Accountability is serious business. Serious as in getting-sent-to-the-principal’s-office-for- goofing-off-during-science-class-serious. Or getting-audited-for-tax-evasion-serious. Knot-in-your-stomach kind of stuff.
At least, that’s how I used to feel. Without ever thinking about it too much, I’d always found the concept of accountability a bit dry, but also a bit menacing at the same time. Equal parts arithmetic and consequences. If accountability was a person, I pictured him (and it’s definitely a him) clicking his ballpoint pen, staring me down over his half-moon spectacles, already disappointed. Stealing the wind from my sails before I’d even weighed anchor. (Apparently, I’m a sailor in this metaphor.)
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that accountability didn’t have to be so threatening, so heavy. Maybe I wasn’t being fair to Mr. Accountability. Maybe I felt this way because I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator. I mean, there are times in my life when the two of us have buddied up.
Like that time that I ran a marathon — which I am 100% convinced I was only able to finish because: A) I trained with a pace group that I had to meet every Saturday morning for six months, and B) In order to train with said group, I was required to raise money for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and the mere thought of backing out after having shared my intentions to run with my family and friends and having asked them for money was somehow more excruciating than running 26.2 miles. (Hello, accountability!)
Or, the time I was job searching after grad school — which became immeasurably easier and more effective after a friend of mine (who was also looking for a job) and I decided to team up and check in with each other every day.
Or, how I keep a list of all the books I read.
When it really counts
Here’s the thing. I don’t need accountability (or, at least I don’t notice it) when I’m feeling motivated. When things are easy, who needs to be held to account? When the adrenaline of signing up for a marathon is enough to get me out of bed at 6:30am to jog three miles on a crisp April morning, I don’t need it. Nor do I need it when I’m in the flow of sending out resumes and cover letters, feeling oh so optimistic about my progress. I definitely don’t need accountability when I’m deep in the thrall of an addictive novel.
But I can tell you when I do need accountability. Accountability comes in handy when I need to bolster myself against the agony of getting out of bed at 4:30am to run 20 miles in the blistering heat of August. Accountability helps me steel myself against the nerves that accompany interviewing for a job. I also lean on accountability to brace myself against the siren call of Netflix when I could be picking up a new book that I’m not feeling as excited to start reading.
In other words, motivation is great, but it’s not always there when I need it. So, I’m coming to see accountability as the thing that’s there to fill in the gaps. It’s what (hopefully!) kicks in when I need that extra push to make the first step toward something that really matters to me. And it’s the safety net that supports me from falling after the initial sheen of a new goal wears off.
Accountability kicks into gear when the following factors hold true:
- Personal goal: I have a big goal in mind, a lofty, grand endpoint that I want to reach, something my higher self knows is good for me.
- Unenjoyable: Yet, the actual steps to get there feel really hard and/or unenjoyable.
- No deadline: And, there’s no externally imposed deadline or structure in place to keep me honest.
I’ve come to realize that accountability isn’t actually the enemy. Accountability is there to hold onto my goals for me when I’m ready to throw in the towel.
I used to mistake accountability for consequences. But I had it wrong. Accountability isn’t the consequence for not doing something. Accountability is the tool that protects me from the consequence, from the puckish procrastination and task-avoidance that ultimately lead to self-judgment, guilt and a whole Pandora’s box of other uncomfortable feelings. Accountability has my best interests at heart. Accountability is a good and loyal friend.
Into the light
Unaccountability festers in darkness, huddled alongside self-deception and shame. But accountability is about bringing the truth out into the open, out of hiding. The word “accountability” comes from the late Latin accomptare, meaning “to calculate,” which itself originates from putare, meaning “to reckon.” It doesn’t really have anything to do with judgment or punishment. A calculator doesn’t judge you.
When you think about it, the emotional association between accountability and judgment makes sense. As educators like Alfie Kohn, Viola Spolin and others point out, from the earliest age, we’re enrolled in a fear-based system of punishments and rewards that eats away at our intrinsic motivation. Rather than learning how to listen to our own needs and wants, we’re trained to seek approval and avoid disapproval. We become dependant on external sources of control and never learn how to hold ourselves accountable. So accountability and fear get all jumbled together into one big mess.
But, accountability works much better (and becomes more approachable) if we start from a perspective of curiosity and acceptance instead of judgment and reproach. So, let’s uncouple accountability from judgment, shall we? Instead of picturing an unsympathetic, bespectacled pen-clicker, let’s picture accountability as a compassionate, curious observer who simply asks, “What’s going on?” and encourages us to embrace the situation as an opportunity to learn about ourselves. Accountability isn’t about approval and disapproval, rewards and punishments. It’s at its best when it’s shedding light on the patterns that emerge when we let our desires and the insecurities that fuel our excuses battle it out.
So, where does this leave us? How can we hold ourselves accountable? What actually works?
Well, it seems that accountability structures fall into two broad camps. Some people prefer public forms of accountability while others prefer to keep it to themselves. Below, you’ll find a variety of accountability strategies grouped into these two buckets. They each have their own flavor, yet they’re all meant to do the same thing: get your goals and your actions out into the open, into the light (even if you’re the only one looking).
External accountability strategies
- Announce your goals publicly. Share your intentions on social media, or simply tell one friend.
- Set up a daily or weekly check-in with a friend. You and your friend can have the same goal, but you don’t have to. As long as you’re both working toward something, an accountability buddy can be a great strategy.
- Take a class or find a community online, like interstory. Surround yourself with other people who share your values and who can hold you accountable.
Internal accountability strategies
- Write it down. Document your goal and track your progress. For example, you might want to keep a “heart book.”
- Set a deadline. This is especially helpful for tasks that no one else is expecting you to do. Remember, you can always create a deadline for yourself.
- Clarify it. Maybe you’re not sure exactly where you want to go or how to get there. If that’s the case, create a vision board and break your goal down into SMART steps.
- Go digital. There are tons of apps out there that can help you track specific goals (e.g., fitness apps, food trackers), as well as general habit-tracking apps that can be used for any goal. The nice thing about going digital is that the tracking happens automatically. The data you collect about yourself over time reveals trends, and seeing those trends can be motivating and empowering.
- Reflect. Schedule time to reflect. Ask yourself what you want, what’s getting in the way and what you can do about it.
As I was researching the topic of accountability, I came across a few particularly interesting perspectives. If you’re curious to dig deeper, be sure to check out the following:
- Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies is a framework that describes four different groups of people – obligers, questioners, upholders and rebels. Each type responds to expectations differently. Rubin argues that knowing your tendency is the key to designing accountability structures that work for you. She has a quiz you can take to identify your tendency, too.
- Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation posits that three core human needs – competence, relatedness and autonomy – underlie motivation. If you’re trying to figure out why you’re having a hard time getting motivated to do something important, or if you’re trying to help someone else in your life get motivated, SDT is a helpful starting point.
Tim Urban’s TED Talk Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator (and the Your Life in Weeks tool that he created to channel his existential dread productively) is equal parts entertainment and insight.
If you’re here because you’re trying to cultivate a new habit, you also might want to check out our previous blog posts on habits:
- Mindset Matters: 5 Science-Backed Strategies for Making Habits Stick on choosing mindsets that support your habits.
- Shape Your Environment: 6 Science-Backed Strategies for Making Habits Stick on designing an environment that supports your habits.