Leadership

Your answer to this one question will help you live a happier life, says self-help expert Gretchen Rubin

If you've ever wondered why it's so tough to stick with a habit that can help you lead a happier life, such as going to the gym, keeping up with a diet or meeting work deadlines faster, a new personality framework by happiness expert Gretchen Rubin may help.

In her book "The Four Tendencies," Rubin states all people fall into one of four categories based on a simple question: "How do you respond to expectations?"

"For a long time, I've been thinking about human nature and I've been trying to understand patterns behind why people couldn't form habits," Rubin tells CNBC Make It. "I happened to glance down one day at my to-do list, you know half crossed off and all of a sudden it hit me: this question 'How do you respond to expectations?' turns out to be extremely significant in how you can manage yourself and how you can understand other people."

Rubin says we all face two kinds of expectations: outer and inner expectations. Outer expectations come to us from other people about things like a work deadline or a request from a friend. Inner expectations are ones which we place on ourselves, such as wanting to keep a New Year's resolution or wanting to get back into practicing guitar.

Rubin has an online quiz to assess your tendency. Here are the Four Tendencies based on how you respond to inner and outer expectations:

  • Upholders: You readily meet both outer expectations and inner expectations. You meet your work deadlines and you keep your New Year's resolutions without much fuss. You prioritize what others expect from you and your expectations for yourself because both are equally important to you.
  • Questioners: You question all expectations because you don't like doing anything arbitrary, inefficient or irrational. You will meet outer expectations only if you think it makes sense and as a result, turn everything into an inner expectation.
  • Obligers: You respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet your own inner expectations.You work well when held accountable by others, but you find it difficult to accomplish your expectations for yourself.
  • Rebels: You resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. You do only what you want to do, in your own way and in your own time. If someone asks or tells you to do something, you're very likely to resist.

Rubin says that your tendency is hardwired and something you have at birth. Unless you go through a "catastrophic, character-shaping experience," such as a near-death experience, variables like gender, age, religious upbringing, or whether you are at work, at home or with friends do not change or affect your true tendency.

Although there is some overlap between the personality profiles and everyone, at some point, displays traits of another tendency, people tend to remain within the core of the tendency they were born with, explains Rubin.

Given the multitude of other personality frameworks out there, Rubin acknowledges that the Four Tendencies don't explain a person's complete personality profile.

"A person's tendency only tells you one very narrow thing about a person," Rubin says. "A group of 50 obligers may all look different depending on how ambitious they are, how considerate they are of other people's feelings, how intellectual they are, how extroverted/introverted they are or the task at hand."

In "The Four Tendencies," Rubin writes that this personality framework not only allows you to better understand yourself, but also the self-knowledge it provides "is crucial because we can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own nature, our own interests and our own values."

This, in turn, allows you to "live and work more effectively with others," she adds.

Rubin also emphasizes that one tendency isn't necessarily better or worse than the other. "The happiest, healthiest, most productive people aren't those from a particular tendency, but rather they are the people who have figured out how to harness the strength of their tendency, counteract the weaknesses and build the lives that work for them," she writes.

Knowing the tendencies of your boss, co-workers or friends also makes it easier to avoid conflict and help persuade and encourage them, Rubin adds. Without considering his or her tendency, your words may be ineffective or even counterproductive.

So to communicate with someone effectively, you need to reach that person through his or her tendency, not your own, Rubin says.

Here are some ways each tendency might manifest in your office:

  • Upholders: You are self-directed, you enjoy following rules and you rarely suffer from burnout, but you may come across as uptight. You find it hard to change your routine or to delegate tasks because you doubt others' ability to follow through. Watch out for moments when you are too rigid in your inner/outer expectations and remind yourself to be flexible.
  • Questioners: You can drain and overwhelm other people with your constant questioning and seem stubborn or obstructionist. You face "analysis paralysis" by seeking perfect answers before you make a decision, but in most workplaces, you have to make decisions before you have perfect information. Create more deadlines for yourself.
  • Obligers: You are likely to feel resentment toward your boss if his or her instructions or deadlines are too vague. You take on so many tasks that you are more likely to experience burnout because you dedicate more time to your work and other obligations than your own self-care. Ask someone to help you stay accountable for your own well-being.
  • Rebels: You often don't do well in environments where there's a lot of control, supervision and micromanagement or if your days are full of repetitive tasks. Since you thrive in workplaces that are more fluid, find opportunities that give you more autonomy to do your work in your own way.

Rubin points out that like any system where you work to build self-awareness and self-mastery, her framework will only be effective if you're honest with yourself. Frankly, she says, "sometimes people don't want to be honest with themselves."

Still, if you find yourself wondering stuck and needing to make a change in your life that will allow you to succeed, Rubin says understanding your tendency is "going to shine a spotlight on why something might work perfectly well for someone else but might not be a good fit for you."

"It's important to remember that the Four Tendencies framework is meant to help us understand ourselves more deeply, not limit our sense of identity or possibility," she writes. "[It] isn't meant to be a box that cramps our growth or a label that determines everything about us, but rather a spotlight that can illuminate hidden aspects of our nature."

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