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Let’s talk about accountability. The word is thrown around all the time, in a variety of contexts. From office managers to political commentators to personal trainers, everyone seems to agree that we need more of it.
But why? What really is accountability, and what makes it such an important thing in so many different facets of life?
Let’s take a dive into accountability to see why it matters so much, and how we can use it to more effectively shape our lives.
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 are highly motivated not to violate the contracts we make with others. If used intentionally, these social contracts can be a powerful tool in achieving otherwise difficult goals.
In other words, accountability is a form of extrinsic motivation.
As I’ve often written about, 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 really like watching TV and eating Utz Party Mix (the kind that comes in 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 just not have it like some unwashed pleb
- I could look for new growth opportunities at work, oooor I could spend the afternoon looking at memes and then leave early
You know what will be better for you overall, but something else would feel just a little better right now. Unfortunately, the latter tends to win. Accountability helps tilt the scales back the other way and uses our inherent desire to work well with others to create long term motivation.
The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility
Before going any further, we need to draw a distinction between accountability and another form of motivation: responsibility. These are two very similar, but separate terms which are often used interchangeably.
Accountability means owning the consequences of your actions or inaction. The promise of being held to account for the outcome of your behavior drives you toward beneficial choices and away from harmful ones.
Responsibility means owning the solution, or way forward in a given situation. The promise of being responsible for resolving issues motivates you to fix, maintain, or improve circumstances in the present and avoid causing new issues for the future.
You can probably see why these two terms get so mixed up, so let’s break it down with an example: smashing
my mom’s someone’s TV while playing wiffle ball in the house doing regular stuff. Could happen to anyone.
Accountability in this case means accepting that your choices (and poor pitching) got you here. The consequences (upsetting someone else, not having a TV) could have been avoided if you had acted differently. Responsibility would be taking it upon yourself to right this wrong. Most likely by apologizing and/or replacing the TV.
Both of these traits are about honesty and owning your role in the situation. And crucially, both motivate you to think ahead and not act strictly for this moment. There is a lot of overlap here, but today we’re focusing specifically on accountability, so let’s get back to it.
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 way wrong, or way right. Either way, I’m intrigued.
So other than for mitigating potentially severe time-outs, why should any of us care about accountability? Well, 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
- Absolutely 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 in 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
As we’ve established, big prizes like professional success, financial freedom, robust health and emotional peace – require us to do things for tomorrow that aren’t always easy today.
And that is exactly what makes accountability so important to personal development.
For example, think of exercising with a buddy or personal trainer, or in a group fitness class. Exercise is obviously 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 doughy, flimsy legs
- Explaining to everyone named Chad in your workout class why you were suspiciously absent for yet another leg day
We want to be in good shape and all. But we really, really don’t want to make Chad sad.
Exercise is just one example. By using systems of accountability, we can give ourselves that extra motivational push to succeed in any area where short term choices can come into conflict with long term goals.
Living with a Lack of Accountability
Having a lack of accountability is a lot like having a lack of self control. Both of these are tools that help us keep future actions in sync with past intentions. A lack of these tools breaks the balance, and leaves us vulnerable to short-term impulses.
Accountability maintains this balance by creating a sort of helpful discomfort.
Think of how physical pain motivates us to make changes. Pain, by definition, doesn’t feel good. And it isn’t meant to. It exists to draw our attention to a problem so that we can make a change to protect ourselves.
In a similar way, a feeling of accountability can set off a mental warning that says “hey, I don’t think you want to do this, this will be bad for you later.” It is an advance signal that warns us to change course.
Just as an inability to feel physical discomfort can lead to unknowingly causing oneself harm, a complete lack of accountability can be dangerous.
Uncomfortable sensations like these are valuable motivators, and when they’re working well, they keep us healthy and safe. They bring potential dangers to the forefront of our attention so that we can steer away from them and do the right thing in the present.
How Can I be More Accountable?
Hopefully you now have more clarity on why accountability is so important in life, and how it works. If not, I really need to get better at this whole writing thing.
Before signing off, I want to leave you with a few quick tips that I have found invaluable for getting the most out of accountability, and using it on the road to my personal goals.
1. Tap into Existing Systems of Accountability
Before re-inventing the wheel, see if you can make more use of the systems of accountability that already exist to help you along your way. We already saw the value of having a workout partner or trainer for fitness goals, but systems like this are all over the place if you look around.
Depending on the goal you are focusing on, take a look around to see what sorts of 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.
2. 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.
For more insight on internal and external expectations, and what works best for you, I highly recommend looking into the four tendencies framework developed by Gretchen Rubin, one of my favorite personal development authors of all time. She first introduced the framework in her amazing book, Better Than Before, and then later expanded on it in The Four Tendencies. Her work is one of the best resources I have encountered for, among other things, understanding how you respond to both internal and external accountability.
3. 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 sort of “synthetic” social contract where none naturally exists. 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 to help drive you to keep up with the commitments you want to keep up with yourself. And no matter what, don’t let your accountabilibuddy down!
4. 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 work harder, do more, and be better, you can use accountability as an inspiration tool for positive reinforcement.
Accountability means owning and facing consequences. But consequences aren’t all negative. In fact, 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 plenty of great consequences, and you’ll be accountable for all of them!