…When we’re very small children, we have no accountability, really. Someone wakes us up, someone changes our diapers, or cleans up our messes. Food appears, often on demand. It’s magic!…” –psychology today
Even your bedtime, what clothes to wear, or how you should behave in certain circumstances was determined for you.
It’s unlikely now that someone else is wiping your tush, cleaning up after you, or making your meals. As we get older, have more personal freedom, and carry more responsibilities, these once small luxuries that were taken for granted now become actions that you are accountable for.
Even basic decisions or how we should respond in specific situations become difficult. We’re constantly looking to someone else to tell us what to do, give us their opinion, or approve of something for us – to give us the ol’thumbs up, I approve this message speech. It all goes back to the those adolescent days. Everything was essentially predetermined for us so as we get older and our responsibilities become bigger and the ability to make our own decisions grows we have a difficult time making decisions for ourselves without the assistance of another party.
So what do we do?
We hire someone to help us, we ask for opinions to questions we already know the answers to, and we look to someone else to take on a little bit of that load for us. Sometimes that guidance and support is needed but at other times it is used as a method to relieve some of the pressure and responsibility of the task at hand.
So how can you put on the big boy or girl pants and start holding yourself more accountable for what you do on a day-to-day basis?
We look at accountability all wrong
Far to often accountability only shows up when something goes wrong. It gets viewed as a form of punishment when things just aren’t going right and instead of being something that promotes good behaviors it turns into something that is supposed to prevent things from going wrong.
Instead of accountability promoting performance it now is promoting fear and stress. Instead of focusing on all the positive benefits you will achieve from consistent and deliberate behaviors you feel more bogged down and stressed out about all “the what ifs.”
- What if I fail
- What if I’m not good enough
- What if I can’t do it
- What it I try my hardest and don’t get the results I expect
Create an accountability culture
This past year I had a goal of reading 52 books in 52 weeks. Not an extremely difficult task if you love reading but one that requires some commitment, discipline, and planning to make sure that you can keep it up for an extended period of time. I had to create a culture in which my goal could thrive and through this culture natural accountability was formed. Before creating your accountability culture you need to do one very important thing.
Just get STARTED!
According to the Zeigarnik effect we are most likely to procrastinate when we’re faced with a big task that we’re trying to avoid. This is usually because we tell ourselves we don’t know where, how, or why we’re starting.
The best way to get started with anything is to start small so that the task at hand seems less daunting. Research conducted by Janet Polivy says our brain fears big projects and struggles with commitment. This can lead to distress, and the minute this occurs we’re jumping ship and back to the drawing board.
There’s no better example of this than when you’re on a diet. Everything is going great for a week or two and then you get home from work, are starving, and you forgot to prepare dinner ahead of time. The last thing you want to do tonight is cook. There’s some left over pizza that the rest of the family had the night before, you decide to pull off a pepperoni… it’s delicious, so you decide to tear of a little bit and eat some… it’s still delicious. Shit, you’ve already started and you’re starving. Besides, one slice isn’t going to kill you so you go for it. You finish the slice and feel like a failure, you’ve been working so hard the past two weeks and now you’ve blown it. You figure since you already ruined your diet you might as well enjoy yourself so you grab a few cookies, and maybe a little ice cream as well.
Using the diet example above there is no reason you need to jump all in in order to see progress. Start small and eliminate the chance of error. Trying to overhaul your diet is tough but by making one small change like including vegetables every time you eat a meal you’ll be making progress. You can keep that up for a week, build some momentum and proceed to another habit.
After you’ve started the next step to building your accountability culture is as follows.
- Clear commitments: Defining the exact days and times you will workout, when you will prepare food, scheduling those tasks and letting nothing interfere with getting them done. They are appointments with yourself. The more specific the better.
- Focus on behaviors (in your control) instead of outcomes (not in your control): Loosing 15 pounds is a great goal but you can’t control what thte scale says but you do control the behaviors that lead to that goal. You control whether or not you exercise, eat well, get up early to prepare food, and most importantly you control how consistent you are.
- Measure your progress (daily, weekly, and monthly): Results speak volumes and you’ll never know how if what you are doing is working well if you don’t measure your progress. Taking body measurements, hoping on a scale, using before and after pictures help to promote motivation and allow you to see when changes might need to be made to a nutrition and fitness plan. For my writing I try and type 1,000 words everyday and simply measure my progress by creating a calendar and placing an X on it every time I complete that task.
- Constantly ask yourself how you’re am doing: I like to do this daily because it forces me to be honest with myself. Am I doing everything that it takes to achieve my goals or do I need to reevaluate the behaviors and decisions I am making? Referring to how you measure progress is a great way to see visually how you consistent you are. In that calendar example above for my writing I am able to see how consistent I am by looking at the X’s on it. Am I being consistent with my goal of writing 1,000 words per day? If not, no wonder I’m not making much progress towards my book.
Now talking the talk is easy but walking the walk is an entirely different story. It’s very easy to get motivated but extremely hard to stay disciplined. Everyday life often will intervene. If there is one thing I have learned it is this. SH*T will go down.
Whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish you will have hurdles to overcome and you will mess things up? If that does happen simply ask yourself this.
What can I do right now? What does full commitment look like? Write the answer down on a piece of paper and carry it with you if you must – refer to it often.
When the sh*t goes down
One of the most beneficially things I have done for myself when things get rough but I want to stay committed to my goals is to take a step back and ask myself what does this lifestyle look like? So for example:
- What does a healthy lifestyle look like?
- What does doing work you love look like?
- What does being in a healthy relationship look like?
Get specific too. If you’re trying to hold yourself accountable for living a healthier lifestyle constantly get in your own head to define what a “healthy” person does on a daily basis.
- What time do they wake up
- What do they do after they wake up
- What are they eating
- What sort of exercise do they do
- What do they do in their down time
- What do they do if they slip up on their nutrition or miss a workout?
- Do they give up or do they pick up right where they left off?
I find that journaling these things helps a tremendous amount, there’s just something about putting pen to paper.
Assess your current situation
Psychologist Gabriele Oettinger as been researching self-regulation and motivation for years and has found that we tend to indulge, dwell, and contrast our circumstances.
- Indulge: A positive vision of a particular problem being solved
- Dwell: Hold onto negative aspects of our current circumstances
- Contrast: Weighing desired outcome versus present reality
What her research has shown us about goal setting and accountability.
“…Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to the emergence of binding goals with consecutive goal striving and goal attainment, as long as chances of success are perceived to be high. To the contrary, mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) leads to moderate goal commitment, even if chances of success look promising. These effects were observed in a variety of life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, academic achievement, professional achievement, health, life management) and with different paradigms (e.g., salience, reinterpretation). Recently, we have discovered the underlying cognitive and motivational processes of mental contrasting and also applied this self-regulatory technique in intervention studies. Finally, we analyzed mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) as an effective strategy to change bad habits in the achievement, interpersonal, and health domains…”
“…Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to disengagement from goals, if chances of success are perceived to be low. Mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) to the contrary, maintains goal commitment even when chances of success are perceived as being low. Again, we have demonstrated these effects in various life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, health) and with different paradigms. Currently, we are using mental contrasting procedures to help people disengage from goals that are not feasible (e.g., from a damaged relationship, from an unattainable professional identity). People simply have to mentally contrast their desired future with present reality. If chances of success are perceived as being low, the disengagement process can begin so that people can move on to more feasible goals…”
What this shows us is that we actually have to believe we can accomplish the task at hand. If you don’t even think you can achieve what you’re aiming for, holding your self accountable and finding the motivation to continue with the pursuit will be hella-difficult.
Yes, you heard me right. PRACTICE! Start by committing to things you know you can achieve to build momentum and confidence. An example might be waking up 5 minutes earlier, flossing one single tooth, or writing one sentence towards a book everyday. We often over-estimate what we can get done in a day and underestimate what we can accomplish in a year. Focus on daily progress and I guarantee it will translate to big rewards over the long haul.
Accountability as responsibility
One thing I have personality started to do is to view accountability as responsibility. Instead of focusing on holding myself accountable for my behaviors I now consider it my responsibility to act a certain way. To me being responsible is much more action oriented and that motivates me. Being responsible means I am:
- Coming through not only for myself but for others
- Producing results
- Performing because I want to and not because I have to
When I think of acting responsible I think of someone running into a burning building to save someone. In fact, it has often been reported that when those that perform a heroic act are asked why they did it more often than not their response has been because I felt it was my responsibility.
How motivating is that?
Currently most of us measure success in any area of our lives based on whether or not we are able to fulfill our responsibilities. It’s important that different goals will have different measures of success. Flossing everyday versus feeding all the starving children in the world are obviously going to have different measures. One will be much harder than the other. It’s very important to put your goals in perspective and to remember that some will be much easier than others to achieve.
The accountability formula
It’s so important to remember that each of us will respond differently to various stimuli. The results I get will be much different that the results you get, and your neighbor gets. This is why constant experimentation is so important. You need to find what works for you.
Holding yourself accountable or being responsible is a skill and like any skill it needs to be practiced. You always have a choice, you can choose to rise above your circumstances or you can choose to let them swallow you whole.
- Some of you might do well with an accountability partner
- Others will excel by using technology and apps
- Some will respond better to rewards
- While others will respond better to punishment
Regardless, the one commonality you and I have is that we have to be comfortable and aware of our own weaknesses and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to fail. Putting yourself in a position to fail takes guts and expressing your true feelings and intentions is a risk. But if you risk nothing, are afraid of disappointing others, or are afraid you’ll stand out too much it will be hard to fully engage or commit to what it is you want to achieve.
Stop trying to be perfect, show your rough edges -Robert Glover
So how can you practice? How can you embrace those rough edges and get the things done you want to get done?
- Create a bigger picture
- Set clear expectations
- Join a group (if that’s your thing)
- Focus on behaviors and action steps
- Set rewards and recognition
- Ask what I can do (act responsible versus playing the victim)
- Measure your progress
- One at a time, every day, and enjoy doing it
“…For many people, accountability is synonymous with suffering the consequences of unmet expectations. “If no one is going to be punished for mistakes, failures, and unmet expectations,” they ask, “what difference does accountability make?” It should come as no surprise that people who perceive accountability this way—as something forced upon them when things go wrong—tend to shy away from taking greater personal accountability. Worse, to further protect and insulate themselves from potential suffering, people begin ignoring their accountability, denying their responsibility, blaming others for their predicaments, citing confusion as a reason for inaction, asking others to tell them what to do, developing elaborate excuse stories, or just waiting to see if things will get better…” –The OZ Principle We’ve been trained to expect an external push when in reality you first have to find the drive within yourself.
Create a culture of intention to perform at a higher level by committing to consistent daily practice as some progress is always better than no progress.
What strategies are you currently applying to help with personal accountability?
Live limitless, Justin
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