Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies Quiz: Personality Meets Productivity

Have you been struggling to meet your productivity goals? Do you wonder why others succeed with the exact same tools and techniques that have been failing you? Author Gretchen Rubin has the answer to these vexing questions. What’s her magic formula? Self-knowledge. Many people stumble across effective productivity hacks, whether it be through advice from a friend, an article online, or just hard experience. Many of us, though, have yet to find the best way to go about meeting our goals and wonder why an app or planner that works so well for those around us is just not helping us improve our performance.

Related: Best Productivity Apps: Top Picks from the iPhone Life Team

I was thrilled to get Rubin on the phone to discuss productivity apps and hacks for the iPhone that actually work, based on insights from her Four Tendencies framework, which categorizes all of humanity into four groups: Obligers, Questioners, Upholders, and Rebels. The quiz Rubin created and the results she gathered from it led her to write The Four Tendencies, a New York Time’s bestselling book that explores how people respond to and meet (or don’t) their own expectations, as well as the expectations of others. What follows are Rubin’s app suggestions and productivity tips for each tendency, as well as the iPhone Life team’s quiz results and the iPhone tips and tricks they use to stay on track based on their tendencies.

Take Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies Quiz

Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework explains how different people respond to inner and outer expectations. Take Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz and find out if you tend to be an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel.

Personality & Productivity: What Do Your Quiz Results Mean?

As the chart below illustrates, Obligers meet outer expectations but don’t do so well with their own, while Upholders fulfill both inner and outer expectations. Questioners resist external expectations but meet their own just fine, whereas Rebels have trouble with expectations of every kind. So, what does all this mean for all of us in terms of productivity; how can this knowledge help us meet our goals?

Rubin explains, “I think it’s really, really important that you take your tendency into account, realizing that some things work well for some people, but don’t work for other people. When you take that into account, you’re much more efficient in figuring out what’s likely to work for you.” If you go about productivity with a one-size-fits-all approach, Rubin says, “You’re setting yourself up for frustration.”

The Upholder

Upholders don’t have hang-ups about meeting goals and expectations, whether they’re their own or somebody else’s. We have two upholders in the iPhone Life office, and they’re timely and reliable to a fault. Rubin herself is an Upholder, and from experience can say that most fellow Upholders “probably don’t need an app; kind of anything works for an Upholder.”

This definitely rings true for our graphic designer, Jaime Thatcher, who uses his iPhone to keep tabs on his exercise and diet but doesn’t need apps that incentivize or prod him to complete tasks. Thatcher’s app of choice is Productive (free), which he uses to keep track of things like exercise, how many times he walks his dog per week, and when he eats a healthy meal. “You set how many times per week you want to accomplish a task and swipe it complete in the app when it’s done,” he said, “It’s a good way to quickly see how you’re doing with all of your goals for the week.”

Thatcher’s also an avid cyclist and tracks his rides with the Strava app (free). “I really like it because it shows me my speed and distance at a glance,” he said. “For those who are competitively inclined, you can see how your time in various segments stacks up against other Strava users as well as your past rides.”

Even when Upholders are stressed out, they don’t want to slack on their responsibilities. Rubin reflects, “Sometimes people will try to be comforting, and they will say things like, ‘You’ve been working so hard, you need a day off,’ ‘You should play hooky,’ ‘Don’t feel like you have to go for a run today,’ or ‘You should break your diet.’” To an Upholder, that often feels very disquieting; Upholders don’t like to break the rules or fail their expectations. For them, it’s often more comforting to be really extra. ‘I’m getting in my run, and I’m going to work on my to-do list!’ For Upholders, productivity is often a kind of solace.”

The Obliger

Obligers are great at meeting other people’s expectations but can find it nearly impossible to reach a goal that won’t benefit anybody but themselves. This can be terribly frustrating for someone who doesn’t understand their tendency and wonders, for example, why she can crank out thousands of pages a year for her employer but can’t get through the first chapter of the novel she’s been wanting to write for ages.

iPhone Life video producer Rheanne Taylor is an Obliger and has found a great workaround that helps her meet her inner expectations. “When I commit to a project openly to my friends, I’m much more likely to see the project through,” she said. “Even if my friends aren’t personally invested in my project, I know they will ask about it at some point (even just to make conversation), and it would be disappointing to admit I had ‘failed.’ Just recently, I decided to begin a 365 photography project, where you take a picture a day for a year. I posted about it on Facebook, and even though not many people cared, there were a few who did, and who commented on my posts or sent me encouraging messages. I felt extra pressure to take my daily photos, not only to prove to myself that I could, but to prove it to them as well.

Rubin confirms that Obligers thrive on accountability and says there are tons of apps that can help people with this tendency complete personal and professional goals. She said a good example of an app that uses effective motivational strategies for Obligers is stickK (free), which makes you donate money to a cause you dislike if you don’t follow through with your goal. Rubin also recommends Forest (free), an app where you “keep a plant alive if you meet your deadline, and if you don’t, the plant dies.” Rubin also recommends push notifications and checklist apps for Obligers struggling to complete tasks.

The Questioner

Questioners are great at meeting expectations that they consider meaningful and logical; a person with this tendency may initially appear to be a Rebel because they simply aren’t going to finish a task that doesn’t feel like a good use of their time. Rubin warns, “Anything that seems arbitrary will really set off a Questioner.” 

Questioners are also inveterate researchers, striving to find the best methods, practices, and products for each situation. True to form, iPhone Life COO Noah Siemsen enjoys using apps that give him a comprehensive view of the situation he’s tackling, whether it be for work or recreation.

Siemsen relies on the remote login app LogMeIn (free) to offer tech support for computers at a distance. It allows him to research the problem directly “rather than attempting to walk someone else through the verbal gymnastics of diagnosing a problem. This helps me get past statements that don’t make sense to me like claims that ’my computer is being weird,’ or ’I think my computer is broken.’”

Siemsen also counts on the exhaustive data supplied by Apple Maps. “Cues like the lane guidance visuals on my iPhone and turn direction visuals on my Apple Watch help verify my understanding of the directions. The fewer questions I have about what is coming up, the easier it is to take confident action.”

So what kind of apps will help a Questioner the most, beyond one that offers lots of data? According to Rubin, Questioners want to know why they should choose and use an app before they get started. “I would make sure the About section is very thorough in explaining why the app was designed the way that it is and what it’s intended to do.” As well, “Apps that are customizable are more appealing to Questioners, because then they feel like it’s efficient for them personally.” For this tendency, Rubin says the more data, the better. “Anything that’s monitoring or tracking tends to be an app that Questioners like; they’re very interested in data, and like to know data on the fly.”

The Rebel

The Rebel is a paradox to many. People with a rebellious tendency can be highly accomplished, educated, and capable, yet fail to perform tasks well within their scope, and often resist schedules and deadlines. This often frustrates those with the Rebel tendency and, of course, those around them as well. All is not lost, though. Rubin has discovered that when Rebels put their mind to something, it gets done. “It really depends on their values and their interests. Rebels can put a high value on being a respected team member, showing how consistent they can be, or getting a promotion, but they’re doing it because that’s what they want, said Rubin. “They’re not doing it because that’s what you’re telling them to do.”

Although everyone in the iPhone Life office took the Four Tendencies Quiz, it turns out that we have no Rebels in our company. If we did, though, Rubin would recommend productivity apps that don’t include reminders or push notifications. Rubin has learned that “Any kind of nudging or accountability could turn a Rebel off. Instead, apps need to be “focused on identity and reminding the Rebel of what they want.”

Apps, such as Habit-Bull (free) that allow users to set their own challenges and goals and that use language that isn’t pushy or demotivating are best for Rebels. Rubin recommends that apps frame self-set goals with phrases like, “If you’re in the mood for it” or “If you want to.” Even an appeal to the Rebellious tendency (in a non-condescending way) can be helpful, for example, “Do you want to do something that nobody else believes you can do? Of course you do!”

The Four Tendencies & Teamwork

Now that you understand Rubin’s framework and perhaps have discovered which tendency is yours, let’s take things a step further; how can we use this newfound knowledge to make group projects and ventures more pleasant and productive? Understanding the Four Tendencies can take the sting out of interpersonal differences, making office life more enjoyable for everybody. Rubin gives the example of a Rebel coworker who will never do what you tell them to do. “Instead of feeling like we’re having some kind of massive conflict, I can understand, Oh, this person is probably like that with everyone, and I don’t have to take it personally.’”

Rubin also emphasizes that every tendency has strengths and weaknesses and that there’s no one superior or inferior type, but rather tasks and approaches that work better or worse depending on the person. “It’s not like you can’t work with certain people, it’s more like you have to take tendencies into account and think, okay, how can we set this up so we don’t make each other crazy?”

Once we realize our inherent differences, it’s also easier to understand why a flexible management style is vitally important. Rubin believes that no one method can guarantee the highest productivity. “Obligers need accountability and Rebels do far worse when they have somebody breathing down their neck. There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for things, because people are very different. If you’re only managing for one type and you’re punishing others or not bringing them in at their full strength, then you’re crippling your team.”

On teams where every tendency is respected and accommodated, output appeals to and serves the full scope of customers, too. Rubin explains, “If you build a team with people who are exactly like you; then you have the danger that you don’t have a broad perspective. If I’m designing an app and everybody I’m talking to is a Questioner, well, then we’re going to have a certain kind of app that is completely irrelevant to somebody who is a different tendency.”

Ultimately, Rubin emphasizes that a diversity of tendencies in the workplace is worth the extra effort and flexibility. “You get a better product in the end, I’m convinced of that, because everybody has strengths and weaknesses that are complimentary. If everybody can do what they do best and work in a way that allows them to thrive, then we get the best work.”

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    Leanne Hays's picture

    Leanne Hays is a Feature Web Writer at iPhone Life.  She loves reading and blogging, and is never without a book in her backpack or an audiobook on her phone. Short-term goals include finishing painting her house and starting an aquaponics farm, long-term goals include a bike tour of Italy and writing a novel.