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’re usually pointing 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.
To start, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what this alleged superpower even is.
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 the contracts we make with others. If we use these types 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 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
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. We need a bit an extra push to get to that good choice. Accountability can give us that push. It takes our inherent desire to work well with others, and turns it into sustainable motivation.
The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility
It’s important here to draw a distinction between accountability and responsibility. The two are similar, but we should be careful not to use 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 consequences.
Responsibility means owning the solution, or way forward in a given situation. 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. There’s some overlap. 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 bad 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.
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
- 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
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 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 in your workout class (all named Chad, btw) why you were suspiciously absent for yet another leg day
We want to be in good shape, sure. But we really, really don’t want to make Chad sad.
This is why so many techniques for building a workout routine rely on accountability. Trainers, gym buddies, 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 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 to build disciplined routines. A lack of either risks losing discipline and breaking good habits.
Accountability fuels discipline by creating a sort of helpful discomfort.
Think of how physical pain motivates us to make changes: get out of the painful situation, treat wounds, etc. 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 living without physical pain can lead to unknowingly causing oneself harm, a complete lack of accountability can be dangerous.
Having a strong 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 helps you to take care of yourself.
How Can I be More Accountable?
So we can all now see why accountability is so important in life, and how it works. If not, I really need to get better at this whole writing thing.
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 intentionally on the road to my personal goals.
1. Tap into Existing Accountability Systems
Before re-inventing the wheel, see if you can make more use of accountability where it already exists. Earlier I talked about the value of a workout partner or trainer for fitness goals. The good news is, 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 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.
Understanding how you respond to internal and external expectations is a huge step to truly turning accountability into a superpower that works for you. We don’t all tick in the same way, and that’s okay. Motivation and long-term progress always works better when you understand the place you’re coming from.
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. 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 the commitments to yourself. 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 push 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!
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 are you going to use this social superpower next to make big changes in your life?