Let’s talk about accountability. We throw the word around all the time, in a mix of contexts.
From office managers to political commentators to personal trainers, everyone seems to be looking for more accountability. Sometimes for ourselves, but let’s face it: We usually point to other people who need more accountability.
But for today, let’s forget about your senators, your leadership at work, and everyone else because I want to talk about you. I want to show you why accountability is so important for your life and how you can turn it into your very own superpower.
First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about this alleged superpower.
What Is Accountability?
Accountability is a way of using social constructs like deadlines, check-ins, and group dynamics to shape our behavior. As social creatures, we have a natural motivation to uphold our contracts with others.
If we use these contracts intentionally, they can become a powerful form of extrinsic motivation.
See, there tends to be a disconnect between the healthy, long-term choices we want to make and the more comfortable short-term choices we often make instead:
- I want to exercise and eat well, but I like watching TV and eating Utz Party Mix from a big plastic jug instead.
- Saving money to build my future would be great, but Apple just released a new product, and I can’t be the only unwashed pleb who doesn’t buy it.
- I could look for new growth opportunities at work, or I could spend the afternoon looking at memes and then leave early.
It’s not that we don’t know what would be better for us long-term. It’s that the long-term thing usually takes a bit more work. So we need a bit of an extra push to get to that good choice. Accountability can give us that push.
The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility
It’s important here to distinguish between accountability and responsibility. The two terms are similar, but we should avoid using them interchangeably.
Accountability means owning the consequences of your actions or inaction. Knowing you will be held to account for the outcome of your behavior motivates you to make choices with good results.
Responsibility means owning the solution or way forward in a given situation. Being responsible for resolving issues motivates you to fix, maintain, or improve current circumstances and avoid causing new problems in the future.
You can probably see why these two terms get so mixed up. There’s some overlap. So let’s break it down with an example: smashing my mom’s TV while playing Wiffle Ball in the house. It’s the kind of thing that could happen to anyone.
Accountability, in this case, means accepting that your choices (and lousy pitching) got you here. Different decisions could have steered you away from the adverse outcome (upsetting someone else, not having a TV). Responsibility would be taking it upon yourself to correct this wrong. Most likely by apologizing (and replacing the TV).
Responsibility helps you to resolve this situation. But a strong sense of accountability could have helped you avoid it in the first place.
Why Is Accountability so Important?
In all likelihood, breaking your mom’s TV while playing Wiffle Ball, as NORMAL and UNDERSTANDABLE a problem as it is to have, is not something you have to deal with often. If it is, things in your life are going either very wrong or very right. Either way, I’m intrigued.
So other than for mitigating potentially severe time-outs, why should any of us care about accountability?
What if the behavior we wanted to steer ourselves away from wasn’t some good old-fashioned shenanigans? What if it was:
- Skipping your workout for a week to catch up on that new Shonda Rhimes show
- Eating an entire quart (yeah, I said quart) of ice cream after a hard day at work
- Blasting through your budget on an enticing spring clearance sale
Just like responsibility, accountability is important in life as a motivator. It helps us make healthy long-term choices rather than just doing what is easy and comfortable at the moment.
Under the hood, there are two main reasons that accountability is so important in life: what it can draw in and what it can prevent.
Accountability and Success
All of the big prizes in life, like professional success, financial freedom, robust health, and emotional peace – require us to do things for tomorrow that isn’t always easy today.
And that is precisely what makes accountability so crucial to personal development.
For example, think of exercising with a buddy, a personal trainer, or a group fitness class. Exercise is essential to a healthy life, and skipping it can have serious consequences. But, as such social animals, none of that motivates us as much as:
- Letting your gym buddy Chad down by skipping leg day
- Having your trainer, Chad, give you a hard time about your flimsy legs
- Explaining to everyone in your workout class (all named Chad) why you were suspiciously absent for yet another leg day
We want to be in good shape, sure. But we especially don’t want to make Chad sad.
This is why so many techniques for building a workout routine rely on accountability. Trainers, gym buddies, and group classes; all are great motivators to help stick with it.
Exercise is just one example. Systems of accountability can give us that extra push to succeed anywhere that short-term choices conflict with long-term goals.
Living with a Lack of Accountability
Having a lack of accountability is like having a lack of self-control. Both of these are tools that help us to build disciplined routines. Conversely, a lack of either equates to a risk of losing discipline and breaking good habits.
Accountability fuels discipline by creating a sort of helpful discomfort.
Consider how physical pain motivates us to make changes: get out of the painful situation, treat wounds, etc. Pain, by definition, doesn’t feel good. Nor should it. It exists to draw our attention to a problem so that we can make a change to protect ourselves.
Similarly, a feeling of accountability can set off a mental warning, saying, “Hey, I don’t think you want to do this; this will be bad for you later.” This advance signal warns us to change course.
Just as living without physical pain can lead to unknowingly causing oneself harm, a complete lack of accountability can be dangerous.
Having a solid sense of accountability, though sometimes uncomfortable, is a good thing. It’s a tool that uses your sense of connection to other people to help you treat yourself better. It allows you to take care of yourself.
How Can I be More Accountable?
We can all now see why accountability is so important in life and how it works.
I want to leave you with a few quick tips that I have found invaluable to get the most out of this social superpower. These have helped me use accountability on the road to my personal goals.
Tap into Existing Accountability Systems
Before reinventing the wheel, see if you can make more use of accountability where it already exists. For example, earlier, I talked about the value of a workout partner or trainer for fitness goals. The good news is that systems like these are all over the place if you look around.
Depending on the goal you are focusing on, do a little investigating to see what social structures already exist that can help you. Support groups, mentors, coaches, and friendly competitions are just a few examples. The value of accountability is no new concept. Chances are, there’s something out there that can work for you.
Understand How You Deal with Internal and External Expectations
An important thing to understand about accountability is that it doesn’t work the same for everyone. Some of us are highly motivated by others’ expectations of us. For others, the contracts we make with ourselves are more important. And for others still, it’s not just one or the other, but a little more complex.
Understanding how you respond to internal and external expectations is a massive step to turning accountability into a superpower that works for you. We don’t all tick the same way, and that’s okay. Motivation and long-term progress always work better when you understand where you’re starting.
Work with an Accountability Partner
If you do respond well to external accountability, as most of us do to some extent, then you should consider one of the oldest tools in the book: an accountability partner, aka an accountabilibuddy.
The way it works is pretty simple. Team up with a peer, friend, or family member to create a “synthetic” social contract. That could be setting mutual deadlines, having a regular informal check-in to update your accountability partner on your progress, or something similar. Use these milestones and check-ins as a motivator to keep up with your commitments to yourself. No matter what, don’t let your accountabilibuddy down!
Think Carrot, not Stick
No one would fault you for thinking of accountability as a negative reinforcement tool. Why wouldn’t you, with all this talk of consequences? But it doesn’t have to be.
Rather than the whip you crack to force yourself to push harder, do more, and be better, you can use accountability as an inspiration tool for positive reinforcement.
Accountability means owning and facing the consequences. But not all consequences are negative. If you’re sticking to your commitments and chasing your goals, very few of them will be! Think of accountability as the tool you use to own the positive outcomes of your actions, not just the bad ones. When you keep up your healthy habits and long-term commitments, there will be many positive consequences, and you’ll be accountable for them!
How has accountability been important in your life?
What does accountability mean to you? Are you someone who struggles with accountability, or are you an accountabilibuddy pro? How will you use this social superpower next to make significant changes in your life?