How to Be Motivated: The Four Tendencies from a Biblical Perspective

The Four Tendencies: a Christian perspective on motivation

Hey friends! I’m super excited to share today’s post, which is packed full of info for how to be motivated based on your personality type (and how to motivate other people too). If you enjoy this and are looking for more resources to motivate and strengthen your faith, be sure to check out my whole collection of free resources.

As a coach and encourager, I think about motivation a lot. Whether I’m teaching an online course, leading a small group or even parenting my own kids, I frequently observe that some people follow through with expectations naturally…while others seem to rebel against the thought, ever! And everything in between.

I have a friend whose faith and maturity I admire tremendously. She was looking into ordering a daily prayer journal. While the journal was beautiful and she liked the idea, she nonetheless knew that once she had it in her hands, she would immediately resist using it.

Another friend loves learning about God and reads voraciously when she feels like it, but for the life of her can’t follow through with a daily Bible time, unless she’s in a study group.

Someone else I know is extremely disciplined about pursuing a hobby he cares about and will devote hours to filling out related spreadsheets. Yet a discipline of daily exercise? Not unless he finds a way he is convinced is right for him.

I personally can’t relate to any of these people.

There are other disciplines like eating healthy, family routines, keeping a clean house and so on. Some people seem to have no problem whatsoever keeping up. And some (most?) seem to incessantly struggle with at least one area.

While curious about why some people seem to be self-motivated and some aren’t, I’ve conceded that everyone has a different personality and complex reasons about how they’re motivated. And while that’s true to some extent…it’s not an entirely satisfying answer.

Is there an explanation for how people are motivated that’s actually practical and can help no matter what your natural bent is? There IS, according to the findings of Gretchen Rubin!

How To Be Motivated | The Four Tendencies | Personality Types

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The Four Tendencies

I was so excited to stumble upon The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin because she has examined my questions with about a million times the intensity and a devotion to research.

She’s boiled down this aspect of human behavior—motivation—to be explained by how we respond to expectations.

Everyone has a tendency when it comes to responding two types of expectations: internal and external. Internal expectations are self-imposed, like fitness goals or household schedules. External expectations are things like work deadlines, meetings or what you signed up to bring to a potluck.

Based on how you generally respond to internal and external expectations, you can fall into one of four categories: “Upholder,” “Questioner,” “Obliger” or “Rebel.” You have a dominant Tendency as well as a secondary one.

One reason I love this framework is because it doesn’t value one Tendency over another. As Psalm 139:14 says, everyone is “beautifully and wonderfully made.” With an accurate understanding of your Tendency, you can work with your personality to be motivated and follow through, rather than wishing you were different. And by better understanding and considering other people’s Tendencies, you can gracefully accept them for who they are and learn how to communicate with them more effectively.

While The Four Tendencies isn’t explicitly a Christian framework, I see a lot of practical application. In fact, I find it helpful to consider what Tendency people in the Bible are because it sheds some light on how God works through each type.

Motivated by All Expectations: the Upholder

I’ll start with one of the more “extreme” personality types: the Upholder. This is the person who readily responds to both internal and external expectations. Upholders are generally self-starters, easily motivated and reliable. They love checklists and following rules. You want Upholders on your team because they will carry their weight 110% every time.

On the other hand, they can also be rigid, perfectionistic, uptight and impatient. In situations where the expectations aren’t clear, they can feel anxious and uncertain. They will even go as far to create the rules inside the rules when they aren’t clear. They can be judgmental of others who don’t think the way they do. While Upholders are usually aware of their own need for self-care, they can be susceptible to driving themselves a bit mad with all of their expectations, which may be reasonable or not. They also can be resistant to delegating or trusting others to get the job done.

Related post: How I Manage Anxiety with 5 Calming Steps.

I am an Upholder, through and through. My greatest strengths are also my greatest weaknesses. Being self-aware helps me recognize when I’m following rules for rules’ sake, and in turn can help me let them go—for myself and for others.

When I think of Upholders in the Bible, the most obvious one is Paul. As a Pharisee he was an extreme rule follower and was so passionate about the rules that he sought to persecute those who didn’t fit inside his box. But when he found grace in Christ, his world was turned upside down. Instead of being passionate about rules, he became infinitely more passionate about grace and the freedom it ultimately brings.

Other possible Upholders in the Bible: Abraham, Joseph, Abigail, Solomon, Martha.

Motivated by Internal Expectations: the Questioner

When I told my husband about The Four Tendencies, he was initially skeptical and expressed his distrust of personality frameworks. And he immediately confirmed my suspicions that he is a Questioner. This Tendency will follow expectations if those expectations make sense. Questioners critically examine all external expectations, and if they are deemed worthy, they will make them internal expectations and follow them.

As an Upholder, I love Questioners because they help me think critically rather than just following all the rules. They tend to do a lot of research and love the concepts of fairness, efficiency and effectiveness. Once they come to an internal conviction, they will stick with that conviction faithfully.

Questioners’ weaknesses are related to their strengths. They can be so data-driven that they can reach “paralysis analysis” and avoid making decisions altogether. This can be exhausting. But once they come to an opinion or decision, they can stick to it stubbornly. With their self-directed reasoning, they can also rationalize some strange ideas. To convince them otherwise you have to present them with extensive data, which can be frustrating.

A friend of mine who is a Questioner says that setting deadlines helps her avoid analysis paralysis and decision fatigue, and that has been freeing for her. Understanding this Tendency also helps explain the person who can never “take your word for it” or questions everything.

Related post: 10 Encouraging Bible Verses for the Overwhelmed Mama.

I believe that David in the Bible was a Questioner. When the Israelites were terrified of Goliath, he immediately questioned their lack of faith and had a firm internal conviction that God would have his back. I often have wondered how this same man fell into extreme sin later in life, like when he took a military census instead of trusting in God’s provision, or when he committed adultery and murder. His rationalization and stubbornness make more sense if you think of him as a Questioner who strayed (and fortunately came back once he saw his errors).

Other possible Questioners of the Bible: Gideon, Jonathan, John the Baptist

Motivated by External Expectations: the Obliger

There’s a reason that accountability and coaching programs are so popular. They work! Many people cannot be self-motivated with tasks and habits they know they need to do for themselves, like maintaining personal health, keeping house or being disciplined about completing a passion project. But if you present an external expectation like a deadline or a consequence for other people if they don’t follow through, Obligers are dutifully responsive. According to Rubin, Obligers are probably the largest group.

Obligers are reliable team players and are very responsive to others’ needs. But, unsurprisingly, they can be especially susceptible to overwork and burnout, as well as exploitation. In fact, if you push Obligers to their limit, they can actually slip into what Rubin terms “Obliger rebellion,” when they just stop showing up. If the outer expectations are too much for them to handle, they crumble because there is not enough internal motivation to carry them through.

Related: 12 Signs of Mom Burnout, and What You Can Actually Do About It

While Obligers can naturally feel frustrated with themselves since they lack internal motivation, the great news is that the solution to being motivated is easy to identify! If you’re an Obliger and you want to be motivated, the key is to find an external accountability system. This can look different for every person, but if you can find a way to let someone else down by failing to meet an expectation, you’ll be much more likely to follow through.

I wonder if perhaps some of the more selfless people in the Bible were Obligers, like Ruth and Esther. While it’s difficult to know the motivation behind why they did what they did, they appeared to be very responsive and courageous when others needed them to step up. Perhaps Moses was an Obliger as well. At different stages in his life he appeared to be weak and cowardly, but when he had a clear outside expectation from God as well as from his community he was heroic. (He also seemed to have a couple of instances of Obliger-rebellion when he got pushed to his limit!)

Other notable Obligers of the Bible: Aaron, the Apostle John, Barnabas.

Not Motivated by Expectations: the Rebel

On the opposite extreme from Upholders are Rebels. They resist all expectations, internal and external. This Tendency is fascinating and befuddling to me, as it is my complete opposite. Yet some of my dearest friends are Rebels; I am drawn to them because of their creativity and authentic way of living, as well as their ability to think outside the box.

It can be frustrating to be a Rebel or to work with a Rebel because rules and “shoulds” do not motivate them; in fact, they are demotivating. Some Rebels feel energized by breaking rules just to prove that they can. This does not mean that Rebels are doomed to be slackers and slobs, but it does mean that they need to think about motivation differently than the other Tendencies.

Three things that motivate Rebels are their sense of identity, their ability to be free and the opportunity to step up to a challenge (they love to prove people wrong). For example, a friend of mine is very passionate about her love for her kids; she’ll go to the moon and back for them. But she has to maintain a sense of freedom when running her household; otherwise she doesn’t feel true to herself or her family. So she doesn’t do well with strict routines and schedules, but when the mood strikes she will do a beautiful job cleaning, organizing and decorating. If she finds a particular task challenging or frustrating, she’s wonderfully creative and determined to complete it.

When communicating with a Rebel, you can’t force them to do anything (even when you’re communicating with yourself). Rubin recommends the following sequence of information: information, consequences and choice. Present the Rebel with their options, explain the consequences of their decisions and then let them choose. If the desired outcome resonates with their identity and they have the freedom to choose it, they’ll come through.

Related post: Goal-Setting for the Lazy Mom

I’m pretty sure that Peter in the Bible was a Rebel. He was obviously resistant to outer expectations in the Gospels and struggled with inner ones as well, most notably when he denied Christ on the night before the crucifixion. But once he found his identity in Christ, he became a force to be reckoned with in the Book of Acts. (His name literally means “Rock.”) I’m sure he got a kick out of resisting the authorities, and it makes sense that he rejoiced when he was persecuted. Tradition holds that when he died he was crucified upside down at his own request. Sounds pretty Rebel-like to me.

Other possible Rebels in the Bible: Jacob, Samson, Jonah, the Prodigal Son, Mary sister of Martha.

 

I hope you find this framework as insightful and practically helpful as I have. Most people know what their Tendency based on these basic descriptions, but if you’re not sure you can take Gretchen Rubin’s quiz here.

I’d love to hear from you: what do you think your Tendency is, and how do you think understanding this framework can help you be more motivated as you live out your faith?

Hey, I'm Gina!

I’m a wife and mom of five, with kids ages toddler to teenager. I’m created in the image of God, made whole in Jesus. In this online space, I help others overcome the overwhelm all of us face when navigating this messy, beautiful journey we call life. Want to join us?

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5 Comments

  1. karentfriday

    Gina, this is really interesting. The 4 tendencies are intriguing and some of which took me by surprise. And like you, I love that one is not highly valued as the “best” overall. We are kindred spirits as I’m also an Upholder. But you know what? In the last few years, the Lord has shown me a few ways to be a rebel in certain areas of the church. A rebel for a good cause. For example, I grew tired of the expectations I put on myself and from others of what a pastor’s wife should look like and exemplify. So while my tendency will always be the upholder, I’m learning to venture out a little. 🙂

    Reply
    • Gina Poirier

      Hello my Upholder friend! I’d agree that as I’ve grown I’ve definitely been inspired to “venture out” as well.

      Reply
  2. Anne | Like the morning sun

    Very interesting! I seem to be naturally a questioner… A sceptic. In some areas also a rebel. I can make my own “perfect” work schedule and then rebel against it, haha. Probably because I put too much on my schedule, and then have no idea how to accomplish all of that – which makes me feel paralyzed. So I certainly could need some more motivation to make small steps into the right direction, even when I don’t “feel like it”. Thanks for this post!

    Reply
    • Gina Poirier

      Thanks Anne! Based on you comment it sounds like you might primarily be rebel. The key for rebels in their schedule is freedom. Rubin says you have to almost trick yourself – make parts of your to-do list optional, or give yourself a lot of flexibility as far as when you want to do it. But yeah it’s very interesting to think about! Hope these insights are helpful!

      Reply
      • Anne | Like the morning sun

        Yes they are great insights! The funny thing was that in college I was the perfectionist, the one that always made sure the work was well done… People could rely on me, I always had good grades etc. As a homemaker I struggle *a lot* though, to follow through with my plans/schedules/goals. It’s always good to reflect on yourself and find out what it is that makes you behave like you do. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge… So thanks again for letting me think about this.

        Reply

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