Five Strategies for Personal Accountability

Yesterday I was in the middle of a great conversation with a client when it struck me, once again, that I love (like, LOVE love) talking about accountability. I’m pretty sure I can research it, discuss it, and talk about it endlessly. And the reason I love it is because I regard accountability as the ultimate act of self-care.

For example: Half an hour ago I looked at my to-do list and realized that today is my day to create some content. To write this exact article that you’re reading. I had time to sit down and start writing – something I love to do – half an hour ago. I sat down. I brainstormed a list of topics. And then I scrolled through Instagram for 25 minutes because that was more easily accessible to me than the work of sitting down and writing.

It’s ridiculous. It’s sort of the equivalent of having a healthy and delicious meal all prepped, and then bingeing on a box of donuts and a bag of chips on your way home. That healthy and delicious meal is an act of self-care. The box of donuts and bag of chips? That’s a bad habit stemming from a lack of personal accountability.

I guess I’m basically admitting that Instagram is my junk food. And my client? He’s got a similar problem: He has a list of habits that his ideal self would engage in after work: quality time with his family, a nourishing meal, some reflection on his day combined with future planning, and (because he is an athlete) some stretching or yoga. But he spends his time after work doing whatever is easy, not whatever is good for him. The instant gratification of a youtube video trumps the healthy habits that he knows he needs.

We could talk for awhile about how instant media has had an impact on attention span, but you probably already experience that enough for yourself that you don’t need my view on it. What I want to acknowledge, instead, is that personal accountability is at once the ultimate and the most difficult act of self care for most people. It’s easy to develop accountability to a team, a boss, or clients. But accountability to ourselves? Most people find that almost impossible at times.

Here are a few tips that might help you develop personal accountability strategies:

1. Educate yourself about yourself.

Often, the reason we don’t jump right in to a task is because our brain tricks us into thinking it will be difficult, unrewarding, or time-consuming. What strategies does your brain use to trick you out of the work you need to do? I talk to so many people who just can’t get motivated to exercise on a regular basis, often citing that exercise is too much of a time commitment. So, I ask them to educate themselves on how they’re spending their time. Tracking how they use up their time in a week often changes their tune: they realize that at least 3 hours are dedicated to unnecessary errands, or that 10+ hours in their week are spent in apps or on screens. Combine this with a reasonable expectation of how long it takes to adequately exercise (no, it does not need to take you all afternoon!), and suddenly people find that they do have time to accomplish this goal.

2. Find your why.

Once you’ve educated yourself about yourself, it’s time to clearly define why your task is worthy of your time, energy, and attention. Will it move your business forward? Will it connect you more deeply to people who mean something to you? Will it help you level out your emotional baseline? Finding a why that is powerful and aligned with your core values helps to provide temporary motivation when you’re just beginning a task, and helps refresh your vigor for the task once motivation wanes. It also ensures that the task actually fits our priorities. If you’re engaging in the task because it’s supposed to be good for you, but you don’t really believe it, then perhaps the task isn’t for you! I ask everyone to write their why on post-it notes to post all over their workspace, their car, and in their purses or bags. Consistent reminders from our past selves helps keep our present selves more accountable.

3. Create schedules and structures.

This one is important. When motivation wanes and you’re running on pure discipline to stay accountable, schedules and structures will keep you going. Sit down at the beginning of the week (or the day!) and schedule in that task that you need to do. And then – and here’s the tricky part – actually honour that appointment. Treat it with as much reverence as you would an appointment with your doctor or a coffee date with a friend. It’s in your calendar, and only some serious emergency will cause you to interrupt that. If your accountability issues are not around doing a thing, but instead are around not doing a thing, then my suggestion is to create structures and habits to help you. If you are trying to stay accountable for a diet, then get rid of all the food that may tempt you. If you are trying to stay off your phone, then find a place for your phone to live when you’re at home (not in your hand or your pocket, but off and in a drawer somewhere!). Track the number of days or hours that you went without doing that thing, and find some way to celebrate milestones in that process.

4. State your goal to someone who means something to you.

Often, speaking our goals out loud – especially to someone whose opinion we hold in high regard, or someone who will hold us to our highest potential – urges accountability. Call this a powerful accountability tool or chalk it up to the folly of human pride, but we’re less apt to break that promise if we’ve stated it out loud to someone else.

5. Remember that personal accountability is a practice, not a task in and of itself.

Like all practices, we’re likely to have some successful days and some less-successful days. Be compassionate with yourself! When you fall off the accountability wagon – which you will, I’m sorry to say – remember that you can always get right back on it. Give yourself a break and review the first four steps, and come back to your task as soon as you can.

So much of my work as a life coach involves clarifying client’s goals and helping them find structures of personal accountability that work best for them. This list may not work for everybody, but so far in my practice these are the common themes that have emerged as powerful and transformative tools for developing our practice of personal accountability!