Secrets of people who get stuff done - and how to be one of them

Upholders like Michelle Obama are rare.

Upholders like Michelle Obama are rare.

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 makes 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're always busy - yet never seem to get everything done.

Me too. And, according to New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, it's not because we're people pleasers or even procrastinators, it's because we're Obligers - the most common 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 the handy online quiz at 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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Rubin is fascinated by what makes people tick and has already tackled happiness (The Happiness Project, for which she dedicated a year to the pursuit thereof) and habits (Better Than Before).

She 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 Rubin, I don't have any difficulty making time for myself. What made her friend so different?

Richard Branson doesn't take no for an answer. Classic Rebel.
John Kirk-Anderson

Richard Branson doesn't take no for an answer. Classic Rebel.

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.

"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."

Can Rubin (Upholder) spot the types at 50 paces? "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 Rubin if they can change type (the answer's no).

But, as Rubin 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."

As an Obliger, I meet deadlines (when imposed by others), volunteer and willingly fulfil obligations to my family and friends. I went to a wedding with a trapped gallstone (read: debilitating pain). But when I promise myself I'll do a weekly Pilates class/start writing that novel, it doesn't happen.

Obligers like Arianna Huffington go the extra mile to meet others' expectations.

Obligers like Arianna Huffington go the extra mile to meet others' expectations.

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. (This doesn't make him sound like much fun. I promise he is.)

"The thing that's interesting about your marriage," says Rubin, after she has laughed delightedly at how "classic" we are, "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. 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 those who have figured out how to harness the strengths of their personality. Master your tendency, promises Rubin, and you take control of your career, relationships and habits.

"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."

But how do you lay your hands on it? "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). 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 help out, but let me check my diary first'."

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. There are even apps with accountability groups - like my Better app."

Questioners like Steve Jobs don't care so much about outer expectations.

Questioners like Steve Jobs don't care so much about outer expectations.

A word of warning: if you don't conquer the inclination to say yes to everyone else, you're at risk of never getting through your own to-do list.

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"The resentment builds and builds until [you] tip over into Obliger rebellion and explode. I've known it to end marriages," she adds, breezily.

Time to create that outer accountability, fellow Obligers. Don't let Rubin down.



Go the extra mile to meet others' expectations. Team players, susceptible to overwork; eg Arianna Huffington (pre-burnout).


Readily respond to outer and inner expectations. They don't let themselves or others down, self-motivated and conscientious; eg Michelle Obama.


Meet inner expectations, but question outer expectations. They will only do something if it makes sense and don't take instructions on face value; eg Steve Jobs.


Resist both outer and inner expectations. The phrase "rules don't apply" was invented for them. They value spontaneity; eg Richard Branson.

The Four Tendencies is published by Two Roads (£14.99).

 - The Telegraph, London


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