5 Ways To Create Accountability For Accomplishing Your Goals

[This is the second blog in a two part series on accountability*. Part One introduces the concept of accountability and who can benefit from it. Part Two below offers strategies for creating accountability, and tips on what makes for a great accountability partner, group, or coach.

*Accountability has many definitions, but for the purposes here, I mean the act of sharing your goals and intentions with others so that they can hold you to them.]

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I don’t know who wrote this quote, but I know I’ve seen it on posters, in Facebook memes, and probably in several other places. Though it's generally about choosing friends and loved ones that inspire you, over the past few years, I have reinterpreted what "surrounding myself by people who force me to be better" means to me. Specifically, I have surrounded myself with friends, loved ones, acquaintances, and professionals who help me achieve the things I struggle to do on my own. 

Most of my life, I thought that not being able to do things on my own made me a huge failure (I wish the Four Tendencies mentioned in Part One existed earlier! I would have known I was part of a large group of Obligers who struggle to meet inner expectations!). One of my most salient “failures” was my inability to consistently train for a half marathon during graduate school. I could get myself to run 30 miles a week (5-ish miles a day) for a few weeks and then I’d fall off the wagon for another few weeks, or even months. I was so ashamed that I could not motivate myself enough to train for the half marathon that I eventually gave up running altogether.

I have since rewritten my story that struggling to accomplish things on my own makes me a failure. It started when I hired a personal trainer as a way to get myself to the gym regularly. After a few months of working with her 2-3 times a week, I began to replace my shame for needing a trainer with pride for all the gains I was making in weight lifting. 

Soon after I hired my trainer, Dani, my accountability partner, came into my life. We happened to be on the same flight to New York to attend an event where neither of us knew anyone. We come from very different backgrounds -- she’s an artist, workshop instructor (check out her block printing work and workshops at https://www.recoverie.com/), and part-time nanny -- but we instantly formed an odd couple friendship  that lasted through the event and beyond. I don’t remember exactly when Dani asked if we could be accountability partners, but I do remember that I only vaguely knew what that was. I was quite skeptical that such a thing could be useful for me. However, just a few weeks into our regular check-ins, I already could again feel shame receding and pride coming on. 

Accountability has gone from a concept I resisted to central in my life. I regularly create accountability through friends and loved ones, still have weekly check-ins with Dani, and also have a weekly accountability group, monthly writing group, and coach. Though this may seem overkill (and it might be!), I have accomplished more in the last two years in terms of personal, financial, fitness, and professional goals than I did in the previous 10 years of my adult life. 


5 WAYS TO CREATE ACCOUNTABILITY

If you are interested in finding accountability, either for a singular goal, or in an ongoing way, here are a few options to consider. I use all 5 of these in some form in my life. I find that each type of accountability helps me with different goals, and the relationships I have with each person provides me unique perspectives to learn from.

1. Tell someone.
When it comes to a singular goal, simply telling a friend or loved one about what you would like to accomplish can help you stay committed. Knowing that at any time, that person could check up on your progress is often motivation enough. Additionally, a friend or loved one can also support, encourage, and celebrate your progress.

As an example, I often tell my wife before I go out to dinner or social events -- especially those she is not attending -- how much I intend to drink. This helps me not give into peer pressure when others are trying to refill my glass. I’d rather come home and tell her I drank what I intended to, or less, than tell her that I let others pressure me.

2. Get someone to join you.
Many goals we have are shared by others. So instead of going at that goal alone, you can create mutual accountability by having another person with the same goal join in the fun. 

At my previous company, one of my colleagues was training for a marathon. I had been struggling to get back into running, despite it previously being a regular activity for me in graduate school. So we decided to do it together, so to speak. Though we never were able to mesh our schedules to actually run together, we did set distance goals each week, and kept each other apprised of our progress on a daily basis. Knowing that she was going to check up on my progress often helped me finish those last few miles, even when I was tempted to take the end of the week off.

3. Find an accountability partner.
An accountability partner is a great option if you would like someone to help you accomplish your goals on a regular basis. This person can be someone you already know, such as a friend or loved one, or could be someone you find based on a similar interest.

The one and only photo of Dani and me together, taken just 3 days after we met. I'm pretty sure this is when she first got the "maybe I should move to NYC" bug.

The one and only photo of Dani and me together, taken just 3 days after we met. I'm pretty sure this is when she first got the "maybe I should move to NYC" bug.

As I mentioned above, I met my accountability partner, Dani, while attending an event in New York City a few years ago. For me, having an accountability partner that that was not already a friend and came from a very different background from me pushed me in ways that none of my friends could have. Beyond sharing our goals and progress, our regular check-ins often involve us bouncing ideas, pushing each other in areas we are struggling, and encouraging each other when we second-guess ourselves. For example, Dani recently second-guessed spending a month in NYC later this fall as a way to decide whether to move there permanently. When she asked me “What if NYC is not the right thing?”, I responded with “You either go and learn whether it’s the right thing or you stay in San Francisco and always wonder.” She bought her tickets while I was was drafting this blog. :-D

4. Join (or form) a group.
Similar to the idea of finding a person to join in your goals, you can also find groups of people who have the same interest or goal. A group could be something that engages in a particular activity (e.g., a running group) or you could extend the idea of an accountability partner into a group of a few people. One thing to note here is that you want to find a group that cares if you show up to the group activities. A friend recently shared that she can easily show up for a personal trainer, but didn't understand why she struggles to show up for fitness classes. My explanation was that nobody cares if she misses a fitness class, but a trainer does care if she doesn't show up for a session. When joining or creating a group, make sure there is some sort of incentive for you to show up (or disincentive for you not to).

My weekly accountability group provides me nearly all of the same things as my accountability buddy, but with different perspectives. Interestingly, the other three people in my group are an Obliger, Questioner, and Rebel (see previous blog), so I am constantly learning about how to best give accountability based on their tendencies. For example, earlier this spring the Obliger wanted to get to bed earlier, so I sent her a text at a particular time every night for a few weeks. More recently, the Rebel also expressed wanting to get to bed earlier, but knew that a text from any one of us would make her stay up even later. We had to get creative with about what accountability strategy would best help her get to bed earlier.

5. Hire a professional (e.g., a trainer, a coach).
It is not necessary to hire a professional to create accountability, but there are unique benefits to doing so. A professional could be someone related to a specific goal (e.g., a personal trainer for a fitness goal), or could be someone more general-purpose like a coach. One benefit of hiring a professional is that the act of investing in yourself naturally increases your commitment. Further, a professional may bring unique tools or strategies to the table that a friend, accountability partner, or group may not.

As I mentioned earlier, I hired a personal trainer a few years ago so I would commit to showing up at the gym a few days a week. That experience was so positive that when I needed help with other aspects of my life, I hired a coach. In the last 8 months of working with her, she has helped me transform several aspects of my personal life through the tools, strategies, and support she has provided. 


QUALITIES OF A GREAT ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNER*

Whether you are interested in creating accountability for yourself on a regular basis through a partner or group, or are interested in being accountability for someone else, here are some qualities that make for a great accountability partner.

*Note I use the word “partner” throughout this section for simplicity, but this could any person or group from the 5 ways to create accountability above. 

They are a human, not a computer.
Though it might be tempting to create accountability by simply writing things down on paper, adding a reminder to a calendar, or adding an app to your phone, there is no replacement for having another human involved. Several scientific studies show that people are more adherent to health and wellness interventions when they receive prompts and reminders from humans rather than computers.

They focus people on both the why and how of goals.
People often set goals without knowing the reason behind them. For instance, a person may want to go to the gym 3 times a week, but not know what they actually want to accomplish. If they want to get stronger, the gym might be a great solution. But if what they really want is more time alone, perhaps there are other options that will be more rewarding. A great accountability partner asks questions that gets a person to their “why.”

Even in cases where people do know why they have a goal, it is common for them to not be clear on how to get there. For example, someone may want to start a side business but have no idea how to start. Or they may need help breaking down the larger goal of having a side business into smaller, more manageable goals. A great accountability partner can help a person get started, and can point out when smaller steps are needed.

They are supportive yet honest.
People respond best to accountability when it is supportive and non-judgmental. However, support without honesty can lead a person to stay stuck on a behavior or path that does not serve them. For instance, if a person continually says they are not exercising because they are too busy, a supportive yet honest accountability partner can empathize but then push the person to think about whether they really are too busy, or if that’s an excuse. 

They see things the other person doesn’t.
One of my favorite findings from psychology is that people are “unaware of how unaware they are” about why they do what they do. Not only are people sometimes not aware of why they are striving for a particular goal, they are also often unaware of why they are struggling to achieve a goal. This is one reason people have trouble identifying their blind spots. A great accountability partner sees blind spots, senses when a person is being self-deceiving (e.g., the previous example about being too busy for the gym), and can offer alternatives from a fresh perspective.

Their feedback fosters a growth mindset.
I have written on this subject here and here, so I won’t go into detail about growth mindset as a theory except to say that people with a growth mindset see no limits to their ability to accomplish their goals, and this helps them stay persistent and committed through challenges. A great accountability partner fosters this mindset by focusing positive feedback on how much effort the person has put in, and framing failures as an opportunity to learn and try another approach.

They give verbal, rather than tangible, rewards for accomplishments.
Psychological research on motivation has found that not all rewards are positive. Interestingly, although tangible rewards like money can motivate people to accomplish tasks that are unpleasant or boring, they often undermine people’s motivation to accomplish things they actually want to do. One possible explanation for this is that if accomplishing a goal requires a tangible reward, it must mean the person didn’t really want to do that thing the first place. In other words, “If I really wanted to do this, I wouldn’t need someone to give me money for it.” Verbal rewards (i.e., praise), on the other hand, can increase motivation. This is especially true if the verbal praise focuses on effort rather than ability (see above about growth mindset).


For any readers who would like to share, what is your experience with accountability? Are there things you would add to the list of great qualities?