I tend to resist any external accountability. Paying a coach or asking a friend to keep tabs on me might work for a few weeks, but then I tend to either announce I’m quitting – or sabotage the process in some way.

Before starting the book, I’d just assumed there was something defective about me when it came to habits and self-discipline. I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve stuck to a good habit, but it seems like it always tails off at some point.

This weekend I took Rubin’s online quiz – and I came out squarely in the Rebel camp. (I asked my wife about some of my answers, just to be sure I wasn’t cheating.) As I’ve observed my thought processes over the last couple days, it makes a lot more sense that I’m a Rebel tendency with some Obliger undertones. It’s amazing what I can rebel against!

Last night I had finished brushing my teeth and taking my vitamins and I was just checking that the doors were locked and turning lights off downstairs when I heard my wife call down the stairs, a note of irritation in her voice, “Are you coming to bed?”

I was super tired after a long day. I had been imagining how good it would feel to lie down in the darkness and start drifting off to sleep. As soon as she asked me that, though? I felt angry. I noticed a part of me looking around for an excuse to dawdle around longer.

It seems like a perverse impulse. As soon as someone else tells me to do it (outer expectation), I don’t want to do it. Even if did want to do it a moment before.

The weirder thing is that Rebel tendency people often rebel against their own expectations as well. They resist any limitations on their freedom, including self-imposed limits. As soon as I tell myself, “Every morning, before we eat breakfast, we’re going to sit down and write for 15 minutes,” – I’ve already started to resent this imposition on my freedom. I mean what if I wake up and I’m really hungry? What if I want to get that other task out of the way first so it’s not hanging over my head? Why should I have to do the same thing at the same time every day, when every day is not the same?

I do love my freedom. But I also long for routine. And I enjoy feeling proud of my accomplishments when I do buckle down and finish things I want to finish. I’ve also realized a lot of my rebellion takes the form of procrastination – of avoiding getting started – which ultimately dilutes my productivity and makes me feel bad about myself.

What I’m trying to figure out now is how I can use my new self-knowledge to establish a daily pattern of doing the things I feel will help me the most in life – without triggering my rebellion against these expectations.

And I think I’ve got at least one good one. I’ll share that tomorrow. Meanwhile, take the quiz and let me know what you think.


1 Rubin makes sure to point out that while she believes each of us is somehow hardwired for a specific tendency, we all have different personalities and respond differently based on our conditions, goals, etc. Obligers who have over-obliged often rebel; Rebels can oblige when they want a certain outcome.

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