I Give My Own Response to the “Ask Amy” Advice Column in the Washington Post.

I’m always on the watch for anything out in the world that illustrates my Four Tendencies framework.

Many thoughtful readers and podcast listeners know this, and they send me links to anything Four Tendencies-ish.

I very much appreciated it when a reader sent me the link to this question in the Washington Post’s “Ask Amy” column.

To me, it’s a great example of an Obliger misdiagnosing the problem — to my mind, the writer’s problem is not “I’m lazy,” it’s “I need accountability.”

And “motivation!” Arrrrgh. Here’s a post I wrote, “Warning! Don’t expect to be motivated by motivation” — and I note that Obligers tend to be the folks who worry about motivation the most (to no avail, as illustrated below).

And the advice Amy gives is a great example of how people give advice — some helpful, but some not helpful — when they don’t understand the dynamics of the Tendency. Amy suggests many accountability strategies that could work, but without really understanding, in my view, why they would work better than other strategies, and why they’d work for this particular person, but wouldn’t work for someone else (e.g., a Rebel).

What do you think?

The question:

 Dear Amy: How do you help a lazy person to become more healthily active, when the lazy person is yourself? I’ve dealt with depression all my life and think I’ve made a lot of headway, (with the help of therapy) over the years. I’ve reached the point where there are things I can imagine doing and enjoying that will require some self-discipline and energy to achieve, such as saving money, or keeping my home cleaner and prettier. But inertia and daydreaming take over, and another day goes by, and another, and another. At work, by the way, I’m a great employee. I’m diligent and hard-working; I enjoy making my bosses happy with my efforts. I suspect that part of my problem is that I still lack motivation to make myself happy. Maybe my situation is a bit extreme, but I’m sure many of your readers struggle with finding the energy or the motivation to overcome one’s own laziness.

–Trying to Be My Own Magic Wand

The answer (which demonstrates that Amy is probably also an Obliger):

Trying to Be My Own Magic Wand: I give you major props for figuring out and describing your challenge, and for understanding that you hold the key to positive change.

Here are some ideas for small things you can determine to do, which will lead you in a positive direction:

Break down your desired efforts into very small and achievable components, such as “open and categorize today’s mail,” “clean the inside of the car” or (on a weekend) “pack up one box for donation.” Make a list and check off each item after completion. (Checking boxes off a list is surprisingly satisfying.)

Join a group. For me, singing with a local choir once a week helped to shake loose the inertia in the rest of my life.

Use a “buddy” to inspire and hold you accountable. Walking with a friend right after work a few times a week will give you more energy to face the challenge at home.

There’s an app for that: A fitness wristband and/or fitness app will help you to see your progress in real terms.

Flylady.net is a favorite starting point for many people seeking transformation through baby steps. Flylady says to start by cleaning and shining your kitchen sink.

Make your bed. Even if your bedroom is a mess, and even if you don’t achieve much else, your bed will be a pristine and clean space each day.

You are very good at working hard to please others. So plan to have company over for coffee or a meal. Knowing that someone will be in your home will inspire (force) you to tidy, clean and prepare.

This is good advice, but what I like about the Four Tendencies framework is that it explains why measures like this would work for this person — but not necessarily for other people. Amy is an Obliger, giving advice to an Obliger, so for the most part, the advice is fitting. But what if this question came from a Rebel?

What do you think?

I have to say, I do love reading advice columns. How about you?

If you’re intrigued by the Four Tendencies framework, you can pre-order my book called (with a stunning lack of originality) The Four Tendencies.

I very much appreciate pre-orders — they really do make a difference for authors, by creating buzz among booksellers, the media, and readers. So if you’re be interested in the book, and you have the time and inclination, it really does give the book a boost if you pre-order. (Note that this message is tailored to try to appeal to all Four Tendencies.)

  • So, so, so interesting. I’m a hardcore Obliger, and I think Amy’s suggestions are GREAT. But you’re right,Gretchen–you have to understand WHY her suggestions are great. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason why so much “how to motivate yourself” advice is relevant to Obligers is that . . . there are so many of us. That was a key insight for me. Self-help books are written for Obligers. Loved the podcast this week on planning your summer. I’ve signed up for the Better app and am going to try to get an online accountability group started. It’s a pain to set up accountability mechanisms, but I know now that without them my summer will just slip away.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Judy

    How would this apply to Questioners? According to my quiz responses, I am Questioner but I definitely have some Obliger tendencies. In that respect, I think the inner accountability would work for me.

  • Jeanne

    Amen to everything you said. Since learning about the tendencies, I now view all behavior differently. Have pre-ordered your book and can’t wait to read it. I have done a presentation on the tendencies to my women’s group and may do another one to a different group. I think it’s important to remind Questioners (like me) that they are not a “mix” of the tendencies but that choosing to rebel, oblige or uphold are the necessary next step after quesioning. I can’t even decide if I lean more in one direction or another (like a Questioner who tends to rebel, or to oblige). I do all three all the time depending on the circumstances. That’s what I like so much about being a Questioner, the freedom to do all three and not be locked in.

    • gretchenrubin

      That is a GREAT summation of the Questioner way…they are definitely the Tendency that identifies least with the framework, because they see themselves acting in all ways.

    • Ana

      ooh, yes, I never thought about it that way but this explains a LOT. I kept responding that I really don’t fit into any one type, sometimes I seemed like an Obliger but in other situations an Upholder, and every now and then a Rebel; when I finally took the quiz with full honesty I realized I was a questioner.

  • Jenny Han

    How do you help a lazy person to become more healthily active, when the lazy person is yourself? This question is really like me, the social networks: facebook, skype, instagram, .. occupy most of the time every day