5 Ways to Use Accountability to Achieve Your Goals
Most people think “accountability” means “who gets blamed or punished when things go wrong.” It’s a shame that the word has such negative connotations for most of us, because acountability can be a powerful tool to help you keep your commitments and achieve your goals. Generally speaking, we perform better when we have to give an account of our actions. So with that in mind, here are 5 specific ways to use accountability to make yourself more effective at whatever you’re trying to achieve. Presented in no particular order:
1. Don’t Break The Chain
What it is: According to internet lore, Jerry Seinfeld forced himself to write every single day in order to become a better comedian. To motivate himself and track his progress, he marked the days he wrote with a red “X” on his calendar. As he accumulated more days, a “chain” began to develop. Seeing the unbroken string of days he had written was a powerful incentive to keep the streak going–hence, don’t break the chain.
What it is good for: Daily tasks or habits you want to develop: exercise, creative work, practicing skills, etc.
How to get the most out of it: You can create an account for free at the Don’t Break The Chain website, or you can download the free app for your iPhone. Or, just use a paper calendar. It worked for Seinfeld.
What it is: First, you’ll need a goal–something you want to do every day (exercise, etc). Second, you’ll need a buddy. You write your buddy a cheque for an amount of money that is significant enough to motivate you. Now you’re going to email your buddy every day to report whether or not you accomplished your goal that day. If you didn’t, or if your buddy doesn’t hear from you, he cashes the cheque.
What it is good for: Similar things as Don’t Break The Chain. But this one is more hardcore, so use it for the things you’re really stuck on.
How to get the most out of it: Stick to well-defined goals with sharp edges. If your goal is to “be nicer to co-workers,” your buddy might end up having to make a judgment call about whether smiling at the receptionist really counts or not. So nothing nebulous: either you ran two miles, or you didn’t.
3. The Nightly Inventory
What it is: This one comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The idea is to take an inventory every night of how you did that day. Franklin made a “resolution of the day” every day, and focused on one character trait: industry, frugality, humility, etc. So each night, he would take stock of how well he lived up to those standards. In his words:
Let not the stealing god of Sleep surprize,
Nor creep in Slumbers on thy weary Eyes,
Ere ev’ry Action of the former Day,
Strictly thou dost, and righteously survey.
With Rev’rence at thy own tribunal stand.
And answer justly to thy own Demand.
Where have I been? In what have I transgrest?
What Good or Ill has this Day’s Life exprest?
Where have I failed in what I ought to do?
In what to GOD, to Man, or to myself I owe?
Inquire severe whate’er from first to last,
From Morning’s Dawn till Ev’ning’s Gloom has past.
If Evil were thy deeds, repenting mourn,
And let thy Soul with strong Remorse be torn:
If Good, the Good with Peace of Mind repay,
And to thy secret self with Pleasure say,
Rejoice, my Heart, for all went well to Day.
There are many ways to do this. I use a spiral notebook. Each morning I write down my resolution at the top, and in the evening write a couple of sentences at the bottom of the page evaulating how I did that day. Make it as simple or as elaborate as you like. Personally, I like it simple.
What it is good for: This one is pretty universal, and I think everyone can benefit from using it, no matter what you’re working on: a strict diet or workout regimine, nebulous character goals, etc. Right now, I’m using it to work on not criticizing, condemning, complaining, and correcting other people (the “4C’s”).
How to get the most out of it: Be honest. Presumably, you’re not going to show this to anyone else, so take advantage of that privacy to be honest. You’re not doing yourself any favors by giving yourself slack and just writing down empty praise. When I find myself doing that, I ask myself how I could have done even better. That usually generates some good ideas.
4. Post Online
What it is: Join an online discussion board and post. There are thousands of these boards online devoted to everything imaginable, and odds are you’ll be able to find one related to the goal you’re trying to achieve. So look around, get to know the posters, and start a progress thread. For example, if your goal was to put on some muscle mass, you could join The Bodybuilding Dungeon (no, I don’t post there) and post your workouts every day. You could post what lifts you did for how many reps/sets, how your body is feeling, your diet, protein shake recipes, progress pictures, etc. The interaction of others combined with the habit of posting your progress can be a positive pressure to stay on track with your goals.
Or, start a blog. You have more leeway if you can’t find a discussion board specifically dedicated to what you’re trying to achieve, but the tradeoff is that you have to put in the work to develop a following. But the same principles apply.
What it is good for: Posting on a discussion board lends itself more to concrete, specific goals: running a marathon, fixing up an old car, learning a new language, etc. Your blog, on the other hand, is whatever you want it to be. There are some really great blogs out there that are just about some guy’s struggle to be a more courageous person by taking risks.
How to get the most out of it: Get to know the people you’re posting with. Don’t just talk at them; interact. Give more than you take. Try to help them without asking for anything in return. You’ll be rewarded. Oh, and keep it classy. There are a lot of jerks on the internet, so don’t pick fights.
5. The Accountability Partner
What it is: Everyone has heard of this arrangement, but it’s difficult to do well. The more your accountability partner is willing to dig, pry, and interogate you, the more it helps you stay on the straight and narrow. The more they take it easy on you, the worse off you are in the long run.
So you have to find someone willing to be honest. It can be a friend, but most of us don’t have the context for that kind of honesty in very many of our friendships. For many people, a stranger is ideal. You can reach out through your network. Ask around to see if your friends know anyone who would be willing to hold you accountable.
Most people look for someone who is trying to achieve the same goal they are–two people trying to get in shape, for example. In my opinion, these relationships often become a “conspiracy of mediocrity,” especially if the people were friends before becoming accountability partners. If one of them reports that he just didn’t have time to go to the gym that morning, the friend rushes in to reassure him that it’s OK and that he knows what it’s like juggling work, family, and fitness, etc. The appropriate response from a good accountability partner should be, “that’s not good enough. You committed to go to the gym today. It’s only 8:30, so you can still get a good workout in before they close tonight.” That’s why I recommend finding an accountability partner who’s not your friend and who’s not trying to achieve the same goal you are.
What it is good for: This one can be used for just about anyting, from concrete actions like working out every day to big, broad goals like being a better father. The secret to making it work, especially with the broader, less well-defined goals, is the willingness of your partner to call you out.
How to get the most out of it: Find someone who’s not your friend and who’s not trying to achieve what you are. Demand that they be completely honest. Give them permission to call you out. If they go easy on you, find someone else.