How You Manage Expectations is Key to Your Productivity

What your tendencies mean about maximising your potential


Leon Purton

3 years ago | 5 min read

On one of my long car rides, I listened to my favourite podcaster Ryan Hawk interview a researcher and author. The information I heard on that trip has helped me understand more about myself and those I interact with.

The author, Gretchen Rubin, asked a few questions of the host;

You are standing in a line at the coffee shop, and there is a big sign that says ‘no mobile phone use in the line’. The person in front of you takes out their phone to use and can obviously see the sign. How does that make you feel?

It’s February, and you said on New Years that you would go for a run every week this year as part of your resolutions. You’ve been every week so far, but you don’t really feel like going this weekend, would you put your runners on or not? — What if you told your friend you’d go with them?

His answers gave her insight into his personal tendencies. While these tendencies are just one part of a much larger personality, it is important to understand your own personal answer to this question.

How do you respond to inner and outer expectations?

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Upholders, Rebels, Obligers and Questioners

Gretchen Rubin defines four possible answers to the question “How do you respond to internal and external expectations?”, and they provide the four different tendencies she describes in her amazing book.

Upholders and Rebels sit on opposite sides; Upholders are more likely to meet inner and outer expectations placed on them. Rebels will resist meeting both. Obligers and Questioners are on the other corners; Obligers are more likely to meet external than internal expectations, Questioners focus on internal expectations and struggle with external expectations.

Understanding where I fit within the tendencies and how others might be placed has made me more productive, a better manager and a more aware partner and friend.

And it doesn’t take much to work it out for yourself.

This point of self-awareness is key to my personal development, I’ll give you an example.

My girlfriend wanted my help to decide on plans for the weekend. I didn’t feel like planning right then, so I gave her a “we will sort it out later” response.

She became upset with me and I didn’t understand it. We had all week to decide, there was no rush, but she was upset. Then I reflected on what I knew about the tendencies.

It turns out that I am a Rebel. I struggle with expectation management unless I consider it part of my identity, or I’m acting from a place of freedom, or choice.

Trying to get me to commit when it wasn’t what I wanted to do right then was never going to work. But what I had forgotten, was that my girlfriend was a questioner. She had internal expectations for planning out the weekend and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t supporting her.

When I reflected on this and determined that being a good partner was part of my identity, I sat down and planned out the weekend with her.

This simplistic example is a representation of all the decisions we are faced within our lives. Understanding yourself gives you insight into why you behave in certain ways, understanding those around you helps you empathise with their approach or action.

So, which one of the tendencies do you display and how do you use this knowledge to improve yourself?

Alex Chen has provided a really good summary of the book here, but I encourage you to read it. I’ll expand on how to improve your productivity and achieve more, by understanding yourself more.

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Productivity and expectations

Understanding when I am the most productive and then identifying how to maximise it has really helped me. It turns out, it is how you think about expectations that define your motivation to get something done.

If you are someone who prioritises internal expectations, you need to own and understand the outcome. If you are someone who prioritises external expectations, you need someone to help with your accountability (particularly for internal goals).

If you are a Rebel, like me, then you can struggle with forming habits and meeting external and internal timelines. Importantly, Gretchen identifies that you can have a secondary tendency that you might prioritise, in that I am a Rebel-Obliger.

Here is a table from Alex’s article in understanding how to improve yourself as a Rebel;

Credit to Alex Chen

As a Rebel-Obliger, I am most likely to do something that I identify with. It aligns with my personal values. I am next likely to do something for someone that I know needs my help. I am least likely to do it because I was told to, or I told myself I should.

This knowledge has helped me.

Let me help you if you fit into one of the other tendencies.


Upholders are the easiest to understand. They are disciplined, structured and love routines and lists. Upholders will not force themselves to do things if they have other priorities. This means you need to give them enough time to plan out their work and understand if they tell you “No” it is because they are already committed, you’ll have to ask them again later.


Questioners need to understand why, why now and why this way? They are more likely to meet their own expectations for themselves, and if they can rationalise or justify what someone else has asked them to do, they will internalise it and get it done.

They work well with people they trust to have done the appropriate research and have their best interests at heart. But they can struggle with analysis-paralysis, wanting to do all the research and become the expert before committing to do something.


Obligers are bad at prioritising their needs. They will always try and say yes to others but are bad at making sure they are doing the things they need to do for themselves. They need to create external accountability for them to achieve the things they want too.

These types of people will never say no to working back because they want to book themselves in for a massage, and will always turn up for their basketball team. They’ll meet their external expectations before prioritising their internal ones.

They work best with a form of external accountability, but the effectiveness of the measure will vary with the individual. Sometimes a calendar reminder will be sufficient, other people will require an accountability buddy, like a personal trainer or a paid coach.

Do the quiz

You can use Gretchen Rubin’s online quiz to identify your tendencies. There is enough information in the report that is delivered to help you better understand yourself and how you can improve your personal management.

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Remember, sometimes there won't be a neat answer to the quiz, and you’ll need to find the most appropriate answer. In this case, it is likely that you are conflicted between your primary and secondary tendency.

As a summary, remember;

  • Upholders just want to know what needs to be done.
  • Questioners need to know the facts and what justification.
  • Obligers need accountability.
  • Rebels want the freedom to do it their way.


Created by

Leon Purton

Inspired by life. Leadership, Growth, Personal Development. Engineer and Sports Enthusiast. Top Writer in Leadership.







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