You show up on time at work or school, meet your deadlines, and generally stay on top of your work most of the time, even when you’d rather be doing anything else. So why does it feel impossible to do the same with goals in your personal life, like exercising, reading, or cleaning the house? Much of the difference comes down to one thing: personal accountability.
Institutions like schools, jobs, and community organizations have tools to keep you on track. There are rewards for upholding commitments and responsibilities, and consequences for neglecting them. Systems like these, systems of accountability, are powerful motivators, even when it comes to obligations you’d rather avoid entirely.
Most things you want to accomplish in your personal life don’t include built-in accountability. Even for goals you desperately want to achieve, staying on track with your commitments can be challenging. By learning to create personal accountability, you can mimic those organizations’ effectiveness, but with goals that directly benefit you.
Why We Need Personal Accountability in Life
Life is a constant push-pull relationship between what we want right now and what we want for our future selves. The things we want to achieve down the road often conflict with what would be easier or more comfortable today. And then we have to choose.
A salad is better for your body than a Domino’s medium two-topping handmade pan pizza, but the latter is much more enticing. Putting in extra hours at work can help you build your career and grow your wealth, but it’s rarely fun. Exercise can improve almost every aspect of your life, but it’s not as inviting as the couch.
Left to our own devices, we’ll usually choose immediate satisfaction over delayed gratification. Of course, indulging in life’s little pleasures isn’t always problematic, but without balance, we may neglect long-term goals and regret it later.
Achieving a healthy balance between short-term wants and long-term aspirations requires tools. And to make sure the latter gets the energy it needs, personal accountability is one of the most effective tools we have.
How Does Personal Accountability Work?
Accountability means ownership of the outcome of a particular project, task, or other action. A person who is accountable for something should be ready to account for, or report on, the results. You can also think of it as a willingness to be held to account for that outcome.
Accountability persists whether an outcome is positive, negative, or somewhere between the two. To be accountable, one must confront success or failure equally and honestly.
Organizational vs. Personal Accountability
Accountability can work either systemically or through personal commitment. For instance, knowing that your boss will look to you if you don’t finish a report on time is a system of accountability. That system motivates you to complete your work because you know that it will affect how your boss responds. It may even impact your future prospects in that job.
Outside a structured environment, personal accountability requires deliberate choices and a bit of practice. For example, if you have a goal only to eat cookies three days a week, and you go over that allowance, you have two options.
You could ignore, hide, or make an excuse for that choice, which will mask the behavior and enable it in the future. Or, you can admit to yourself or a trusted party that you overstepped your limit. That honesty, though mildly uncomfortable upfront, is invaluable in shaping your future decisions. The only option to avoid that discomfort next time is to stick to your original goal. That motivator is the power of personal accountability.
Accountability vs. Responsibility
It’s important to distinguish between accountability and responsibility. The two terms are similar but not entirely interchangeable.
Responsibility is ownership of a particular task, behavior, or goal. To take responsibility for something is to accept the duty of seeing it to completion.
Accountability is ownership of the outcome of a task, behavior, or goal. Someone who is accountable for something must be ready to offer an account of results, successes, and failures, and also take responsibility for necessary future steps.
The clear overlap between these terms makes them easy to confuse. Both involve tying your name to a particular goal. Where responsibility says, “I will do that job,” accountability follows, “that outcome is on me.”
Don’t worry too much about the finer distinctions between the two because they usually go hand-in-hand. When you take one, it is usually best to take the other, too.
4 Methods for Developing Personal Accountability
Personal accountability is not something new in your life. You already have many accountability systems around you, though you may not notice them. For instance, if you pay your taxes, show up to work on time, or simply make it through your day without committing serious crimes, that is due to systems of accountability at work.
The only problem is that these are examples of accountability defined by others. They may or may not benefit you directly, but either way, they follow someone else’s agenda. We want to imitate that effect by building accountability that serves your goals and dreams. Fortunately, there are several great ways to do that.
Leverage Existing Systems of Accountability
One of the simplest ways to utilize accountability is to find it in places where it already exists.
Work and school are two places most of us encounter existing systems of accountability, but they won’t do much for personal goals. Instead, look for groups, programs, communities, and professionals that can help you take personal responsibility in these areas, such as:
- Group fitness classes
- Support groups
- Therapists and mental health professionals
- Leagues and competitions for various games, crafts, skills, and sports
- Personal trainers
- Life or career coaches
Each can offer several benefits to help you reach different life goals. What they all share in common, however, is the role of other people to hold you personally accountable for your efforts or progress. Much of what makes these systems so helpful is that they motivate you to do the right thing consistently so you can report back positive results.
Find an Accountability Partner
When available, existing accountability systems are terrific, but they’re not always an option. In those cases, we can establish a sort of synthetic accountability with people close to us. We call this strategy working with an accountability partner or accountabili-buddy.
You may have already used this strategy before and not known it.
Many people find that working with an exercise partner or gym buddy is highly effective for creating a more accountable mindset toward exercise. If you work out alone, it’s easy to make excuses to skip one session, or two, or eleven in a row. Yet making excuses to another person every day doesn’t tend to hold up, even if they don’t press you on the matter directly.
There are many ways to create this relationship for different kinds of goals. For instance, you can find a willing partner to have a weekly check-in phone call where you each share your progress on a specific goal. It doesn’t need to be the same goal for both of you. Having that relationship in place, with that planned need to account for your progress each week, is a great motivator to stay on track.
This strategy doesn’t have to be limited to a single partner. If you have enough interested and willing parties, you can create a regular accountability support group to help motivate each other.
Accept Responsibility for Your Outcomes
Accepting responsibility, whether or not things go well, is crucial for building personal accountability. Remember, choosing to be accountable for your actions is the core of accountability. It’s agnostic of whether those actions look good in the end or not.
It’s easy to take ownership of a desired outcome. You had a goal, took the steps you needed to, and achieved it. If accountability is part of what got you there, lean into it! Give yourself some credit.
Accepting blame for a negative outcome is far less comfortable. However, discomfort isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it helps us to grow into new places, and sometimes it is an excellent teacher.
If things go awry and you start blaming others instead of taking full responsibility, then you’ll miss out on a valuable learning opportunity. Falling short of our expectations is a rough feeling. Fully feeling that discomfort can help you assess the situation, change your approach, and do better next time.
Prioritize the Carrot Over the Stick
One downside of personal accountability as a strategy is that it’s easy to associate it entirely with blame and punishment. After all, when we hear the word “accountability” in the news, it’s usually in the context of making sure a politician or business leader faces the consequences for doing something unethical or illegal.
Taking responsibility for your actions is much more than playing an unhealthy blame game and throwing yourself on the sword for everything that goes wrong.
From the outside, accountability may seem like it’s all about how things end. But, in reality, it’s a matter of using how things will end to drive how they begin. When you don’t take full responsibility, and things end poorly, accountability will seem like it only exists for punishment. However, when you take responsibility from the beginning and things go great, you can also accept ownership of that win.
When using personal accountability as a tool, try to focus on chasing the carrot of the life you want rather than running away from the stick of failure.
Using Personal Accountability to Build Your Future
Personal accountability, the practice of taking responsibility for your actions and choices, is a powerful motivator. It is a tool that institutions like schools and employers already use to drive us toward desired outcomes. But outside of those environments, it’s something that you can use intentionally, too.
Empowering yourself to reach challenging goals requires being accountable for the steps to get there. The point is never to blame or shame yourself but to acknowledge that you own your outcomes. Taking ownership helps you take action. And when you consciously take action, consistently and enthusiastically, it’s only a matter of time before you get where you want to go.