Podcast 37: Meet a Work Deadline, but Can’t Go Running on Your Own? You May be an Obliger.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update:  Elizabeth and I reminisce about the trip we took together when I recorded a Super Soul Sunday episode with Oprah! Yes, I’m going to be on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday on November 8, 7:00 pm EST/PT on the OWN channel (find your station here). Please watch. I’ll be live-tweeting while it airs.


Boy, Elizabeth and I had fun on that adventure.  But I have to admit, I can hardly remember anything from the interview; it was such an out-of-body experience. So I’ll be curious to see if I remember it, once I watch it.

Today is the third in the series of four episodes that we’re devoting to the Four Tendencies.  In last week’s episode, we talked about the Upholder Tendency; this week, it’s Obliger.

To find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel,
take the Four Tendencies quiz here.

Try This at Home: If you’re an Obliger, or you’re around an Obliger (which you surely are), help the Obliger to figure out a system of outer accountability so the Obliger can meet an inner expectation.

If you want to start a group for people who are holding each other accountable, get the starter kit here.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Obligers:  How to identify and take advantage of the strengths, and counter-balance the weaknesses, of the Tendency.

Striking Pattern of Obligers: Obliger-rebellion. Obligers will meet, meet, meet, meet expectations — and then suddenly, they snap, and refuse to meet an expectation. This can be a symbolic, small act, or a hugely explosive act.

Listener Question: “I’m an Obliger, and I find that disturbing. I should be my own priority. Is it possible to move from Obliger to Upholder?”

Gretchen’s Demerit: After years of feeling bad about the fact that I don’t work very productively when I travel, I decided — hey, no more demerits, I’m going to use that time to read for fun.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Adam suggested, “No more unkind voices.”

Call for comments, questions, observations!

We’re spending four weeks talking about my Four Tendencies framework for human nature. One more week to go — Rebels! We’ve already had many thought-provoking responses, but we want more.

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin #37 - Listen at Happiercast.com/37

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Tell us — Did you help an Obliger (whether that’s you or someone else) to come up with a system of external accountability? If so, how?

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  • mom2luke

    I’m so glad you let Elizabeth off the hook about trying to squeeze in novel writing time when she already writes for living. Much better plan to plan a boot camp in between her shows.
    In meantime, if she hasn’t read Stephen King’s A memoir of the Craft, On Writing, I think she might find it inspiring, but a fun read too. (He is surprisingly self-effacing AND funny!)

  • Liz

    I haven’t even listened to the podcast yet, but what?? Obliger rebellion is a thing??!?! I thought that was just me (and i’m going through it right now). Can’t wait to listen and find out more….

  • Inspired Living

    This is awesome! It’s so important to put yourself and your goals first.

  • Kelly

    A few years ago I was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition called celiac disease. The only treatment for the condition is a lifelong strict avoidance of gluten. Because gluten is a fairly ubiquitous ingredient found in condiments, sauces, malted beverages, on cooking and food prep surfaces as well as in lipsticks and medications, Three years into this condition, and I still feel like I spend a lot of my life being disciplined and vigilant, so it’s been hard for me to have the energy to be as accountable to myself for any other new healthy habit I’d like to establish. For example, I now allow myself to have tequila and dark chocolate and potato chips because they don’t contain gluten, rather than just abstaining altogether. I was thinking about this in relation to Elizabeth and her diabetes. She already manages that disease by monitoring her insulin, and by exercising, My question is how much more upholding can we realistically expect of ourselves without making things worse?

    • I’m an obliger, and I have had the same trouble with my food sensitivities… Not eating gluten has “given” me license to eat more potatoes.

    • Gillian

      I firmly believe that we all have a self-discipline “budget”. What we spend in one area isn’t available for other things. If you have to exercise serious discipline to cope with a condition like diabetes or celiac disease, you are using up a chunk of that budget. I think we all have to be aware of where the discipline is most important to our lives and spend it there. In other areas we have to be easier on ourselves. By allowing ourselves treats – like your tequila, chocolate and chips – you make it easier to stick to the other restrictions – this is basically Gretchen’s strategy of treats. I agree – you can’t be an upholder 100% of the time. Nor should we try.

      • emd04

        I think there’s actually research on this–like, we start the day with a set amount of will power, and it decreases as the day goes on and we make all sorts of decisions. So you’re right!

  • Kelly

    OK, well I pressed the ENTER button before double-checking my comment. My apologies for any typos!

  • Jeanne

    My heart goes out to Obligers. Although they have an easy fix for their dilemma (outer accountability), they also feel bad about it and the fact that they have to “resort” to it. No wonder so many of them want to change and be an Upholder, whom they see as disciplined people who don’t need a crutch. Lighten up on yourselves Obligers! You are the people others love the most. Just do what it takes, feel OK about it, and love yourself as much as we love you.

    • emd04

      awww, thanks Jeanne! 🙂 I appreciate this, because I am a DEFINITE Obliger!

    • Allison

      That’s sweet! Gretchen said something similar in her book and it totally changed the way I see things. Now, I just roll with the whole obliger thing. As an example, not long after I read the book, my sister-in-law invited me to a workout program, with a group of women who check in online when we’ve done our workouts. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t usually be my style, but I realized that by doing it together with a group I’d actually stick to it. Now only six months later I’m way stronger than I was and have the energy to tackle other issues in my life.

      Fellow obligers, you’re doing great!

    • I was talking to a former coworker about her new job yesterday. She is definitely an obliger. As a questioner, I was trying to be supportive. She would say “This job has impossible expectations!!” And my thinking is “Hm, why don’t you set your own expectations, you know what’s reasonable. And of course I know this isn’t how she thinks. So all I could really give her as support is “You’re doing a great job in a difficult situation!!” <3

  • Molly

    This episode has been a HUGE revelation to me! As I was listening to the podcast I was wondering if I’m an obliger or a questioner, and then you started talking about the pitfalls of obligers, and you were suddenly talking about my life!!! Although I have great work with lots of variety, I feel burned out and a resistance to doing the work. (though while I’m doing it it’s usually fine.) So, I’ve been wondering why I’m so burned out, (obliger symptom #1) and I’ve been thinking that I just need to take a leave of absence to get everything “sorted out”-(obliger mistake #2) I recently declared that I would take on no extra work for the next few months, (obliger rebellion) and have been saying no to all work outside of my main job. However, I have gotten myself into a catch 22 situation: I’m a classical musician, and you can’t just “take time off”, because you have to stay in shape on your instrument, which means practicing every day. As an obliger, I know that when I have a break from work (I’m talking a week or so), I have a hard time practicing every day. So, I find that I’ll take an extra gig because it will be “good for me”, as in, it will make me play and keep me in sharp. But, I’m burned out and my body needs a break from the physicality of playing many hours a day. Thoughts and ideas on how to manage this?

    • Allison

      Is there a right amount of work between “too much” and “none”?
      Do you have a buddy or buddies you could commit to playing with just for fun?

      Good luck, that sounds difficult. Much respect to anyone managing work vs time off in a gig-type job.

  • emd04

    Can’t wait to watch you on Sunday!!

  • Ari

    At first I thought I was a Questioner, but now I think I’m an Obliger. I was so confused as to why I could be so extremely disciplined in certain areas of my life and completely lazy in other areas. There seems to be no middle ground as an Obliger. I guess I initially thought I wasn’t an Obliger because my personality is not at all “people pleaser,” and the term “external accountability” brings to mind a lot of extroverted behaviors. I’m an introvert. (My personal nightmare would be to add additional human interaction to every single aspect of my life by having a “buddy” for accountability.) However, I am motivated to workout because I pay a gym membership fee. I’m motivated to keep the kitchen and living room clean at all times in case someone drops by, but my room is always a mess. My desk at work is immaculate 100% of the time. My desk at home, you can’t see the bottom. My external motivations are not usually related to pleasing people, but maybe it’s a sense of civic duty. In order to meet inner expectations, I’ve always had to “bribe myself.” Does that fit as an Obliger? When a deadline, the threat of public humiliation, or job performance is not a built in expectation, I have to creatively bribe myself. Examples: I can’t use a gift unless I’ve written a thank you note for it. I can’t buy new clothes unless I’m getting rid of other clothes. (one in, one out rule) I can’t watch a 1/2 hour TV show until I’ve exercised for that amount. Do these things count as converting an inner expectation to an outer expectations? I don’t think those terms work for me. I think the behaviors are Obliger behaviors, but I didn’t initially see myself using that terminology. Having all these rules makes other people think I’m an Upholder because I have such strict guidelines for myself. But I know the utter laziness I fall into without such guidelines, I’ve always been puzzled by my own behavior in these extremes. Maybe I’m an Obliger. I’d love to hear you explore the relationship of Myers-Briggs to the 4 Tendencies, Gretchen. For me, I didn’t recognize myself right off in the Obliger expectation because it seemed so tied to “people pleasing” and other extroverted personality aspects which I don’t have. My coping mechanisms didn’t seem like I was making inner expectations into outer expectations, but perhaps that’s what’s going on. I do think you’re onto something with these Tendencies.

  • Katherine

    As an Obliger, I thrive on recognition from others, so my boyfriend (a Questioner) and I have developed a simple “high five” system in our house that has made a massive difference to my happiness.

    Whenever I complete a task that I didn’t really want to do (say, washing the dishes), I say “Dishes are done”, then my boyfriend responds with “Yay! Dishes high five” and sticks out his hand for a high five. And vice versa for when he completes something. This works for anything from minor household chores to doing complicated taxes.

    Our ritual has so many benefits. It requires minimal effort. The doer initiates the ritual, so we don’t have to rely on the other person to notice our work. In turn, that has helped eliminate feelings of resentment for being under appreciated. It’s also made us more aware of all the things we do for each other in a light hearted way.

    It’s like getting a series of tiny gold stars throughout the day!

    It may feel a little silly and forced to start with, but soon you’ll be gleefully announcing the smallest achievements just to get your high fives.

    • Katherine

      Oooh! I also have to say that I LOVE the podcast. It’s my weekly me-time treat. And I am a bit of a Gretchen Rubin evangelist, for two reasons:

      1. I think the idea of small changes for increased happiness rather than massive life-overhauls is so much more achievable for many people.
      2. Realising that I’m a finisher and my boyfriend is an opener has lowered my irritation level about our shared toothpaste and open cupboard doors no end!!

      Thanks Gretchen and Elizabeth!

    • Molly

      Love it!

      • Katherine

        Thanks Molly!

    • Liz

      Katherine! Thank you so much for posting this. I mentioned it to my husband, because not noticing that the other person did something is a thing in our house. He actually started doing it with me –since he’s a rebel, there wasn’t any formal plan, he just asked for an “oil change high five!” Love it!!

      • Katherine

        Fantastic! An oil change is definitely worth high fiving! I hope it works as well for you as it does for us.

    • Eli

      Great idea! I love it!

    • Elizabeth Palchak

      Whoa – this is brilliant. Good work, team!!

    • Hanna Park

      Awesome idea on so many levels! Even aside from the feeling of being acknowledged and appreciated, it sounds like a great exercise in celebrating the small things daily. Woohoo, high five!

  • Margaret

    About the caller who wanted to become an upholder: I think it might be worth saying that being an obliger doesn’t mean that you don’t care about yourself. I take it that it just means that you have an unreflective tendency to respond to outer rather than inner expectations. But if you are taking the time to reflect on this tendency itself, and structure your life in ways that create outer expectations for things that do benefit you, then you *are* caring for yourself. You’re just doing it through a different method than the upholder.

    One other point: I’ve noticed that most of your demerits go to yourselves, and the stars to others. So, I was glad to hear Gretchen remove a demerit she’d been giving herself, but why not give yourselves gold stars more? After all, being ‘better than before’ can’t just be a matter of criticizing yourself and emulating others. I’ll start by giving you both one: your relationship seems to me a wonderful model for not only sisters, but friendships between women in general. Thanks for sharing this part of your experience with us.

  • Julia Rogers

    Hi Gretchen! There is a large portion of people who seem to want to convert from being an obliger to an upholder, because but I think I have an opposing tendency. I believe I’m an upholder at my core- I love habits and feel best when I do the very thing I promised myself I would do- for my own benefit, no one else. However, I’m a youngest child- and I feel the desire to appease friends and family so I say yes a little too often. Do you have suggestions (like the suggestion of external metrics for obligers) for upholders who are distracted by external pressure?

  • Amy

    This was a wonderful podcast to hear and it gave me insight as to why it’s so hard for me to exercise…But it’s been curious to me that it’s hard for me to get in my studio and paint as well – because once painting I’m so happy?? Why is it so hard to start something even though you know it will make you happy?? Just like I know how great I feel ALL Day after exercising! Another issue: I am an obliger – however I’m also an introvert and the thought of asking/seeking help from others or an exercise group is very daunting and a deterrent in itself….Suggestions?

    • Ari

      I’m exactly with you on the introvert aspect! In fact, it didn’t register with me that I was probably an Obliger because the thought of adding a “buddy” to every life activity sounded like my idea of hell, not my ideal way of getting things done. What I mostly do is add a layer of incentive or accountability to things, which increases my sense of “moral duty” to something – like paying for a gym membership increases my odds of going, or I don’t allow myself to use a gift unless I’ve thanked the person who gave it to me, or I can’t watch TV unless I’ve exercised. This isn’t “external accountability” to my mind, but I have to add incentives to certain things or they won’t get done. I’d love to explore and hear more about the introvert/Obliger convergence. Especially in NOT looking to group activities or extroverted activities for the accountability.

      • Amy

        Totally agree — I hope Gretchen can address this introvert/Obliger convergence.
        I like your incentive ideas!

    • joanna

      I am also an introvert obliger who has this problem. This may not work for everyone and every goal, but I’ve found apps that allow me to track progress towards a goal very helpful, even when I’m not sharing the data with anyone. For example, I have a goal for how far I want to walk each year set in the RunKeeper app which tracks my exercise. Having what I did (or did not do) recorded in graphs and charts improves my motivation to go do it much more than just having the idea that I should go exercise floating round in my head. It seem like it activates some of the drive to be accountable to something/something, even if it is only an app I’m being accountable to.

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  • kathleen

    Would anyone who sees this like to be an accountability partner? I’m a classic obliger and it would be great to link up with someone to work on building better habits with a bit of external accountability. But I’m a working mom of two young kids and meeting up in person would be tough. Would anyone like to try corresponding on things like sleep, diet, exercise, and/or other good habits over email?

    • Contessa99

      Kathleen, I’m exploring websites like this one: http://www.stickk.com/ These “external pressure” websites seem tailor-made for obligers like us. I may trick myself into working out by putting some money on the line.

      • kathleen

        That site looks great – thanks for the tip.

  • Contessa99

    This episode was hugely helpful to me! Thank you. I feel less uniquely weird about the way I mange (or fail to manage) external and internal obligations.

  • Sheryce

    Gretch and Liz,
    I am an obliger. I didn’t take the quiz, I just know I am from the description. Like most Americans I am trying to get healthier and be more active. I want to run/walk more. A couple weeks ago I discovered a virtual running club on Facebook. I had no idea these even existed! The one I’m apart of is fan-based, it’s Hogwarts Running Club. You sort yourself into one of the 4 houses (go Ravenclaw!) and compete against each other for milage. You log your miles via an app. A group moderator comes up with a weekly per person goal and I’ve met that goal for the past two weeks! I feel if I don’t, I am letting my team down! In addition to that it’s made me more happy and pleasant at work. During my breaks and lunch I go outside, get some sunlight, walk around and listed to your podcast! A much needed active break during my 12 hour shifts. Plus, it forces me to bring my lunch, so I have enough time to quickly eat then head out for a walk, instead of driving somewhere and picking up some yucky fast food. It’s a win win win!
    Gretch- you were wonderful on Oprah and looked fabulous!
    Liz- I am in Bakersfield (not too far from LA). I was at Costco today and saw some peeled hard boiled eggs there in a big pack. $5.99 for 24 of them. Just a little FYI.
    Thanks for all you do. Dig the podcast!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great example! Love the Hogwarts angle.

  • julie

    I am an obliger and my husband is a questioner. this is really so helpful in understanding myself and my husband. one thing i wanted to share though about what has helped me with being an obliger is the other podcast about thinking of yourself as a toddler. sometimes when i am not putting myself first – for example if a friend wants me to meet them for late night drinks and normally i cant say no … but now i will say to myself “julie needs to get to bed early to have a productive day tmro” then that will remind me to think of myself first and prioritize appropriately

    • gretchenrubin

      Love this!

  • Eli

    The obliger rebellion was a huge ah ha moment for me… I’ve been trying to figure out if I’m an obliger or a questioner… Now I know I’m definitely an obliger who goes through huge obliger rebellion… Now I know what it is I’m hoping to be able to put a plan in place to minimise damage. Thanks for sharing such helpful info! 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! Please share what you’re doing to avoid obliger-rebellion. I’d be fascinated to hear it.

  • Christina

    I definitely think I’m an obliger! After listening to this episode I’ve been trying to notice obliger rebellion in my life and it happened today! I had planned to get a lot of work done at home and whenever my mom asked me to do even a small favor, I said no in a very annoyed tone! Of course, I ended up doing the thing out of guilt, but I think my saying no at first was because I resented not having the time to follow through with the plans I had made.

  • Melissa Dart

    Do you have any additional suggestions for Obligers married to Obligers? Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m working on that section of the book soon. What are your observations, insights, problems you face? I’d love to hear!

      • Melissa Dart

        So, my husband took the quiz a few days ago and figured out he is an obliger – major light bulb for me. We have 3 young children, 2 jobs, 1 dog, 1 house and lots of aspirations! Sometimes we get traction on projects (big and small) but often cannot see them to completion. Very frustrating. Not sure how to set external accountability as a couple and a family but I’m hoping it helps that I have identified at least part of the problem. Thanks, Gretchen, you and Elizabeth have been SUCH an inspiration!

  • Guest

    One thing confuses me…..if Elizabeth works as a TV Writer, she MUST be a self starter. I realise it’s a bit different in the US than UK, but I am a scriptwriter and it is bloody hard to make a living out of it unless you’re very independent and constantly driving yourself. A bit harder over here because there’s no such thing as a ‘spec script’ here (come up with your own idea, make your own idea, try to sell your own idea). But the only way to make it is to be constantly driving yourself forward towards your goals. So how does this fit with an obliger tendency?

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, no! Elizabeth is a staff writer for TV, so she goes to an office, works in a “writers’ room” with a room full of writers, and has constant deadlines and accountability from a big team.

      Also, she has a writing partner, Sarah Fain, so even when she’s doing a spec script, she’s held accountable by her partner (who is also an Obliger), her agent, etc.

      So Elizabeth’s work is very much shaped by accountability. And for the YA novel that she’s writing on her own—there, she’s struggling.

  • My spouse is an obliger. It’s terrible. He has explained that as his partner, he sees me as a committed constant in his life and that the threat of consequence from me is not really a motivator. For instance, if he doesn’t do his job, he could lose it. If he doesn’t do the dishes, so what? I’m going to leave him? This means that the only thing that gets him to even hear and acknowledge any of my needs or questioner tendencies is threatening to leave him. I’m not kidding! He wouldn’t respect if I said “I need ten minutes to calm down – this conversation is turning into a fight” until I told him that him respecting my boundaries is a DEALBREAKER. He is willing to treat me just as poorly as he treats himself. And I want him to be better to himself! And then be better to me! It’s so frustrating.

  • Amy

    I don’t know if it was in this episode, or another, about abstaining – the “free from french fries” comment about Elizabeth. I am an Obliger, and I am SO bad about going to bed on time. I have tried agreeing with my husband to meet him to go to sleep at a certain time (he’s a Questioner), but to no avail. I think it has something to do with how sometimes our spouses are too close to ourselves that it’s almost like we are the same person. So basically I blew myself and him off and didn’t go to bed on time. I also arrange to meet friends at the gym early in the morning – which I do (obliger alert!!) at the expense of my sleep when I stay up too late (In a later episode, she talks about treating yourself the way you treat others, and that is so true – I don’t take care of myself as well as others!). I had a lightbulb moment when Gretchen said “free from french fries.” I realized that I often stay up late reading in bed. To make myself turn out the light and go to sleep, I’ve piled up not one, not two, but THREE strategies. 1) Set a bedtime alarm, 2) I’m abstaining from reading before bed (“free from nighttime reading!”), and 3) I’ve made it inconvenient to read before bed by moving all my books out of the bedroom. I’ve paired this with moving my kids’ one line a day journals, and other drawing and journaling materials I want to use but don’t have time for, into our bedroom. Now, I write a couple of lines, or draw a bit, and I’m tired. And there is a clear stopping point. And I turn off the light. It’s only been a couple of nights, but I think this is going to work. Thanks, Gretchen and Elizabeth, for your insights and for the great podcasts!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! great to hear how you approached this issue!

      • Amy

        Couldn’t have done it without your help!! 🙂

    • Posey

      i like this. move journal in, move books out. lights out

  • Just wanted to pop in and say I’m SO thankful for your Better Than Before book! I’ve been really big on MBTI personalities but it’s tough to relate that stuff to other people who aren’t interested in it. But when I turn to someone and say “I read about this thing called Upholder and I think you’re one of them” and a friend goes “Oh that’s TOTALLY me!” then I instantly know how to understand her better. I’m a questioner, myself. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! that’s so great to hear.

  • I am an Obliger, and a professional writer, so I can really relate to Elizabeth. I am trying to finish a novel, and although I make four or five weekly deadlines with other people every week, I find it difficult to take the time to revise my novel. Maybe I should call Elizabeth and offer her some of my tricks to get myself to work on my own stuff.

    My question is: my husband is a Questioner and my daughter is an Upholder. We would like to get the household running more smoothly. Suggestions?

    • Megan

      Hi! I don’t know if you’ve solved this over the last two months, but I’m an Obliger and my husband is a Questioner. I’ve learned that I need to be really clear about WHY I’m asking my husband to do certain things around the house–it helps him recognise it as important, so then he’ll do it. For example, I bought a squeegee for the shower, which he thought was unnecessary and just for show. I’ve explained that getting more water off the walls and down the drain means we’ll have fewer problems with damp and mould later on.
      When he asks me to do things, I can be a bit of a questioner as well (that loved ones not being ‘outer expectations’ effect!). If I don’t like his reasoning, I never used to do them. Now I’m trying to recognise that it is upsetting him, which helps me see it more as an outer expectation again.

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