Upholder (with a side of Questioning)

Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Better Than Before, is out Tuesday. I read it twice and enjoyed it. The list of self-help books I’ve reread is small (hers, 7 Habits, The Creative Habit, and a few others), so that’s saying something.

I’ll be using the occasion to have a “habits week” here on the blog. Today’s topic? My “fateful tendency.” Rubin argues that establishing habits requires knowing what kind of person you are. Are you an Upholder, a Questioner, an Obliger, or a Rebel? These four tendencies reflect how you react to internal and external expectations.

She is an Upholder, which is someone who has no trouble meeting external expectations (deadlines) or internal ones (going to the gym, getting up at 6 a.m. to work on your own long term projects). So am I. So is everyone who writes about goal setting, time management, habits, and the like. She told me this when I met her for coffee in September, 2013. We’d made plans the prior week to meet at a certain time and place. When I walked in right on time, I saw her already sitting there. She told me that she normally confirms meetings ahead of time, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t going to be necessary.

This is how Upholders deal with commitments. It will probably surprise no one reading this that I’ve had to teach myself not to be comically early to parties.

In any case, different tendencies lead to different insights into how to create change in one’s life. Those of us who are Upholders may understand on some level that other people view the world differently. That’s why we give advice such as “set an appointment with a trainer” if you want to get to the gym. If we upholders had an appointment with a trainer, we’d get there on time, come hell or high water (side note: I was shocked to learn the percentage of no-shows for medical visits). But, aside from the benefits gained by working with a trainer, we may wonder why such an appointment would be necessary. If an appointment with a trainer would get you to the gym, then clearly you don’t have some unbreakable other commitment at the same time. So why is the appointment necessary? Why, exactly, do you need someone else’s expectation to do something you say you want to do?

Of course, there’s a downside to this attachment to commitments. Once I commit to doing something, I will do it. That’s one reason I really prefer self-employment. I think it would drive me nuts not to have reasonable control of my time. I recognize that other people don’t have this control. I don’t hold it against friends who have to cancel or move things (as long as it doesn’t happen every time — that’s a different matter). But in my mental universe, most things that “might come up” are foreseeable. So I try to foresee them. The trouble with this is that I have difficulty canceling even trivial things if huge and much better opportunities come up — things that align closely with long-term goals or my values.

This tendency means I have to be very careful about taking on commitments. I have to be careful about making commitments to others and even (especially! says the Upholder) those I make to myself. That’s why I was dithering about doing NaNoWriMo. Once I said I would do it, I would need to write 50,000 words in 30 days. And I did. I have also been careful about prescribing specific training runs, because once I write them down, I will do them, whether I feel like them or not.

To be sure, I’m not a “pure” Upholder. I find medical advice oddly easy to ignore if I don’t agree with it (that’s a Questioner tendency). I don’t follow recipes exactly. I don’t finish books I don’t like. While I’d say Rubin’s rubric is interesting, it’s not a 100 percent explanation for everything. Nothing is. But I was surprised to learn that upholders are rare. It’s like learning that INTJs are rare. Whatever one is seems like a natural way to view the universe.

In other news: Rubin also talks about “moderators” vs. “abstainers.” Just as everyone who writes about productivity is an upholder, every nutritionist, she notes, is a moderator. They get into nutrition because they have a healthy relationship with food. So the advice to allow yourself small treats makes sense to them. Rubin is more of an abstainer. She can’t just eat one square of chocolate. So she won’t eat it at all.

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