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Molly Keeton Parnell | Ph.D.
Harnessing the power of habits
Photo: Miguel Bruna /

As the end of 2015 approaches, many set goals for 2016. New Year’s resolutions are a common practice yet are met with varying degrees of success. Some find resolutions to be a powerful step toward positive change. Others put energy into setting them but do not achieve them. And still others do not even bother with the process, as time has shown their past resolutions to be unsuccessful.

In her latest book, Gretchen Rubin devotes herself to the study of habits. She defines a habit as “a behavior that is recurrent, is cued by a specific context, often happens without much awareness or conscious intent, and is acquired through frequent repetition”. Once something becomes a habit it requires no decision on our part because the decision has already been made. A parent who walks their child to school every day does not decide each day how to get them to school. It is a habit to walk, so each day they walk. Deviating from this plan requires a new decision, such as deciding to drive on a particularly cold day.

It takes a decision and willpower to get the habit started. But once ingrained, habits free us from having to make decisions or harness our willpower. Rubin describes the power of habits to be similar to cruise control. When they work to our benefit, we can relax into them and save our mental energy for other things.

Rubin posits that there are four tendencies related habit formation. We can think of these similarly to personality types, and each of us will fit into one general tendency. Knowing your tendency may be helpful when striving to reach a new goal. The four types include upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels.

UPHOLDERS develop habits the most easily of any of the tendencies. While it is not easy for any person to develop a new habit, upholders simply follow through. They are quite responsive to both inner and outer expectations. Once an upholder makes a commitment, s/he does not seem to struggle against it. Whether it is a plan that only affects themselves or if an agreement has been made with others, upholders complete the task at hand (and often times finish early). Upholders prefer to know what is expected and to fully understand the rules.

QUESTIONERS respond to expectations that make sense to them. They do not blindly follow what is being asked but instead evaluate it based on their own sense of reason. It needs to appear logical and fair in order for the questioner to get on board with it, and as such, they are not as influenced by outer expectations. In most cases they need to do their own research and make up their own mind before signing on for a new habit. A questioner will not just begin an exercise program or start taking a new vitamin because they are “supposed to”. For a questioner to develop a new habit, they must believe in it. Rubin notes that this tendency can go in two different directions, with some questioners having more of an upholding style and others having a rebelling style.

OBLIGERS are people who will do what is expected of them by others but often have a difficult time acting in accordance with internal expectations. Their motivation comes from outside accountability. They are very reliable people. Obligers react positively to deadlines, avoiding late fees, and fear letting others down. They may feel that a promise to oneself can easily be broken but that a promise made to others is sacred. Obligers can trick their way into forming new habits by setting up external accountability, such as by taking a class where there will be deadlines and expectations. Obligers also do well in finding an accountability partner, who will check in with them on their goals and progress.

REBELS are a group that strongly resists expectations, whether internally or externally defined. Rebels are drawn toward personal freedom, and choice is a key component of this. They tend to react against anything that feels like control, even if this is self-control. While rebels resist doing things that they feel they are expected to do, they can still accomplish great things. The key for a rebel may be finding the right trick to get around their rebellious attitude. Rubin provides several useful examples of strategies that may work for rebels. For example, a rebel who wants to make better financial decisions may react against the idea of a budget, but may find authentic motivation in resisting clever marketing strategies that could manipulate them to spend their money. A rebel who aims to exercise may not succeed in taking a class where attendance is expected and an instructor tells them what to do but may succeed by designing their own workouts that they feel free to complete on an unconventional schedule. For rebels things can also go the opposite way, and Rubin points out that some rebels may do fairly well with authority because it gives them something to push against. Overall, rebels may be best served by not thinking of something as a habit, which becomes a “have to”, but rather by making a choice each time about doing a behavior. This may keep it fresh, interesting, and freedom-filled for them.

Rubin claims that people tend to fall into one type consistently and do not seem to change over time or across circumstance. As this is a new construct system, research does not exist to verify the veracity of her claim. I suspect that these tendencies may fall on somewhat of a bell-curve, with the extreme types of upholder and rebel making up a small percentage of the population and the middle ground of questioner and obliger fitting the vast majority.


Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin (2015)

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