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A Fitness Trainer Explains How She Uses the Four Tendencies to Help Her Clients to Succeed.

My book The Four Tendencies is coming out in September, and I’m very excited to have my full theory of this personality framework out into the world.

Of course, I’ve been writing and talking about it (perhaps obsessively?) ever since Better Than Before came out.

I love to see how other people apply the Four Tendencies in different contexts, so I was thrilled to read this post “Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies…and Fitness!” by Rachel Trotta  on her blog, where she writes about managing nutrition, exercise, and general health. She’s a personal trainer in New York City whose main focus is helping women reach an optimal weight, build strength, and develop a healthier relationship with food.

Given her area of expertise, I was fascinated and thrilled to see that the Four Tendencies works well for her clients. I have my theories about how to use the Four Tendencies, but the true test is how the theory works when it’s actually put into practice by other people.

(Don’t know anything about the Four Tendencies? Read a quick overview and take the quiz here, to find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.)

I found her post so interesting that I asked her permission to re-post the whole thing:

Rachel writes:

Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies… and Fitness!

The Four Tendencies

Do you make fitness resolutions over and over, only to see your efforts fizzle out? 

Do you buy tons of tupperware for meal prep, but never cook the meals? 

Do you struggle with weight loss setbacks like vacations or special occasions? 

Do you feel motivated, but your behavior doesn’t match your intentions? 

As a personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist, I often have to ask myself the same questions about my clients – why do some people thrive and see amazing results, while others stall out and have difficulty getting ahead?

Several months ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, and immediately some of my questions were answered. She describes the “Four Tendencies” as being the way that people respond to inner and outer expectations. As she says on her website, “Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Her “Four Tendencies” are:

  • Upholder – meets BOTH inner and outer expectations
  • Obliger – meets outer expectations but RESISTS inner expectations
  • Rebel – resists BOTH inner and outer expectations
  • Questioner – meets inner expectations but RESISTS outer expectations

You can take the quiz (and see a helpful visual graphic) to figure out your tendency HERE, on Gretchen Rubin’s website!

Why did this book change my perspective so much, and why do I recommend it to my clients now? 

Understanding how you are motivated will give you the key to unlock your personal fitness journey, because different things work for different people. We’re all motivated in unique ways. Using the “Four Tendencies” as a framework in my professional work has helped me to treat clients as individuals driven by varying internal and external forces, as well as to develop more empathy for people who struggle to make positive changes.

Now, I understand much better why some clients struggle to see progress, and I know better how to provide the specific structure that they need to succeed.

The Importance of Adherence

The reason that knowing your Tendency is so crucial is that adherence is the primary driver of results, especially when it comes to health and fitness practices.

The same practical biology applies to all people in developing athletic goals. Weight loss, for example, boils down to a calories-in-calories-out endeavor, regardless of your personality or metabolism. Running your first half-marathon requires a structured training plan that is pretty much the same for everyone, most of the time. Lowering your blood sugar levels only happens by improving your diet, regardless of whether you are Paleo or vegan.

The magic, however, of any diet or exercise plan is sticking with it. Otherwise, no matter how excellent or sensible the plan is, you won’t see results. Going low-carb or “slow-carb,” for example, only works if you actually implement the diet over a very long period of time.

Adherence is the biggest obstacle to fitness goals for most people, including my clients. Understanding your personality and your “Tendency” – whether you are an “Upholder,” “Obliger,” “Rebel,” or “Questioner” – can help you choose wellness strategies that fit your motivational framework and improve your chances of adherence. Remember, adherence equals results. If you are a “Rebel” and you pick a mode of fitness that would better fit an “Obliger,” you are setting yourself up for failure, because you will have difficulty adhering!

I’m going to go through each “Tendency” individually, and discuss my interpretation of the fitness implications of each personality type. I will include weaknesses, strengths, and suggested strategies for tweaking your routines to increase the likelihood of success! If you haven’t taken Gretchen Rubin’s quiz, take it now!

Upholder

For my few “Upholder” clients, literally any plan or structure works. These clients often quickly wean off of in-person training to become remote clients, because all they need (after a few months of improving form) is the instructions via e-mail. Once their workout is in a Google Sheet and they can track their own progress with periodic check-ins from me, they’re good to go! The intrinsic motivation is so powerful and their response to outer expectations is so strong, that they can accomplish amazing feats apparently all on their own, with just a little guidance.

One of my clients recovered from a broken foot and ran a fast half marathon in four months with only a few in-person meetings – the rest of her sessions were completed on her own, using a Google Sheet as structure for the training plan. Since then, she has run three more half marathons with no in-person meetings at all. She is now training for the New York City Marathon. She is a classic “Upholder,” and meets both inner and outer expectations easily. When she participated in one of my nutrition coaching groups, she – unsurprisingly – had very good results and lost some extra weight with no problem.

The strength of the “Upholder” is independence and self-efficacy. “Upholders” are also very good at sticking to a plan exactly as written and following instructions perfectly, which is also a recipe for good results. While “Upholders” are not exempt from the normal problems of motivation (they still benefit from group support and cues like leaving their gym clothes out for the morning), they respond excellently to a sense of internal drive as well, and can seem to have very good willpower.

The weakness of the “Upholder” can be a perfectionistic attitude and overly-high expectations. If you are an “Upholder,” I recommend that your first tactic be developing “unconditional positive regard” for yourself. Then, focus more on actions than on outcomes. Keep doing the work, without getting caught up in the future or the past. Finally, take advantage of your ability to handle a lot of information, and make sure you have a structured workout plan! There are plenty that you can download online, and I also recommend getting a friend or trainer to work out with you, just for that outward nudge of external expectations.

Obliger

I read Better than Before during one of my first nutrition coaching groups, and I was so intrigued by the idea of the “Four Tendencies” that I immediately e-mailed several of my clients to get their thoughts on their own “Tendency.”

I sent one of my clients the visual representation of the “Four Tendencies,” and she immediately e-mailed me back a two-sentence e-mail: “Obliger! 100%.” This fit my impression of her, because she had had great difficulty in losing weight in her 30’s, and nothing had ever worked for her… until she joined my nutrition coaching group. The constant e-mails, the Facebook group where support could be shared, and the one-on-one nutritional coaching finally represented the external expectations that she truly needed to adhere to a plan, and she lost weight.

Even though she wanted to lose weight, and was motivated to get healthier, she simply could not do it on her own. This is a key component of “Obligers,” in my opinion – they want it. Desperately. It is not an issue of motivation – it is a question of meeting expectations. And until someone else provides the expectations and support, the “Obliger” will not stick to a plan or make progress independently, because they do not respond to their own internal motivation. 

“Obligers” need workout buddies, personal trainers, nutrition coaches, and other external motivators. They need someone holding them accountable in real-time. Their strength is that once they have the slight pressure of an external source of expectation, most “Obligers” do a marvelous job of adhering to a program. They are loyal, flexible, consistent, supportive of others, and often learn to genuinely love practicing sound exercise and nutrition principles (even though they may not be able to do it on their own consistently).

The weakness of the “Obliger” is vacations, business trips, and family pressure – in other words, any time the external pressure to exercise or eat well is removed (or replaced by a less positive influence). My “Obliger” clients often experience setbacks on holidays or trips, because they lack an internal compass of self-powered adherence. This is especially pronounced in situations where there may be negative social pressure to overeat or be sedentary – they are almost helpless to resist the influence of others, and need continued support (check-ins, e-mails, Skype sessions, etc.) while on trips or on holidays.

If you are an “Obliger,” I cannot stress enough the importance of getting a personal trainer, joining a fitness or weight loss challenge at your gym, or participating in a nutrition support group like Weight Watchers or one of my nutrition coaching groups. Any support at all will help you access the love for exercise and eating well that you truly have deep inside!

Rebel

Ah, the Rebel. This is often the hardest type of client to identify, as far as I’m concerned. Why? When you hear the word “Rebel,” you picture someone really, really tough, with rough edges and an attitude. However, “Rebels” – in the sense of the “Four Tendencies” – aren’t usually wearing leather jackets or nose rings.

Instead, “Rebels” often present as “Obligers” – they are discouraged, have “tried everything,” never sees results, and need help.  However, the difference between “Rebels” and “Obligers” rises quickly to the surface, because an “Obliger” will follow an exercise or nutrition plan pretty accurately if you support, while a “Rebel” will inexplicably – and frequently – fall off the wagon, even if you support them.

This is because “Rebels” resist both inner and outer expectations. They not only lack internal motivation – they also do not respond to your coaching, and check-ins may actually irritate them. My experience as a personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist is also that “Rebels” rarely have access to that important, inherent love of healthy habits that “Obligers” can eventually stir up through consistency and habit.

What I have learned over time is that “Rebels” thrive on novelty, unconventionality, extremes, and anti-orthodoxy. “Rebels” who don’t love exercise do love powerlifting (or long-distance running, or hot yoga, or kettlebell training). “Rebels” who hate dieting love – and can stick to – raw veganism (or the Paleo method, or the ketogenic diet, or intermittent fasting). They love the ideas that run counter to traditional health and fitness wisdom, and they thrive on practices that set them apart from others. One of my classic “Rebel” clients was a whole-foods-only, vegan, ketogenic diet adherent. I did not impose this diet on her, and I cannot imagine that it was easy to maintain, but she thrived on the unconventionality and creativity of this lifestyle.

The potential challenge of “Rebels” is (1) finding something that works before you get so discouraged that you completely give up, and (2) not spinning your wheels with absurd or counterproductive – but trendy – diet protocols. If you work with a “Rebel” client, I want to share the main concept that I have learned: you, the coach, need to let go of your pre-conceived notions about “what works” and help the “Rebel” stick with what works for them. They may, ironically, resist your coaching, and it’s your responsibility to help steer and guide them into a plan that they can adhere to long-term, and the only time you should curb their tendencies to anti-orthodoxy is when their diet or exercise plan is truly harmful.

If you are a “Rebel,” all I can say is this: find something you love and that makes you feel good, and don’t let other people pressure you. Be your unique, creative, and unorthodox self in the world of fitness and health, and you will be an inspiration to other “Rebels” around you!

Questioner

Questioners” respond well to inner expectations but tend to resist outer expectations – that means that a diet or exercise plan needs to (1) make sense to them, (2) be fundamentally in alignment with their principles and intuition, and (3) be sufficiently flexible that they can control it and modify it themselves.

A “Questioner” may present like an “Upholder,” because of how independent they can be, but the main difference that I have experienced with both clients and myself (I am definitely a “Questioner”) is that “Upholders” are fantastic at following instructions down to the tiniest detail, while “Questioners” are extremely consistent overall while taking liberties with small adjustments and tweaks. They are confident in their personal goals, ask a lot of questions if they work with a trainer, but are not motivated to work on things that are not central to their goals. This can be frustrating for personal trainers.

My “Questioner” clients, for example, can have a bumpy road to weight loss goals, because they don’t follow instructions about nutrition if they do not perceive nutrition to be an important component of weight loss. However, once they have “locked on” to the importance of moderating their eating, they experience fantastic success.

One of my clients was very motivated by running in particular (and was training for her first half marathon), and did not need check-ins or external help in completing running assignments on her own outside of sessions. She also was excellent at making slight changes in her lifestyle to prioritize and accommodate running. However, she resisted moderating her diet for quite some time. She did not (would not, in fact) consistently track food, and did not realize the importance of diet until she had difficulty zipping up her jeans a month or two into our program together. At that point, it “clicked” that long-distance running alone would not help her manage her weight. Although she did not ever transition to tracking her food or following specific nutritional plans, she did become more aware of a few key eating principles and transformed her diet in a way that made sense to her.

If you are a “Questioner,” this is my word of caution: don’t get too caught up in finding the “right” plan for you. Pick something, stick with it, and make the modifications you need, but remember that adherence is key!

Universal Truths

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by figuring out your “Tendency,” keep it simple and remember that the following maxims apply to most people:

  • Consistency is better than intensity
  • Almost anything works if you stick with it

Self-understanding can simply help you along the path.

Rachel’s insights are terrific. I love learning about how different people interpret and apply the Four Tendencies, so if you have examples from your own experience (as a professor, doctor, sweetheart, sibling, employee, etc.), let me know!

7 Tips for Helping Someone Else to Change a Habit.

In my book Better Than Before, I write about the many strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. There’s a big menu of choices, which is great, because it means that we all have a variety from which to pull. Some strategies work for some people, but not others. Some strategies are available to us at certain times, but not other times.

In Better Than Before, I focus mostly on what we can do, ourselves, to change our habits. But it’s very obvious that each of us can have a lot of influence on other people’s habits.  And often we really, really, really want to help someone else to change a key habit.

So, if you want to help someone else to change an important habit (and I’ve certainly tried to do this myself, many times, in my loving habits-bully way), here are a few top strategies to try:

  1. The Strategy of the Four Tendencies. Figure out if the person is an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel. You can read about the framework here; take the online quiz here. This is a crucial step, because once you know a person’s Tendency, the approach that works with an Obliger might make things worse with a Rebel. Chiefly…
  2. The Strategy of Accountability. This strategy is helpful for many people, but it’s crucial for Obligers, and often counter-productive for Rebels. A key point about other people and accountability? If someone asks you to hold him or her accountable, do it — and if you don’t want to do it yourself (because it can be a lot of work to hold someone accountable), help that person find other mechanisms of accountability. If a person asks for accountability, it’s because that person knows that it’s important. Many people — Upholders like me, and Questioners, and Rebels — often resist holding others accountable, but it can be invaluable.
  3. The Strategy of Convenience. Make the habit more convenient. We’re powerfully influenced by how easy it is to do something. You can help by making a habit quicker and easier. Can you leave a pill out on a dish by the coffee machine, so your sweetheart takes it every morning? Can you keep a bowl of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge to be an easy, healthy snack? Can you pull out a pile of board books, clear off the sofa, and say, “Would it be fun for you to read to  the baby for a few minutes?” Can you allow a child to keep an instrument, music stand, and music out in the living room all the time, so all those things don’t need to be pulled out and put away with every practice session?
  4. The Strategy of Treats. Whether or not a person needs accountability (see #2), activities are often more fun when we do them with someone else. Will someone enjoy a walk more, if you go, as well?  Is it more fun for that person to cook if you’re in the kitchen, or you go shopping, too?
  5. The Strategy of Clarity. When it’s not clear exactly what we’re supposed to do, we often get paralyzed and do nothing. Can you keep track of the medication schedule or the physical therapy regimen for someone else?
  6. The Strategy of Safeguards. With our habits, it helps to plan for failure. You can help someone else to anticipate difficult circumstances, and to come up with an “if-then” plan of action — whether for the holidays, for the office party, for the vacation, for the bad weather, or whatever it might be. Research shows that people do much better when they have a plan for dealing with these kinds of stumbling blocks.
  7. The Strategy of Distinctions. We’re more alike, and less alike, than we think. One difference is the Abstainer vs. Moderator approach to strong temptation. Abstainers find it easier to give things up altogether; Moderators like to indulge in moderation. Say your sweetheart wants to cut back on sugar, but you want to keep ice cream in the fridge. You say, “Just have a small serving, learn to manage yourself.” Ah, that works for Moderators. But if your sweetheart is an Abstainer, he or she will find it far easier to have none — and it’s easier to have none if there’s no ice cream in the house. So, even if you don’t find it difficult to ignore that container in the freezer, your sweetheart might do much better if you go out for ice cream if you have a craving.

You might be thinking, “Well, the problem with these ideas is that I have to do something.” That’s right. Sometime we have to make an effort ourselves, to help someone else change a habit. And even if you think that these steps aren’t “your job” — but we can always choose to do something out of love, to help someone else.

Have you found a way to help someone else change a habit? We can all learn from each other.

The Answer to a Question People Keep Asking Me: What Do I Eat Every Day?

Assay: People keep emailing to ask me what I eat, so here’s the answer.

But before I respond, I want to say a few things.

First, I do indeed eat a very low-carb diet. If you want to know why and how I came to do that, I describe it in my book Better Than Before and in episode 33 of the podcast.  Nutshell version: more than three years ago, while on vacation with my family, I read Gary Taubes‘s book Why We Get Fat. I experienced a “Lightning Bolt,” and all my eating habits changed — overnight, effortlessly, and permanently.

Not everyone would want to eat this very-low-carb way, and even people who more or less eat this way (like my father) might not want to be as strict as I am. I prefer to be super-strict. Hey, everyone needs a hobby!

Second, I want to say that after thinking and learning about nutrition for several years, I’ve concluded this: what we don’t eat is more important than what we do eat. People can be healthy and vigorous eating wildly different things. We can argue about whether it’s a good idea to eat burgers or brown rice. But as far as I can tell, no one argues that a healthy diet features sugar or refined carbs. And if you don’t eat (or drink) sugar or refined carbs, you’re likely to get a big boost in health. So that’s a place to start.

For me, cutting out carbs all together has been enormously freeing. No more sweet tooth! No more inner debate–one, two, three? now, later? does this count? All that noise has gone away. I’m much less hungry, and much happier with the way that I eat.  But what works for me isn’t the best choice for everyone.

For one thing, I’m a hardcore Abstainer. For me, bright-line rules are easy to follow, while moderation is too demanding. Again, not true for everyone! Not everyone is an Abstainer! For more about Abstainers vs. Moderators, read here or listen here.

So I’m not saying that everyone should adopt my eating habits. But many people are curious, so here’s what I eat:

  • eggs — lots of eggs, often scrambled with butter, or in other forms, like frittatas
  • hamburger, bacon, turkey, tuna, salmon, chicken, steak, pepperoni (yes, I saw the article about processed meats causing cancer, but I’m not worried by that study, for reasons explained here)
  • cheese — I eat cheese as an ingredient (in a salad, on a burger if I’m very hungry) but I usually don’t eat a piece of cheese on its own
  • broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, lettuce
  • Greek yogurt — occasionally
  • almonds — great snack
  • Nick’s Sticks —  One reason that eating low-carb is healthy is that just about all processed foods are eliminated, and you’re stuck with the kind of food that needs to be cooked, eaten at a table with cutlery, and goes bad quickly.  Which is the healthiest kind of food. I do keep a few Nick’s Sticks in my backpack and in my suitcase when I travel, in case I get hungry.
  • coffee, tea, diet soda — I use almond milk, when I can get it, or cream when I can’t, or half-and-half when I can’t get cream
  • avocados — I keep meaning to eat more avocados. Also olives.

Also I eat items that are a mix of those things. For instance, I love  quiche (no crust) or a Cobb salad.

As you’ll notice, there’s not a lot of variety here. My whole life, I’ve tended to eat the same foods every day. Again, that’s not true for everyone, but it’s true for me.

There are items that I’ll eat in small amounts, if they’re served to me, say, at a restaurant. For instance, I might eat some berries, some peppers, etc., but I don’t generally go out of my way to eat them.

I’m  a huge zealot for this way of eating, because it has been such a happy change for me. My father, too. And it has been thrilling to hear from so many people, since Better Than Before was published, who have told me how much better off they are eating this way.

And I understand why people might disagree, and why they might make different choices. Absolutely. The way that we eat raises all kind of complex scientific issues, as well as ethically- and morally-charged choices — such as whether or not to eat meat.

Which brings us back to the importance of the Strategy of Clarity for changing habits. No matter what our beliefs might be, if we want to change our eating habits, the more clear we are about why we want to eat a certain way, and the habits that we want to adopt, the easier we’ll find it to follow through.

I have my reasons. Others will have their own reasons. But for most of us, it’s possible to do better than before, according to our own lights.

Have you ever made a major change to your eating habits that gave you a big happiness boost? What did you do?

Video: Why Having Clarity of Values and Clarity of Action Helps Us Keep Our Habits.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation. I posted videos for the other twenty strategies a while back, but somehow, I never posted about the Strategy of Clarity! A very important strategy. So, voila.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My book, Better Than Before (can’t resist adding, bestseller) describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits.

I spend a lot of time thinking about questions such as, “How do we change?” “Why is it so hard to make ourselves do things that we want to do?” ( for instance, why is it so hard to make myself go to bed?) and “How can we stick to our resolutions?“

I realize now that a big challenge is clarity. Often, if there’s something that I want to do, but somehow can’t get myself to do, it’s because I don’t have clarity. This lack of clarity often arises from a feeling of ambivalence–I want to do something, but I don’t want to do it; or I want one thing, but I also want something else that conflicts with it.

 

Lack of clarity, and the paralysis that ensues, seems to be common. Here’s a list of aims in conflict that I’ve heard. Do any ring a bell for you?

  • I want to eat healthfully. It’s wrong to waste any food.

    I want to give 110% to work. I want to give 110% to my family.

    I want to work on my novel. I want to exercise.

    I want to spend less time in the car. I want my children to participate in many after-school activities.

    Making money is not important. Making money is important.

    I want to be very accessible to other people. I want time alone to think and work.

    I want to be a polite guest. I want to avoid sugar.

    I want leisure time when I come home from work. I want to live in a house that’s clean and well-run.

 

Have you experienced this — a paralysis that comes from conflicting values?

I have to admit, I’d been researching and thinking about habits for a long time before I grasped the significance of the Strategy of Clarity. It’s very, very important.

Video: “What’s One Cupcake?” and the One-Coin Loophole.

In my latest (bestselling) book, Better Than Before, I identify the twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the ten categories of loopholes. I love studying loopholes, because they’re so funny. And ingenious! We’re such great advocates for ourselves — in any situation, we can always think of some loophole to invoke.

What is a “loophole?”

When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

In Better Than Before, I describe all ten categories of loopholes; in this video series. I’ve described them, one by one.

The final loophole: The one-coin loophole. This is a very dangerous loophole, because it always applies, and it’s always true! Beware!

 

I haven’t worked on that project for such a long time, there’s no point in working on it this morning.

 

One beer won’t make a difference.

 

What difference does it make if I spend this afternoon at the library or at a video arcade?

 

Why work on my report today, when the deadline is so far away?

 

Why should I bother to wear my bike helmet today?

If you want to know why it’s called the “one-coin loophole,” I explain in the video. Here’s the book I mention: a footnote in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly.

Do you find yourself invoking this all-too-applicable loophole? In what context?

It’s dangerous because it’s true.