Client habits: Why you’re wrong 7 / 8 times you try to change them…

As a health & fitness coach, how many times have your clients failed to change the habits that would make all the difference?

I’ve definitely had my fair share of clients coming to me disappointed, guilty and embarrassed about derailing from their healthy routines yet (again).  That’s why the interview I listed to with HBR and habit expert, Gretchen Rubin, was so eye-opening (I’ve put the link down the bottom because you’ve got to have a listen after this).

I had never really stopped to consider just how different we are when it comes to habits. Gretchen has an amazing ability to demystify these different personality types when it comes to habit motivation.  It starts with how our clients respond to the idea of an expectation.

There are 2 types of expectations:

  1. Outer expectations (from others); and
  2. Inner expectations (those we have about ourselves).

Outer expectations can be what we think our partners, spouse, family, friends or colleagues expect of us.  Are those expectations encouraging or discouraging?

Inner expectations come from within.

Internal expectations and motivations

With this in mind, Gretchen suggests there are…


  1. Upholders
  2. Questioners
  3. Obligers
  4. Rebels

They are different because they react to outer and inner expectations remarkably differently.

This is so important for us as health, fitness and wellness professionals because we need to identify how to help coach someone as fast as possible.  If we don’t and we apply the wrong strategy (and there’s a pretty good chance we will) then our clients will fail to change the habits holding them back and possibly blame us. And why shouldn’t they if we’re meant to be the experts on coaching/changing behaviour?

  1. Questioners (respond well to their own expectations)
  2. Obligers (respond well to other’s expectations)
  3. Upholders (respond to others and own expectations)
  4. Rebels (who knows whether the respond to either outer or inner expectations)

I’ve put Gretchen’s list in this order because I agree with her observation that by far, most of our clients are Questioners or Obligers.

Do upholders need to see a health coach or personal trainers?


They are the least of our worries. They just do, eat and drink what we tell them to do.  As soon as we provide good reasons why they should do an activity everyday, they’ll just do it.


Will rebels voluntarily choose to receive help from a life coach or a naturopath? These are the kinds of people that aren’t inspired to change and will actively resist other people trying to change them.  They might even screw with their coach a little bit just for fun ;)

So by in large the majority of clients that see a PT, health/wellness coach, naturopath or other lifestyle expert are going to be Questioners and Obligers.

So the first thing I think is crazy is how many experts I see treating their clients like “Upholders”. They see themselves as expert educators. Provide the right information and the client will simply do the rest. Umm…I don’t think so some how.

questioner online clients

Questioners are just that.

They don’t just question why they’re doing something the first time. They’re the why, why, why people. You need to be constantly reminding them of why they want to change, not why you want them to change. You’re looking to consistently tap into their inner expectations of themselves (intrinsic motivation) because if they ask themselves Why? and don’t have a strong answer, they’ll next ask “Why not?”



Obligers are the kinds of people that won’t do anything without external accountability. There are a lot of personal training clients in this segment. They see a personal trainer because otherwise they simply won’t exercise.

They’re like one of my ex-colleagues.  He would work amazingly well while my boss was around, but as soon as the boss skipped out for lunch…poof. Where did he go? Without someone to be accountable to he lost all drive and motivation to work as hard.

These two categories are simply fascinating when you’re a coach right? Think about the types of people that are constantly battling with the habits to lose weight… It’s wrong to say 100% but I’m pretty sure most are going to be questioners, obligers and rebels but it’s less likely that the rebels are going to employ us.

Why should we bother to support the rebels?  Sometimes they’re coming to us because their partner, spouse or employer is forcing them to seek help.  I think we’ve got to be certain we have the time and energy to accept the challenge. Saying that they’re sometimes the most rewarding clients. I think it’s possible for people to morph from a Rebel to a Questioner or Obliger (look at “Good Will Hunting”…it’s a movie so it must be true ;)


Alright now back to the title…I said wrong 7 out of 8 times, not 3 out of 4 times. So this is what Gretchen eluded to next. She clarified that there were a further 2 types of personality that I think can fit on top of one of the four we talked about before… for others like me that take a moment to get the math right…4 x 2 = 8 and one must be right, right? ;)

The 2 other personality types that relate to their overall belief are:

  1. Moderators
  2. Abstainers

Moderators are the “people who do better when they have something a little bit or sometimes.”


They say things like:

  • I can be good 6 days and cheat for 1 day
  • I can eat just 2 pieces of chocolate.
  • I didn’t run 5km today but I did run 4km so that’s ok

Abstainers are “people who do better resisting a strong temptation by resisting all together.” These are the all or nothing believers.


Their internal monologue is something like:

  • I’m on a salad or an “anything” diet
  • I eat no icecream or I can eat the whole tub
  • I didn’t do my run today so I’m a failure and might as well give up now

This adds a really interesting twist for a top health and fitness coach. Now you’ve got 8 different personality types:

  1. Abstainer Upholders
  2. Moderator Upholders
  3. Abstainer Rebels
  4. Moderator Rebels
  5. Abstainer Questioners
  6. Moderator Questioners
  7. Abstainer Obligers
  8. Moderator Obligers

Habit personality types icons

Yikes, this is getting complicated right. Well yes but I’d say focus on figuring out the best approaches for the most people.

As a trainer and coach myself, I’d focus on the Abstainer Questioners & Obligers because these are the clients that need the most help. These would make up 80% of my clients still. When Abstainers fall of the wagon, they throw themselves over the hill and down the bank.  Moderators are a little kinder to themselves and more likely to dust themselves off when they find themselves missing their expectations.


abstainer-online-coaching-clientsquestioner online coaching clients

So what are these Abstainer Questioners like?

First let’s start with a more comprehensive definition that Gretchen articulates well:

Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they meet only inner expectations.

Once Questioners believe that a particular habit is worthwhile, they’ll stick to it—but only if they’re satisfied about the habit’s soundness and usefulness. They resist anything arbitrary or ineffective; they accept direction only from people they respect.

Questioners may exhaust themselves (and other people) with their relentless questioning, and they sometimes find it hard to act without perfect information.

Let me tell you about one of my clients. She struggles with her weight even though she is really genuine about wanting to make changes. Everytime we meet she would come with another question, “I heard this from such-and-such an expert, what do you think? Am I doing the right thing?”

To be honest as a coach, the questioning isn’t a hard one to get over, especially if you’re seeing them regularly because then their questioning doesn’t have enough time to corrupt their habits. As a coach, you’ve got the depth of knowledge to provide the right answers and they’re paying you for your coaching time.

It’s a lot harder when we don’t see them for a while though. That’s where online coaching can help a lot though because you’re able to be more proactive about consistently reminding these kinds of clients about their why.  These kinds of people love information so you don’t have to worry as much about annoying them with resources. Actually they’d probably love to do the Four Tendencies Test from the link down the bottom.

The big problem is the “All or Nothing” belief of the Abstainers.

This is when client habits fall to pieces.

I’m a Questioner but I’m also a moderator.  When I don’t do an important habit for a few days (I’m working on my sleep habit at the moment), I don’t beat myself up about it. I look at it rationally and look at what I need to do to get back on track.

However an Abstainer can go completely off the rails.  More consistent tracking or online coaching can help with these kinds of people because you can spot a derail before they go MIA. If they don’t have the internal ability to pull themselves out of a negative thought spiral, you need to be there as their coach or have set them up with other supporters.

These are the tips I would have once your Questioner client’s “sold” on a habit:

  1. Really talk them through why they need to stick to this habit
  2. Consistently provide information to back up the reasons they’re sticking with the habit via email, text or an online coaching app
  3. Always answer their questions quickly and comprehensively


abstainer-online-coaching-clients obliger-online-client

The one thing obligers need and even crave is accountability. That’s why monitoring and tracking are super important. A Fitbit, My Fitness Pal app or a public commitment can be really powerful for Obligers but only if they feel like someone actually cares.  Without going on a tangent, that’s why I think wearables without personal accountability aren’t effective in the long term but why I think coaches have such an amazing role to play here.

The great thing about an Obligers desire for accountability is that it makes it easier to “sell” a tracking options. If you build enough trust to gain permission to their progress, you can stop an Abstainers’ downward spiral. You need to constantly provide positive feedback to reinforce their behaviour.   Obligers probably don’t need as much information as Questioners but they do need that reliable feedback loop to strengthen their sense of accountability and responsibility.

If they’re an Abstainer then we as coaches need to play to that. Listen to them and don’t treat them like a Moderator.  If they say they can’t stop eating popcorn when they start, they really shouldn’t have easy access to it. Gretchen suggests Abstainers “aren’t tempted by things that they’ve decided are off-limits”. I would respectfully disagree with this. I think they are often still tempted but they just know they can’t stop when they’ve started so they do their best to avoid starting.

These are the tips I would have once your Obliger client’s “sold” on a habit:

  1. Write conversations down so you’re both clear on what’s expected
  2. Identify who their support is at home, work or out (e.g. spouse, friend, colleague)
  3. Suggest they self-track the habit or ideally follow their progress through a personal online coaching app like Moxiee

These are the strategies I’d use for the Abstainer (Questioner or Obliger):

  1. Help them feel crystal clear “why” they’re (not) doing this so they don’t feel so much temptation
  2. Set really small goals to start with that you’re 90% sure they can achieve
  3. Gradually help them feel comfortable with “failure”
  4. Give them a “go-to” healthier replacement if they can’t do/eat/drink what they need to
  5. Start by limiting their exposure to a habit trigger (e.g. only popcorn on Saturday morning)
  6. Then try eliminate their exposure to a habit trigger (e.g. no popcorn at home, work)
  7. Create a food trade off (e.g. I can drink a piece of bread if I eat a piece of fruit first) – Brian Wansink is an expert in this
  8. Talk through their excuse “loop holes” (see Gretchen’s 10 categories below)
  9. Ensure your clients’ very clear on what their plan B is at home, work and out (if they “can’t” complete the habit so they can still feel success)
  10. Ask them to keep a gratefulness journal (to keep “failures” in perspective)

If your a life coach, how can you consistently reword their “why”? If you’re a health coach, how can you help the weight loss reduce or eliminate their addiction to sugar? If you’re a personal trainer, how can you be at the gym the same time your clients are training by themselves?

Spend a moment to go through your clients…Figure out which habit personality type they are, factor in whether they’re a Moderator or Abstainer and then be proactive with a few of these strategies…

Do you have a strategy of your own that works? 

Comment below …


Link to interview with the remarkable Gretchen Rubin:

Link to do the Four Tendencies Test:

Link to 10 categories of Loop Holes:

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