A Few Questions for You Questioners and Obligers, About Treats.

I’m deep into Before and After, my book about habit-formation. One of the sixteen strategies that I’ve identified is the Strategy of Treats (which will probably be the favorite strategy of many people). By “treat,” I mean something that you give yourself as a…well, treat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about treats, and of course, I continued to be obsessed by the four Rubin Tendencies. In a nutshell:

The Rubin Tendencies describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (like my friend who said, “In high school, I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running on the weekends now”)


I recently gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Rubin Character Index, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here.

Today, my questions are directed at you Questioners and Obligers. There are a lot of you, I know, because Obligers and Questioners are by far the largest categories. (Many things became clear to me when I realized how few people are Upholders.)

Questioners: do you have trouble giving yourself a treat if you feel that it isn’t “necessary” or “justified”? In other words, do you feel like there has to be a sound reason to give yourself a treat?

Do you find it easier to give yourself a treat if it’s justified by sound reasons? “I’m getting a massage because studies show that massage increases immune function.”

Obligers, do you have trouble giving yourself treats if you feel that the time, energy, or money is more properly owed to someone else? Is it easier to spend time or money on someone else, than on yourself?

Do you find it easier to give yourself a treat if it’s framed in terms of its benefit to others?  E.g., “If I spend the morning playing golf, I’ll be more patient and relaxed with my kids and at work.”

Feel free to mull your relationship to treats, generally! You Upholders and Rebels, too. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

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  • peninith1

    Oh, interesting. I think I’m a Questioner. I would say that in general, I feel as if significant treats (bigger than a bubble bath) must be earned–and I DECIDE how the earning is to be done. In the standard ‘rational manner’ I saved up my annual leave so that when I retired I had a lump sum payment that I used to buy a high performance sewing machine I wanted.

    However I also often set up a ‘treat’ and then work back from that, figuring out what I should do first before I enjoy it, to ‘earn it’ in advance.

    Example: I am planning a brief family visit. Before that, I intend to spend a couple of days on undesirable but necessary bureaucratic tasks and get the car serviced. Or this: I have a season ticket to HD Opera Broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. I am using those ‘treat’ afternoons as incentives to see how well I can do on my exercise and weight loss regime and what outfit I can enjoy wearing by the date of the next opera.

    Several years ago, my son persuaded me to join him and his wife and family on a cruise, something I had never done.before and thought was very ‘indulgent’. We fortunately planned it several months in advance and I ‘earned’ a big chunk of the expense by volunteering to work on a hurricane disaster recovery, which earned overtime pay that I used to help finance the trip. So, I often commit to a treat and THEN work out the ‘earning it’ part–in some ways that’s a mental acrobatic of justification, in others it’s really great incentive.

    Your question has made me really think how my mind works! Thanks again for such an insight-provoking post!

    • Lynn

      I’m also an obliger and agree with a lot that has been said here. It’s actually frustrating to me that people expect me to reward myself. I also noticed recently that I get frustrated with people who need rewards to do something. I’ve also recently noticed that I’m happiest when I’m working, because there are goals and expectations to meet. I live with a questioner husband and rebel child, so we spend a lot of time working out our differences.

      • gretchenrubin

        Is it frustrating because you wish they’d give you a treat, instead of expecting you to give yourself a treat?

        Or frustrating because you don’t want to be bothered with it for yourself?

        • peninith1

          I personally spent a long time ‘wishing’ that ‘someone special’ would give me treats. Realized it wasn’t going to happen–and now even though I have a ‘someone special’ in my life, he is not a hearts and flowers type. I am more likely to get a gift card to my favorite crafts store–so then I can treat MYSELF to a new steam iron or bright white light or whatever. I of course LOVE these ‘treats’ and use them almost every day in my sewing room!
          I have given up wishing that I could find a magic wand to wave over myself and make myself the kind of woman who could expect the ‘Santa Baby’ treatment as a regular thing. I just have to plan and confer fun things on myself, and enjoy them fully even though they do not come with romance attached.
          I will add that when I had cancer surgery (a minor deal, but it could have been something worse) my sons and daughter in law came and showered me with total attention, including cooking for me, little presies and a new bathrobe and their peerless company. One hates to have to be threatened with mortal illness to get pampered, of course, but it was memorable and lovely!

        • Lynn

          I think, honestly, it’s that treats are used frequently to motivate people to do what they should be doing anyway. Having a treat as a reason to do something seems to diminish the reward that comes from accomplishing the task. It may sound dorky, but I love how I feel when I accomplish something hard, and often I don’t want to even talk about it with other folks. I feel like I own my success. So, honestly, I think my frustration comes from seeing that most of the folks in my life need those treats. I wonder, is it that the accomplishment doesn’t mean much to them? Or that they won’t take care of themselves unless they have earned a reward for doing so? And lastly, although I’ve learned to accept it and do it now, I often feel like I’m bribing them to do things they should just do.

        • Lynn

          I think, honestly, it’s that treats are used frequently to motivate
          people to do what they should be doing anyway. Having a treat as a
          reason to do something seems to diminish the reward that comes from
          accomplishing the task. It may sound dorky, but I love how I feel
          when I accomplish something hard. I feel like I own my success. So,
          honestly, I think my frustration comes from seeing that most of the
          folks in my life need those treats. I wonder, is it that the
          accomplishment doesn’t mean much to them? Or that they won’t take
          care of themselves unless they have earned a reward for doing so?
          And lastly, although I’ve learned to accept it and do it now, I
          often feel like I’m bribing them to do things they should just do.

      • peninith1

        You know, one thing about this whole string that is interesting to me, is where are the ‘princesses’? The people who don’t seem to have to do anything to just have flowers and nice treats and presents showered upon them–and not necessarily because they are imperious and demanding, just ‘because’ they have mates and families who believe that is the right way to treat sweethearts and moms? My very dear daughter in law (who is very good to other people herself, but I would not say is an obliger) is in this happy company. My son loves to treat her and also is good about remembering me at Mothers Day and my birthday and Christmas–and I know that her participation in choosing and sending treats is part of this. Obviously she enjoys both giving and receiving. That seems like the way it SHOULD be.

  • Amy

    I’m an obliger, and I’ve noticed that while I use treats to motivate myself, I don’t always go through with the treat once I’ve achieved the goal. Once I’ve accomplished what I set out to do, the treat feels unnecessary and overindulgent.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is interesting. I wonder if the notion of a treat acts to provide external accountability, but then there’s no external accountability to make you TAKE the treat. That might be another place to add a layer of external accountability.

      • Virginia

        Good idea; I can picture my husband guilting me into giving myself my own treat (as he already guilts me into doing things I’ve planned to do but am resisting – meditation, yoga class, writing at the coffee shop.)

        • gretchenrubin

          Yes! Those of us around Obligers must do this—encourage (bully?) them to give themselves treats, to say “no” to others when appropriate, to look after themselves, to help them avoid burn-out.

    • Barbara

      Never understood treats – it does not come from Santa and so I see it as an expense that sabotages how I decided to use my money or time and if the treat was on my list I would include the expense or time regardless any strings I tried to attach – it is like bribing with money and time I had earmarked and so it works as a heist.

  • Kristina Nguyen

    I am an Obliger and I definitely struggle around using treats to motivate myself. I’ve been musing on this just this week – the tendency to want to avoid having a treat for myself be an inconvenience to someone else is big. Which basically kills the effectiveness of the treat as a motivator!

  • Evelyn

    I’m an obliger and loved your talk at the World Domination Summit this past summer. I don’t use “treats” as an incentive to do something. I never thought of using them.. But I know that if I’m accountable to someone else I’ll do the work. One year I signed up for a triathlon with a charity and I worked out. The following year I was able to get a spot on the tri, without going through the charity, but I didn’t do the necessary work for it, the running part is my demise. So I didn’t do the tri that year.

    I’ll write if I have to turn in homework, I’ll work out if I’m accountable to someone else. I don’t think a “treat” is motivation enough, I need that external accountability.

    In reference of money and spending in someone else.. I’m single with no children, I have no trouble spending money on me. But with the new economy I’m a bit more frugal about it. You’re making me think this morning.

    • gretchenrubin

      So happy to hear you enjoyed the talk!

      SO interesting to hear your experience with the triathlon. For Obligers, that external accountability is the KEY! Though different people feel obligated in different ways. Lots of variety there.

  • Lisa

    I am an Obliger and unlike the others, I have no problem using treats to motivate myself. However, I will admit that at times, I deny myself an experience (treat) in order to do something for others. For example, I will help my kids with homework instead of go shopping, or I’ll volunteer on behalf of a charitable organization instead of spend a relaxing evening at home after having worked extra hours that week. I call it the guilt complex.

    • Lisa

      I just watched the video clips and realized that one of my sons is an Upholder and the other one is definitely a Rebel. That explains why I think parenting sometimes seems like a bigger challenge than it should be!

      • gretchenrubin

        Wow! That would be quite a range to handle as a parent.

        As an Upholder, I think that it’s probably easiest to be the parent of an Upholder. Unless you’re a Rebel yourself, in which case your Uphholder kid drives you nuts! And you drive your child nuts too.

    • gretchenrubin

      Let me suggest this: don’t think about it in terms of guilt, or sacrifice for others, but in terms of EXTERNAL ACCOUNTABILITY.
      Perhaps you’re inclined to help the kids with the homework because there’s an accountability to others there that’s absent with the shopping.
      If your family said, “We really want you to be home with us. It’s important that you’re here, and we’ll be upset if you’re out volunteering,” would you be less likely to volunteer? Again, through the lens of accountability.
      Obligers often find it difficult even to do things that they WANT to do, if there’s no accountability, except to self.

  • Ris

    I am also 100% an upholder. I actually find it difficult to be creative or think outside of the box because I do so well with clear, outlined expectations. I love to plow through lists and methodically check things off. That gives me way more satisfaction than a treat.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, yes, I feel the same way. I have to put my treats on my to-do list!

  • Shari

    I am a questioner. I don’t reward myself with treats as a result of something I have or have not done. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but you may be right about me thinking that a treat isn’t really necessary or justified. My husband always likes to reward himself when he accomplishes something. I never really understood that. It’s not that I never get myself something I like, it’s just that it is not tied to some previous action.

  • TJ

    I am a Questioner with minor Obliger tendencies. Treats don’t work for me as a motivational tool. If I were to set up a deadline with a reward at the end, and happened to not meet the deadline, I just say, oh well, I didn’t deserve it.

  • Randee Bulla

    I’m a questioner and love planning what treats I’ll give myself once I reach whatever goal I set out for myself. However, once I reach the goal, I’ll question whether that treat is now appropriate and don’t tend to actually give myself the treat. So what once looked like a stretch goal and deserving of said treat, now seems like eh, what was so hard about that…I no longer deserve that treat and don’t give it to myself…and completely forgetting how much work it took to reach that goal. So now I’m starting to really look at what motivates me and find that I am becoming leary of treats since I’m unreliable and stingy with them.

  • Sally

    I am an Obliger. I like the notion of using treats for myself. I just find it doesn’t work. It’s insufficient incentive to overcome my resistance. I am a motivated and productive person and, if I’m not doing something that I claim I want to do, there is some pretty hard core resistance there and a simple treat isn’t going to solve the problem.

    • gretchenrubin

      Can you give yourself treats that are unrelated to trying to movitate yourself to do something?

      • Sally

        Yes. Though I admit I try to keep my baseline low for treats of any sort. But I don’t think that’s because I’m self-denying. I think it’s because I’ve read too much about the hedonic treadmill. Or maybe that’s just my self-justification for being self-denying. 🙂

      • Virginia

        I have no trouble getting myself treats as long as they jive with my frugal side (inexpensive books, music, seeing a play, a pretty print, a scarf on sale). However, though I’m an obliger, I wouldn’t say I go out of my way to plan treats for others (maybe when we have children).

    • Virginia

      I agree with Sally. I’ve tried to use treats before and they never work as a motivational tool, whether because I don’t end up caring about the treat if I have happened to accomplish something or because it was never enough to address the motivational issue in the first place (most often). It may be related that I treat myself fairly regularly to guilty-pleasure television, my favorite foods, and clothes, though beyond my stock treats, I rarely will treat myself to something different like a massage, pedicure, or something else that seems “frivolous” to me. In fact, I have a hard time coming up with ideas for “treats” – I’m either already treating myself to something similar or, once it’s treat time, can’t justify the idea; there’s a reason I’m not already treating myself to said thing.

  • Carolyn

    I am an obliger and don’t give myself treats, finding it much easier to give treats to others, and do so often. Every so often, a level of anger surfaces because I don’t think I am an obliger naturally, but have become one through circumstance, possibly role-modeling and a desire to achieve peace. At these times of anger, I try to achieve a better balance in my life, and I always feel much better in my skin when I do so. I have no problem treating myself when I am in these rare times of “obliger resistence”. We are heading toward Christmas “The Obliger Season Extraordinaire” and I can feel my hackles rising again. You have given me something to think about with this question and I appreciate the opportunity to think about it.

  • Molly

    I wasn’t sure whether I was a questioner or an obliger until I saw this post about treats. I am definitely more in the questioner category here. I have to earn the treat, and I am, similar to you (but I know you are an upholder) very Ben Franklin-ian in that I am obsessed with what research says. So I would definitely be the one to give myself a treat that squared with scientific studies, exactly like the example you gave. I probably do have minor obliger tendencies (especially with my child), as one person below said, but my husband is definitely an obliger. Rarely rarely treats himself, but indulges his family. I like the example you gave, and I am going to encourage him to treat himself more often (not sweets, of course) by getting him to see how good it is for me or our family.

    • gretchenrubin

      So interesting!

  • Bethan

    I’m an Obliger, and although I sometimes use treats it’s not really a good motivator for me. My “obliging” manifests in such a way that I don’t feel I can do the things I owe to myself if I haven’t also completed the things I owe to other people; my obligations to myself are “both . . . and” not “either . . . or.” So if I haven’t completed the things I’m obliged to do for others, I can’t feel entitled to a treat for doing something for myself.

  • Santosh

    I’m a Questioner and I have to really (!) justify to myself why I deserve a treat. In fact, I did not use to till I read about how Habit research says that rewarding new behaviors leads to new habits. I’m also an Abstainer (another of your categories) so I can postpone my reward till I’m sure I have earned it. Often, at the end of the month, I ask myself “did I really do what I had promised myself?” Looks like we are hard on ourselves, we Questioners. what do you say?

    • gretchenrubin

      Hmmm…well I don’t agree that rewarding behavior is always a good way to form a habit. This is a very complex issue. I have a whole chapter about it in Before and After, on the Strategy of Rewards.
      As a Questioner, spend some time thinking about the sound reasons you have for treating yourself. I bet you can think of many. Questioners will never do anything, even something fun, “just because.” They need GOOD REASONS!

  • Marion

    Dear Gretchen, thank you for helping me understand myself at last ! I’m definitely an obliger. To answer your question, I don’t have trouble giving myself a treat but I’ve tried to use treats to motivate myself and it doesn’t work. I’m really looking forward to reading your new book.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that this framework has proved useful to you. I hope you enjoy the book when it finally hits the shelves —

  • Jay

    I’m a questioner, and yes, I find it hard to take a treat that I don’t feel I deserve, and I do base my treats on studies about what is good for me, e.g. exercise, time with friends, a massage as you say. I do use treats to motivate myself.

  • Blair424

    I’m a questioner with obliger tendencies. When I give myself a treat, it’s always a guilty pleasure (like fast food). For me, a treat is something I know I shouldn’t have all the time (otherwise I’ll get fat), but I justify it in my mind as something I can have once in a while if I’ve done something to earn it. By the way, one of my tricks for habits is to use the clock as an external expectation. So, for example, let’s say I’m being lazy surfing the internet. But I know I need to do a habit. What I do is look at the clock and if it’s 10:04, for example, I decide that at 10:10 I’m going to do my habit. Then I keep surfing the internet for six more minutes, and when the clock hits 10:10, I stop and do my habit. You might think that at 10:10, I’d be tempted to put off my habit until 10:15, but I never do that. Actually, the reason is I don’t want to get into the bad habit of setting a time to do a habit and then not following through!

  • aleisha

    I’m an obliger and love buying for other people; it genuinely makes me feel happy and good. When I buy for myself, I usually feel guilty unless I need the item.

    Also, on a somewhat-related note, using “treats” as rewards never motivates me b/c I just feel like I should be doing the “thing” (eat well, exercise, whatever the goal is) anyway.

    • gretchenrubin

      Do you ever feel resentful or neglected because you don’t get enough treats yourself? Resentful, because you’re giving them to others, or neglected, because people aren’t giving you the treats that you might enjoy?

      Treats often help people feel restored. Do you ever feel depleted or burned-out?

      • aleisha

        I never resent giving to others, but I sometimes get mad that I feel guilty over buying something for myself. Like if I get my hair done somewhere that’s really expensive, I will get angry and justify why I paid that much (all of this is happening in my own head, mind you)… when, in reality, no one would even care how much I spent, including my husband. I think it’s just that I feel like I have to *earn* the treat and so then I try to justify it and then feel resentful that I feel the need to do that.

        I think what makes me feel burnt out more than anything is this constant feeling like I should/could be doing more. And it’s especially those self-imposed expectations that just never quite get met.

        • lady brett

          this is interesting. i am very similar (i think i am more of a questioner, but i have definite obliger tendencies), and i find that i tend to only enjoy treats if they come from someone else, because of the guilt aspect.

          fortunately, my wife matches this quite well, and has a tendency to surprise me with “treats” that are actually just things she knows i want and probably need, but can’t justify getting to myself. this works despite the fact that it comes out of our shared bank account – i think it has to do with the external validation that someone else agrees that it is a good thing to do/get/buy.

      • Marie-Claire Ording

        No, on the contrary, it’s hard for me to be treated or receive presents. I remember as a child feeling depressed after birthdays, and wondering why? I thought it was because I disliked being the center of attention, but now I know it’s def linked with receiving things.

        • Ann

          I was watching Daily Mass on t.v. a few days ago (Canadian daily mass) and the priest said not only should we give with open hands, we should receive that way as well. It shows respect and love for the giver. People like giving, so we all need to be a gracious receiver. One of my sisters is such a giver (I have 3 sisters) that my other sister complains that she is not willing to receive. It’s like this person wants nothing from you because they are so self-sufficient. Meanwhile, the “giving” sister of course feels like she is doing the right thing.

        • Cheryl Gajowski

          Somewhat of a similar reaction – I think it was because I really wanted stuff – and felt really bad because the stuff cost too much for my parents – and also really wanted something more than the “stuff” represented and didn’t know what it was.

  • marissamuffin

    I’m an obliger and I strongly agree with many of the comments I’ve read from other Obligers. I really have no problem giving myself treats, but treats don’t necessarily work as external motivation for me. If I’m the one in control of the external motivation (ex. “I’ll let myself waste an hour watching Netflix after I do X, Y and Z”) then it’s pretty much no different than internal motivation. I’m the one with the power to say “Well how about we go straight to that Netflix and do X, Y and Z later,” so the reward typically doesn’t actually motivate me, unless it’s external. I’ll do extra credit assignments because I KNOW that I’ll legitimately get the extra credit if and only if I do the assignment.

    I really have no trouble treating myself though, however I definitely get more joy out of giving other people treats. When I grocery shop, I spend more time looking for something that will make my boyfriend happy than something that I really want. And when it’s time to shop for birthdays and holidays, I go through hoops to come up with the “perfect” idea for the people close to me, but I strongly dislike receiving gifts myself. I think I feel burdensome in a weird way when people spend money on me. Not sure if that has anything to do with my obliger tendencies!

    • gretchenrubin


      As I use the terms, a treat is something that is NOT meant to serve as a motivator. That is a REWARD.

      A treat you get….just because. A reward you get because you’ve earned it.


      • EllieA

        Oh, I jumped the gun. This distinction shows me that my treats are separate from my Obliger-self. Rewards don’t work for me – just deadlines, other’s needs or wants, etc.

  • Karen

    I’m a questioner for sure, small treats are Ok most of the time but I have to really justify a bigger one, like a massage & proof like you said that its justified by a sound reason otherwise I’ll hang out to a birthday or Christmas

  • KayDee

    Without a doubt I am an obliger. I am reluctant to give myself treats and am happy to provide treats to others. I even have a hard time following through on treats that others have provided to me, such as the unused gift certificate for a spa from 2 Christmases ago. I just never feel right taking that time away from all of the other things and people that I am responsible for. I do manage to take one night a week for myself (I am a member on a skating team) which is a classic obliger thing to do as I wouldn’t get out if people weren’t counting on me. I consider this to be my treat.

  • BeccaB

    Since they first entered the blog discussions, I have given the four Rubin tendencies quite a bit of thought, particularly in how they relate to my own life. The more the topic is explored, the more questions I have. It seems that I exemplify various typologies, depending on the circumstance. For example:

    I have a chronic disease, and when it comes to managing my health, I am an Upholder. I follow my doctors instructions, and I also create and adhere to my own (often dramatic) lifestyle changes to improve my health. I’m also an Upholder in any kind of educational, classroom or formal training setting, and I have no problem accomplishing at least 90% of my weekly, self-imposed “to-do” lists. (Though I often unrealistically estimate how much I can ACTUALLY accomplish in my free time, which accounts for the 10% gap.)

    At work, as any former or current coworkers would attest, I am most definitely a Questioner. As an ad agency writer, there is always a lot of creative and conceptual “questioning” going on — and I have a hard time just doing “what the client wants” when I don’t feel it’s the best choice.

    When it comes to sleeping habits and exercise, I’m often an Obliger. I love running and exercising, but it’s hard for me to initiate the activity unless I’m enrolled in a class or running with a buddy. Incidentally, as a writer, deadlines and editors help me stay on task, but sometimes I’m able adhere to deadlines myself, as long as they have distinct parameters or rewards (e.g. – I’ll get this done by the end of the month; I’ll finish before vacation).

    The Rebel tendency is the least expressed in my life, but between the ages of 16 and 21, it was the driving force behind my choices. My spontaneity and experimentation at those ages was such that even I didn’t know what I’d be up to next! (Though I suppose that’s a common adolescent phenomenon.)

    Of course, there’s always the possibility that my ongoing analysis of the Rubin tendencies indicates my true nature as a Questioner (wink). But is there something else I’m missing?

    • Chris

      I also feel that I fall in different categories, depending on the area of live.
      My diet/eating habits are definitely those of an upholder. But I cannot get myself to exercise or get more sleep without an element of external accountability, so this means obliger. With work, I also think I am more of an obliger than an upholder and I see myself mostly as an obliger.

      As Sally put it so brilliantly: Treats are insufficient incentives to overcome my resistance. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that I had to learn to treat myself to some things, just for the sake of it and to have fun. I come from a family where I learnt to put others first in almost anything, maybe this makes it so hard for me to be the upholder I wish to be? As an upholder (at least the way I see this concept) it is enough to say “I have the goal of achieving A or B” in order to make this goal important/valuable enough to follow through with it without external accountability.

  • BeccaB

    And here’s another question: Wouldn’t Upholders actually be “Inner-Questioners?”

    More explicitly — I can see how an Upholder meets an outer expectation, regardless of his or her agreement with it. (Your S.O. asks you to fold the towels a certain way, so you oblige, without needing a rationale.)

    But how is it possible for a person to set an inner expectation that they DIDN’T already agree with? If it’s an expectation you’ve set for yourself (“I vow to stop eating French fries”), you obviously already feel it makes sense, for some reason or another. Otherwise, you would’ve never created it.

    I’m having a hard time imagining a scenario in which someone sets a totally arbitrary expectation for themselves, for no reason at all…

    • BeccaB

      Along the same line of thought, Obligers in one sense are “Outer-Questioners,” but with a very specific question/reason.

      Essentially, their “question” is always “Will it please others?” and their reason for meeting a particular outer expectation is always “Because it pleases [name of person].”

  • Marie-Claire Ording

    Dear Gretchen, thanks so much for all the categories you are researching, they’re helping me know myself! I’m definitely, without hesitation, an OBLIGER. In fact I resist giving myself rewards so much that I’ve made myself a commandment (one of my Ten) about it: “Demonstrate respect for myself” because it’s not enough to just respect myself, I need the extra incentive to demonstrate that I do, by doing nice things for myself, like a $40 haircut instead of a $12 haircut for a special occasion, or “splurging” for a tray of fresh figs when they’re in season (my favorite fruit) when I’ve achieved one of my goals. But there’s always resistance involved, hence the commandment thing. I’m a very generous person with both my time and money, and delight in thinking about what’s the next nice thing I can do for others, but somehow, I always draw a blank when it comes to rewarding myself, and in fact often renege on planned rewards, sad, no?.

    • gretchenrubin

      My suggestion is not to focus on your attitude toward yourself, but on creating a system of external accountability, which Obligers need, even to give themselves treats.

      If you want to get a $40 haircut, ask a friend, spouse, family member to hold you accountable for that. Ask someone else to make the appointment, so they’re expecting you to show up. Make a pact with someone else that you’re both going to follow through with this.

      For Obligers, external accountability is THE KEY.

      • Marcy Holmes

        I like that you mentioned the hair cut. If I make an appointment for the next cut before I leave the salon, it’s so much less stressful than having to call and arrange over the phone or text message. I think there might be some aspect in there about ‘owing’ the stylist a return visit that is more powerful than my wanting a trim for myself.

        • gretchenrubin

          My mother keeps trying to get me to do this!

  • Randee Bulla

    Hi Gretchen, I just read your explanation on the difference between treat and reward and realized my previous answer was actually about rewards, which just don’t work for me (I’m a questioner). So I DO give myself treats. A lot. Maybe it’s the way I think, but a significant amount of things I buy or do are actually treats. They have to improve my quality of life, have to have a real purpose, and I never regret them. Ever. Some are impulsive, and some are planned for years in advance. As opposed to an over or under spender or doer, I feel like Goldilocks. That everything I buy or do is just right, treats included. And my idea of a treat might be a fancy chocolate bar, grocery store sushi instead of having to cook, a scented candle to burn at work, or something bigger like my dream car (bought for less than half price because it was a year old). It might be a run with a friend, a one hour flurry of texts with a girlfriend when I should be in bed, or a day full of Hallmark movies with my husband. It might be to sit still for an extra 5 minutes to enjoy my cat purring as he’s curled in my lap, listening to the birds sing as they enjoy the bushes I planted 3 years ago, or watching our retirement savings chart grow each month. Every purchase or thing fits into my life “just right,” which to me feels like a treat. Which isn’t to say I don’t have bad days or events. I do. But I work through them as quickly or as best I can and concentrate on the good and what I can influence.

    • EllieA

      Randee could have been describing my Obliging-yet Treat-filled way of being. Treats don’t work as an incentive, but they make my life richer and happier and I rarely feel guilty before, during or after, since I am glad to share with family and friends as the occasion occurs, or just enjoy one myself, gleefully.

      • gretchenrubin

        Again, I would argue that if you’re giving yourself something as an incentive, it’s a REWARD.
        If you’re giving yourself something “just because,” it’s a TREAT.

        A treat is something that doesn’t have to be earned or deserved.

  • Shannon J

    As a questioner, I find the notion/idea of a treat to be more attractive than the actual treat itself. I might give myself an incentive to get a project done and look forward to enjoying my treat, but once I’ve actually finished the work there doesn’t seem to be a strong enough reason for a treat anymore.

    Your ideas on these rule following personalities have also helped me understand why I had a miserable time in a sorority in college. I could not accept the rules/fines/penalites they tried to enforce that had no sound basis (at least they seemed that way to me). I only lasted a semester before I quit, but still enjoyed hanging out with my former sisters outside the context of the sorority.

    • Mindy

      I’m a questioner, too, and I completely agree. The treat may be great, but I’m more pleased with myself for sticking to my commitment. As long as treats are not too often and small, I don’t need a sound reason. But a bigger treat, such as a shopping spree after weight loss, my goal has to be met or I can in no way allow myself a treat like that. I won’t even let myself buy any clothing if I have a goal in progress.

  • Julia

    I’m an obliger. And I really can’t see a connection to the questions you asked. I’m an obliger with very little will power. I don’t give myself treats because I can’t resist them when they come from somewhere else. When I do give myself a “treat” I don’t consider it a treat, I consider it a failure because it usually is. Like Sally, using treats as incentive doesn’t work for me at all.

    I’m also an abstainer. I can “treat” myself to ice cream one evening, and the following evening I “need” it again. I can “treat” myself to a few hours of playing video games on a Sunday afternoon, and then I “need” to play video games every evening for the rest of the week.

    I’m also looking forward to reading your book (probably for the same reasons why you chose to write it).

  • Jessica

    I think I am most likely an Obliger, and I just spent more on a make-up product than I have in my entire life because I recently resolved to pay more attention to my appearance. I decided to do this because I thought it would help me feel more attractive, which would be good for my marriage. Notice that the ultimate goal is improving my relationship, not just feeling better for my own sake.

  • Jamie

    I’m a questioner. I feel like I get lots of treats…as long as they’re free or super cheap. If it costs money then it is very difficult for me to treat myself that way. I feel I need a solid reason to spend that money. For example, I buy almost all clothing at the thrift store (and enjoy a thrift store trip as a treat). It is very difficult for me to spend even sale prices on new clothing but when I became pregnant it was easy for me to go to the store to buy clothes. I had a specific reason and need for those new clothes. Also it was very difficult for me to have a gym membership. To spend money on something that could be free felt like such an extravagance. So eventually I dropped the membership and got certified to teach fitness myself so I could start my own class and wouldn’t have to pay to exercise. As long as it’s basically free, I get treats all the time. I have no problem taking a nap when I want one, having that cup of coffee, making a special breakfast, surfing the webs, calling a friend and talking for too long, taking a long shower, sleeping in, having tea parties with my kids with the fine china. I love to be productive in the kitchen and make interesting things like sauerkraut, yogurt, sourdough bread, apple pies. All of this is interesting to me and feels very treat-like. My days are full of treats. I feel like it is one big treat being a stay at home mom and having my husband support our family financially.

    • Jamie

      I still have never paid for a pedicure. I will only get one if someone buys me one as a gift. I cut my own hair. I have only had a massage if it was given as a gift. I never go to Starbucks I always make my coffee at home. So those types of treats are not on my personal radar.

  • Kathryn

    I’m a Questioner, and almost all of my “treats” (with the exception of chocolate and cookies) are not treats but rewards or investments. They all have justifications:
    -I’m getting a haircut at the nice place, not the $20 place…because having a professional cut and color helps my career. (ok and a little bit just because I like it so much better.)
    -I’m getting a massage…because I made it through three weeks of rough work and twenty hours on an airplane.
    -I’m sleeping in…because I worked really hard this week and finished all my housework yesterday.
    (On the other hand, I need zero reason to have a cookie. I just get to have chocolate.)

    I have to work extremely hard at letting myself have treats ‘just because.’ I’m actively working on it.

  • Jenya08

    Questioner here. I’m not sure if this answers your question directly, but there was a great article in the NYTimes last week about willpower and uncertainty. This thinking definitely applies to me, and I assume to other questioners also.


  • Katie

    I think that I am mostly a Questioner, but partly an Obliger.

    I’ve never found that treats motivate me because they seem so superficial. If I want to treat myself for the heck of it, I generally have solid reasoning for it. Even with good reason, I’ll still find myself feeling that the resources (usually money) could be better spent elsewhere. I do find it easier to treat someone else when it comes to spending money, but also generally have reasons for it.

    Sometimes my reason for a treat will involve proving to myself that I need it first. Like keeping a gratitude journal in a simple notebook for a month to prove that I’ll use the beautiful bound journal I covet. But that treat is only a small percentage of my motivation for keeping the journal in the first place. I would do it regardless for my initial reasons. Knowing that I’ll use the journal will be my reason for treating myself to it.

  • Anon

    I think I’m an Obliger, but with a Questioner in there too (I’m more motivated by external factors like deadlines imposed at work than I am by internal deadlines or plans, but will still question them before acting and prioritise my sanity over meeting external expectations).

    On the treat topic, might I suggest that the psychology of the Obliger could actually imply a propensity for giving yourself a treat? The long-term me says, ‘Go to the gym twice a week’, but without external motivation, the short-term me says, ‘Nah, just go on your laptop and eat chocolate’. Short-term me wins…

    On the other hand, long-term me says, ‘I want to prioritise life over work,’ but short-term me says, ‘You haven’t finished that work, stay late tonight’ and short-term me wins.

    However, I am a bit depressed at the moment, go back a couple of years and I was at the gym 3-4 times a week and on a strict diet, so the internal motivation varies.

    As for other treats, I always, always treat myself to doing something fun if it comes up. I’ll pretty much never turn down going somewhere because I can’t afford it. However, I’m not very materialistic so I’m not one for buying lots of possessions – sometimes something will take my fancy and be difficult to resist, but never something expensive. And with food and drink I have hardly any willpower to resist treats at the minute.

  • Sarah

    I’m an obliger, but not so much in a taking-care-of-others-at-my-own-expense way. For me it’s more about the fact that there are more consequences for not meeting outer expectations than there are for inner expectations. I have a lot of goals for myself but trouble meeting them because I’m more motivated by instant gratification than long term results. But I don’t have any problem giving myself treats… that is instant gratification right there! They don’t really help to motivate me though. As a single woman with no children, I can pretty much treat myself whenever I feel like it.com so it’s not a special motivator.

  • Tara Lynne

    I find I am a mix of both tendencies, Obliger and Questioner, however, with your query putting a deeper focus on the tendencies I guess I would say I lean more to Questioner. Regarding treats…they need to be justified. How can I reward myself if I did not deserve it! Yet in the same vein I can be very adept at justifying my treat through six degrees of separation. Ye Gads…does that make me a bit of a Rebel too?

  • Cheryl Gajowski

    I can be a questioner, but fall into obliging others… I guess. But over all, the treats idea never exactly seemed to work for me. In some ways, it seems very counter productive. As in – you should be taking care of yourself in the sense of being compassionate to yourself all the time, and not rewarding for “good” or punishing ( depriving yourself) for “bad” behavior – especially if you grew up in a self denying home.

    What I struggle with is treating my self well in the long term – making changes in my home so that I like it more, which takes thinking, planning and carrying out a plan over time — without getting derailed by an inner “i’m not worthy” reaction. Food treats I indulge in with friends ( fine!)or impulsively( not so fine, but also not “bad”)); clothing is the same.

    The bigger stuff is harder because it requyires respecting yourself over an extended period…

  • Cheryl Gajowski

    One other idea. I learned somewhere – that -contrary to what seems “obvious” – when we give something to others – put some thought and energy into it, use our resources for giving of any kind – we – as givers — develop more of a feeling of attachment to the receiver than vice versa. SO when we give we are making ourselves feel more connected – which may be why some get addicted to giving — And the reciever may be quite happy for a short period – but since she hasn’t put all this mental energy into thinking about the other – the feeling is fleeting.

  • Marcy Holmes

    I am an obliger and I love to get treats from others but don’t really enjoy them as much when they’re from me. I even credit those I’m shopping with for things I buy for myself – especially jewelry. Every pair of earrings or necklace is “from” someone even if I bought it myself. And often if I go shopping alone I won’t buy anything so they really do deserve credit I guess.

  • Amit

    Interesting to read this after the Abstainer or Moderator artice. Being an abstainer, its almost impossible to offer a response to treats. Those two conflict in their basic premise. Having said that, I find it easier if the treat is entirely controlled by me (no surprises – too much of a chance to get it wrong) and offered after something pretty signficant. Not sure if this helps you at all 😉

  • Lisaanne

    Gretchen, I am without a doubt an obliger. I would concur that I do these things out of an internal drive that is my nature; I sincerely want to help. (I am in healthcare) Without a doubt, I feel good when someone appreciates and is thankful for going that extra mile. I do, however, feel that this tendency can be both a blessing and a curse. It is difficult to balance the desire to assist, help etc when that is already your job. One may complement another, but is also often at the expense of other obligations. Burn out is common. For myself, I have a day off midweek that was build into my schedule, but I have come to treat as sacred. I will NOT go into work or to any events related to it on this day. I need that day, not to pamper, but to just not answer the call, so to speak. In addition, I personally feel that obligers have expectations placed on them by others! I think that people like that you will “solve it, get it done, make it easier” and they are disappointed and put out when you don’t answer the call. It may be hard for me to say no, but others then make it difficult to say no as well. It is, perhaps, a self-imposed struggle, but a stuggle, nonetheless, to keep a healthy balance.