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Why you act, and how to motivate yourself

Why do we do the things we do — or don’t do? How can we change? If you’ve ever considered what makes you act, or how to motivate yourself, you’re not alone.

Gretchen Rubin, the bestselling author and speaker who’s trained her curious intellectual eye on studying happiness, habits, and human nature, was trying to figure this out while researching her book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

It took her awhile before she realized that by asking ourselves one simple question we can gain tremendous insight into why we act and don’t act.

Ready? The question is: How do I respond to expectations?

Whether it’s setting a New Year’s resolution, sticking to an exercise routine, taking daily medications, or even meeting a work deadline, just about everyone falls into one of four tendencies: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel.

Self-knowledge: The key to lasting change

The four tendencies describe how we respond to both inner expectations (like exercising regularly) and outer expectations (nailing that project deadline). Because they influence many aspects of our behavior, understanding them — in other words, understanding what pushes our buttons and motivates us to act — can help us make significant, lasting changes.

You can take Rubin’s free online quiz here to see which Tendency best describes you. In the meantime, see if one of these feels familiar.

Upholders

This type responds readily to both outer and inner expectations. If you’re an Upholder you’ll meet the work deadline and keep the New Year’s resolution without much fuss. You don’t need a lot of support. When you make up your mind to do something you can do it pretty easily.

What motivates you: You need to know what other people expect of you, but your own expectations carry equal weight.

Questioners

Not surprisingly, you question ev-erything. You’ll meet an expectation (for instance, keeping a food diary) only if you think it makes sense. You turn everything into an inner expectation and reject ideas, advice, and arguments that seem random or irrational.

For example, Questioners think that January 1 is just an arbitrary date to set some new health resolutions.

What motivates you: If an expectation meets your standards and values, you’ll do it. If it doesn’t, forget it! You’ll keep that food diary not because a coach told you to, but because you’ve done the research and it’s proven to be the best first step for weight loss. If someone suggests you do something, they’d better offer thoughtful, compelling reasons.

Obligers

This type easily meets outer expectations but struggles to meet expectations they impose on themselves. So for instance, maybe you ran track in school and had no problem getting to a team practice. But try prying yourself off the couch to go for a run, and what happens? You struggle — even though you know how good exercise will make you feel.

What motivates you: You respond well to supervision, scheduling, deadlines, and reminders. So the key to self-motivation is accountability. For example, Obligers who want to become more active need to build in some type of external motivator. It could be signing on with a trainer, or putting a date on the calendar to meet a friend who’ll be really annoyed if you bail.

Rebels

Rebels resist all expectations, both outer and inner. You want to do what you want, when you want. For the most part, you dread the thought of creating habits. You don’t even like telling yourself what to do!

Typically, you wouldn’t sign up in advance for a Saturday morning spin class because you don’t want to bind yourself. If you’re asked to do something, you’re tempted to say, “You’re not the boss of me!”

What motivates you: Rebels are a tough bunch! You hate to be reminded, scheduled, or stuck in a routine. You don’t want to be pushed around or told what to do. Instead, you want to choose to do something. Authenticity and self-expression are key.

If you decide to exercise, for example, you’ll think about what you feel like doing in that moment, what you’ll enjoy. You’ll choose to run because you like feeling energized or being immersed in nature while running through the park, or having the time to listen to new music. Not because someone said it’s good for you, but because you want to.

Knowing yourself can teach you how to motivate yourself

Understanding our Tendency can help us manage and motivate ourselves, and give us insight into why we act — and don’t act. If we’re trying to form a new habit — like that daily run — in a way that doesn’t suit us, our nature, or our values, it’s not gonna stick.

As Rubin says: “When we understand ourselves, we can motivate ourselves in ways that get a lot better success.”

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