Being an Obliger: Rules, Habits, and Routines

According to Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies Quiz, I am an Obliger.  When I read the description of the term for the first time last month, it immediately clicked for me.

And, as it turns out, I lost 20 lbs last year by playing to my “Obliger” tendencies.  All without even knowing it.

Who is an “Obliger?”

I thrive on Rules, To-Do Lists, and Planning Ahead.  If you know me personally, or even through any of my social media accounts, you’ve probably seen my obsession with planners, stationaries, and notebooks.  It’s like looking at puppies and kittens for me.  I just can’t get enough.

As a matter of fact, I begin unraveling fairly rapidly when I feel out of control.  To-Do lists become overwhelming in my head, and  I become consumed by an acute sense of Life Spiraling Out of Control and Impending Doom.

I then try to curve this Utter Demise and Black Hole by incessantly planning, reorganizing, and making rules and routines.  I need external accountability, hate letting people down, but at the same time, find it very difficult to not let myself down.

I’ve long wondered why if I promise to do something for someone, or make an appointment, I will get it done, and get it done well, but when I make a promise for myself or need to do something for myself, I never seem to be able to keep up the promise.

I can get up on a weekend morning if I had a brunch date with a girlfriend, but without the threat of letting someone else down by being late?  I would roll in bed the whole day, feeling progressively worse about wasting a precious day off unproductively.

Even if I had “plans” of elegantly spending my weekend afternoon in a cafe, sipping a latte and reading a book, I would end up spending the whole day scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, as if refreshing the apps would make anything of value pop-up, and suddenly I would have a valid reason for my slothful day.

Obligers: “What must I do today?”

Obligers wake up and think, “What must I do today?” They’re very motivated by accountability. They really don’t like being reprimanded or letting others down. (Gretchen Rubin: Blog)

I immediately identified myself as an Obliger within the list of four tendencies Rubin suggested in her book, Better Than Before, and since then, have been looking for ways to utilize my “tendency” to achieve goals and make habits.

I need to make my goals public to keep myself accountable, artificially creating extrinsic motivation and external expectations.  Even if I can’t keep promises to myself, I almost always keep promises with other people, because I cannot bear the thought of someone finding me incompetent, lazy, or slow.

I need to plan, make rules, and stick to them.  I can’t make exceptions, and can’t let myself have a “choice.”  I want the path of least resistance, so I must make the easiest path also the path I want to tumble into.

No more candy, I decided a few weeks back.  It makes me break out so quickly it’s like writing on my face, “I’ve eaten candy!”  I’ve been avoiding candy for weeks, even though I see it everywhere in my food-laden office, because if I eat one and “break my chain,” I’m done for.  I’d spend the rest of the week eating candy.

I’m an Abstainer: It’s a lot easier for me to just quit than to allow myself an indulgence to break a habit.  (I’m trying to actively develop a more flexible mindset these days, because Life doesn’t play by the rules, so I have to break my rules sometimes, and I can’t just fall into a rut every time I am forced to break a rule…)

I think a lot of the Obliger tendency has to do with my Executive Function Disorder.  And because of that, I’d already developed a fair array of coping mechanisms from college.  Once I realized I had a disability that needed accommodations due to my Brain Injury, I came up with many ways to circumvent my deficits.  Over the course of half a year, I tried to relearn how to read journal articles about Autism, write 20 page research papers, and read 400 page text books.

Biggest Loser: 20 Pounds in 6 Months

I managed to lose 20 lbs in the first 6 months of 2016.  The path wasn’t easy, but compared to many other weight-loss journeys I’ve read about, it seems like it was a lot quicker and not as painful.  One of the major reasons was that I didn’t put myself on a heavily restrictive diet.  I still ate whatever I wanted… Sometimes.  But most of the time, instead of keeping myself from eating, I attempted to switch out the “bad stuff” with “better stuff,” and strove to keep myself full and energy-fueled.  A full belly makes a happy Hiro.

I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and being in pain all the time, starting from my knee joints to my back.  I never exercised, ate whatever was the most convenient, and snacked all day at work.  My sedentary IT-work lifestyle, stress of toxic work environment, and the need to pretend to be Able-Bodied in an Able-Bodied World with a Disabled Body were all contributing to putting me at my highest weight ever.  I felt blobby, both physically and emotionally, and hated how I seem to fit in to less and less clothes.  In the end, I really hated having to buy larger clothes to accommodate.

I changed my eating habits, cooking and meal prepping, exercised, started running at the gym, started running races, cut my times from 12+ minutes per mile to 8 minute miles, and 6 months later, I felt like a different person.  (And then, of course, I’ve regained anywhere from 5-10lbs since then, but that’s neither here nor there… I’m working on it!)

Wow look, Hiro, so you can self motivate and get things done!

Actually, without even realizing it, I was modifying and accommodating for my tendency to be an Obliger and not an Upholder (people who get things done, but also don’t let themselves down, either).

I made a schedule for the gym or exercise, so that I didn’t have a “choice” to make: every Tuesday, I would attend New York Road Runner‘s running club after work (which I paid for, so I have to go!), and on Thursdays, I would go to the gym after work.

The night before, I made it easier to go by packing my running gear with everything I needed, including water bottle and head-band.  I knew any little “flaw” in my packing or execution would be an excuse for me to not go.  There were countless times where I went home to pick something up and… Just never made it back out.

I would change before I left work, so it would seem extremely silly for me to go all the way home in my running clothes…. without actually having gone running.  And by that point, I would have gotten myself really pumped up to go.  So I went.

I am Motivated by Money, Stickers, and Journals

I also signed up for races, which mean $35-50 per event.  That’s a lot of money for my stingy self, which meant that I couldn’t just perform poorly and waste the cash.  After a while, I got my co-worker involved, and we both attended the running groups together and ran races, which meant both of us were accountable for the training and the races.  She wanted to not let me down by not showing up to classes or be too behind, and I didn’t want to be left behind by someone who started running after me.

Having a friend I can count on to always be there for me made new sessions and huge races a lot easier to stomach, as my Social Anxiety spikes up in situations where I’m alone with a lot of strange people.  This way, I always knew that, in worst case scenarios, I at least had one person to keep me company.

Utilizing my obliger personality to keep myself accountable for exercising with a planner and stickers!

I like To-Do Lists, Stickers, and Planners, so I made sure to “reward” myself in my planner with a “GYM” or “RUNNING” sticker every time I exercised.  I bought all kinds of stickers for every exercise/note taking occasion so that it felt exciting to make an update about my Fitness Journey.  Before a week began, I made the plans beforehand, and listed my Working Out reminders in my Monthly, Weekly, and Daily To-Do lists in my Bullet Journal so that I can check off the boxes when I finished.

I even kept a Food Journal, which I listed everything I ate and every exercise I did for Four Months.  That was long enough for my eating habits to form, and for me to be able to continue my new diet without needing to be held accountable by a notebook.

Yes.  For things that I didn’t have Extrinsic Accountability for in terms of another person, I held myself accountable by making it mandatory to spill out my sins and successes to a notebook.

I bought a Fitbit Surge (to go with my Fitbit One) to keep track of all the running and walking I did, and to see improvements with the GPS tracking of the Surge. It was $240 back then, so it was definitely something I knew I needed to utilize, since I’d spent so much money on it.  (Accountability to my bank account?)

After a while, I’d become That Runner Person who was always running races and exercising, so I just kept that persona up for a while.  Then many things happened, including my ex-boyfriend cheating on me, almost-engagement clearly ending, people moving out, people moving in, switching jobs, making trips, new relationships, different stresses, and here we are again, back to feeling like a lump.

As soon as I allowed myself to start “slipping,” it was all over, and I’m back to square one, now finally slowly rebuilding what I painstakingly created a year ago.

First few rules: No Candy, More Veggies, Meal Prep, No Snacks (Fruits are ok), and Exercise Once a Week.

Finding Convenience in Exercise

My work had its first Yoga Class, where they invite a local yoga instructor to come teach once every two weeks.  There is a “donation” of $5 for us, and she gets paid through our insurance.

As an Obliger, this is great news.   This is something you have to sign up for, but also can be done easily.  A coworker passes around a Google Sheet to sign up via e-mail, to which you write in your name.

And if you don’t cancel 24 hours advanced, you’re charged.  Sure, $5’s not that big of a deal. But it’s embarrassing to have to go up to your coworker and hand them a $5 bill for a class you didn’t even take, spewing some excuse on why you couldn’t make it.

Many articles say that when you request someone to pay for something, even if it’s a nominal fee, they take you and your work more seriously.  I agree.  I feel more obligation to show up and do it when I’m putting something in for the privilege.  Even if it’s just $5.

And since space is limited, by signing up, I’m taking up another potential person’s space.  Which means I need to go, because otherwise, I would have wasted someone’s potential yoga class.

It also can’t get much more convenient than walking up the stairs to class.  There is a local yoga studio I went to a few times a year or two ago, when I was trying to reset my health. While it was inexpensive and conveniently located by a train station near my apartment, I still found it difficult to go.

Having the class at work removed a lot of the mental roadblocks that would otherwise come with gearing myself up for a class.

Strategy of Convenience

One “lesson” I really appreciated from Better Than Before was the “Strategy of Convenience“:

The amount of effort, time, or decision making required by an action has a huge influence on habit formation. To a truly remarkable extent, we’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not.
(Strategy of Convenience)

Basically, she brought up the point that, to make habits or change things in our lives, the things we are working on changing don’t need to be difficult.  If, by making something more convenient (some may call it “cheating”), we can achieve the end-product (in my case, exercising regularly), then by all means, take the “shortcut” and make things more convenient!

I recently upgraded my gym membership to allow me to bring in a guest every time I go. So when my boyfriend is visiting, we try to go during one of the weekend mornings to do quick sets before starting off the day.  Having someone else to nudge me to get out of bed and go to the gym is definitely helpful.  Because… Y’know… I’m an obliger, and can’t really motivate myself, but hate letting other people down.

I was surprised to see that while even the wait list was full, only 5 of us showed up.  I guess most of us at work aren’t Obligers…

Health, Blood, and Supplements…

After my Annual Exam few weeks back, I had completely forgotten that I needed to call into the doctor’s office 10 days after my appointment to “Verbally Consent to [Them] Releasing [My] Information to the Web Portal.”  Which is bollocks, because 1) Signed release > Verbal release over the phone, and 2) Then I could’ve just signed something when I was there getting my blood collected, and I wouldn’t have completely forgotten about it.

Turns out, because I didn’t call in after 10 days, the doctor hadn’t even looked at it yet. And until he looks at it, it can’t be released into the portal.  Very inefficient.

I finally got access to it this morning, and turns out that the bio lab screwed up the Arthritis Panel. Only the most important part of the whole blood work shennigan… So I have to go do another blood test.  Which means I have to go get my blood drawn again.

In the best case scenario I “just” have to pay the fee to get my blood drawn at the office. In the worst case scenario, I have to pay to for another blood work at the lab.  The doctor’s office is negotiating with the lab to see if they can get them to run it for free. Since… You know… they screwed up… (And I’m not made of money, and have a high-deductible plan, which means I pay for everything out of pocket.)  But it also doesn’t make much sense to me, as a consumer, to pay for another blood-drawing… But I guess I’ll see what happens.

Otherwise, not much to note except that I still have Vitamin D deficiency, so I’ll start up my Vitamin D3 chewies again.  I find it so strange that I avoid dairy because I’m lactose intolerant, but still maintain normal Calcium levels. While I definitely don’t avoid the sun (my sun spots tell the tale), this is the second year I’ve come up to be Vitamin D deficient.  I guess time to double down on my spinach intake…

So, What’s YOUR Tendency?

What’s your Tendency? You can find out by taking the quiz on Rubin’s website, or reading some of her articles.

Here’s a gist of the Four Types, as per her blog post:

  • Upholders wake up and think, “What’s on the schedule and the to-do list for today?” They’re very motivated by execution, getting things accomplished. They really don’t like making mistakes, getting blamed,  or failing to follow through (including doing so to themselves).
  • Questioners wake up and think, “What needs to get done today?” They’re very motivated by seeing good reasons for a particular course of action. They really don’t like spending time and effort on activities they don’t agree with.
  • Rebels wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?” They’re very motivated by a sense of freedom, of self-determination. (I used to think that Rebels were energizing by flouting rules, but I now I suspect that that’s a by-product of their desire to determine their own course of action. Though they do seem to enjoy flouting rules.) They really don’t like being told what to do.
  • Obligers wake up and think, “What must I do today?” They’re very motivated by accountability. They really don’t like being reprimanded or letting others down.

Would knowing what works and what doesn’t for your specific “tendency” help you in accomplishing a goal or making plans to accomplish something?


Hiroko Nishimura
AWS Community Hero. Special Education teacher turned IT Engineer turned Technical Writer. Author "AWS for Non-Engineers" (Manning Publications). Technical Instructor "Introduction to AWS for Non-Engineers" (LinkedIn Learning).

6 thoughts on “Being an Obliger: Rules, Habits, and Routines”

  1. I think I’d be a rebel, honestly. I don’t normally think about what has to be done today but rather just enjoy the morning. Congrats on the weight loss and the fact that you know what kind of person you are.

  2. I am also an obliger and an abstainer! It’s sooo hard for me to form real habits that don’t depend on external forces. The first half of the year I was an extremely avid reader. I would read so many books on my commute to work. But then my contract ended and I found myself reading less. I took up gym classes at my university and would go every week and lost a lot of weight. But when I couldn’t afford them anymore I stopped going and gained back all ofmy weight

    I’m really tied down to the concept of convenience but the thing about convenience is that it is usually temporary. It’s hard when things suddenly aren’t convenient anymore. You always need to search for the convenient ways of doing things but they won’t always have consistent results. I really need to work on my discipline.

  3. That’s an interesting quiz! I took it and also got Obliger. I’m definitely someone who likes to-do lists and planning things out, and I’m currently setting monthly goals to motivate myself. I can see how I’d fall into the one that doesn’t like letting others down. I feel like that’s actually helped me at work, especially being the lead of several projects.

    That’s amazing that you lost 20 lbs in 6 months last year! Good job on that! I think that’s good that you didn’t do the restrictive diet. I feel like that backfires for a lot of people. I try to substitute things here and there, too, to make things healthier or lower calorie.

    I also think that’s great that you found what works for you. I like how you organized everything with a planner and a food journal, and that’s a good idea to prepare all of your gym stuff ahead of time. Sorry to hear about all the stress that piled on later that set you back though. I think you’re doing great by getting back into a bit at a time! I hope the yoga class goes well!

    Aahh, that sucks that the lab screwed up your blood test. I hate having them done to begin with, so having to go in to get poked again would be so annoying. I hope they don’t charge you for it! It’s totally their fault!

  4. I took the quiz and got a rebel. Which probably is pretty close for me. XD

    Sometimes it just is so much easier to do stuff when you feel you HAVE too. Though not all the time with me. XD But I would say you seem to be doing well. KEEP AT IT! =3

  5. I can’t remember if I already commented on this – I remember reading it and being fascinated. So I took the quiz myself and got Upholder, I couldn’t agree enough. As you may know if you’ve read my blog and followed me on social media for a while, I’ve had a very strict routine for the last year. I’ve been very strict myself and disciplined with it!

    I feel like I’m also an Obliger because I love being super organised with my lists and todos.

    I’m glad to hear that you’re starting to implement Yoga into your life – that seems really useful with your work! 🙂 Keep it up!

  6. I’ve not done the quiz myself, but I definitely think I’d be an upholder too. I’m very motivated by deadlines set by others, and by not wanting to disappoint anyone. If I have to do it, I do it. I do find it really hard to motivate myself to get things done that aren’t required, because there’s always an excuse not to. Plus, to-do lists are amazing. I own so many notebooks and cute list papers!

    It’s great that you’ve been motivated yourself to do more exercise. I keep trying, but I’ve not managed to make it a regular thing yet. Congrats on losing 201bs last year. That’s really amazing!

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