How to embrace the persuasive power of accountability

If you want to meet career, fitness or creative targets but find it impossible to focus on them, help is at hand. Helen Booth looks at the persuasive power of accountability…

Recently the number of apps and Facebook groups dedicated to accountability – the practice of sharing your goals with someone you trust – has grown. If you can tick off your to-do list under the pressure of a looming deadline set by your boss but find it hard to get up early to work on a side project (or go to the gym after work), you might benefit from being accountable to a friend, support group or an app to help you meet those tricky targets.

Illustrator Natalie Lea Owen initially struggled with setting up her gift company. ‘I’d write lots of lists of things I wanted to achieve then often never looked at them again,’ she says. After she was matched with a mentor by the Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme, Natalie found the accountability she needed to meet her goals. ‘My mentor has a copy of my marketing plan so I know he’ll be checking up on me. He even follows my Instagram account to make sure I’m sticking to the three posts a week that I said I’d do!’

Zara Picken

Author Gretchen Rubin explains just why we find accountability so appealing in her 2017 bestselling book The Four Tendencies. She examines various personality traits and points out that most of us are ‘obligers’ – which means we are more likely to meet other people’s expectations before our own.

‘Obligers struggle to follow through for themselves,’ says Rubin. ‘No matter how much they may want to meet a purely inner expectation – to exercise, take an online course, start their own company – they are likely to fail. That’s a harsh thing to recognise, but it’s true.’

The reason for this is that most of us prioritise deadlines set by other people rather than ourselves. Thankfully, says Rubin, there is a simple solution to this almost universal problem – and that is to establish external accountability.

Research also backs the efficacy of accountability. When the American Society of Training and Development carried out a study on its benefits, they found that participants had a 65 per cent chance of completing a goal if they had committed to doing so to someone else. And if they had a specific appointment with that person, their chance of success shot up to 95 per cent.

It certainly worked for Natalie. Two years on, her products are sold in museum shops and department stores both in the UK and abroad. She credits accountability as the secret to her success. ‘I have to submit a monthly financial report to my mentor, which means I have to keep on top of my bookkeeping. We also create short- and long-term goals and plan a series of steps that I need to take to make sure I achieve them. Then the next month we read back through the tasks and check that I’ve actually done them.’

However, you don’t necessarily need to have a pre-assigned mentor or a paid-for coach to discover your own sense of accountability. Enlisting an ‘accountability partner’ could be the answer – which could be as simple as teaming up with a friend. Sarah Graham, a freelance writer, found success by pairing up with a friend who was at a similar stage in her career. ‘It started off as an informal arrangement where we’d have a weekly Skype call to talk about our goals,’ says Sarah. ‘But now we also have an “accountability day” each week. We’ll check in around 9am and agree, for example, to complete a certain task by 11am. Then we’ll check back at the deadline and update each other, and set a new goal for the next couple of hours. It’s my most productive day of the week.’

However, partnering with someone you know well can have its pitfalls, warns Rubin, who has acted as an accountability partner for others in the past. ‘I don’t want people to dread contact with me because I make them feel guilty about some broken habit. Also, it’s a lot of work,’ she admits. For this reason, she advises that ‘accountability partners often work better if the people are not particularly close, or if a person is paid to hold someone accountable.’ She recently launched an app called Better, which allows users to find an accountability partner or group among like-minded strangers.

‘Choose someone who will actually hold you accountable and not accept excuses,’ advises Jacqui Jagger, founder of Beyond Boundaries Coaching. ‘Secondly, keep in mind that accountability is about the action, not the result.

You can only be accountable for what is within your control. For example, if you want to lose weight, don’t try to hold yourself accountable for losing 2lb this week, but for exercising three times.’

Zara Picken

Accountability needn’t mean reporting to just one person; a supportive group environment can be equally helpful. Small-business owner Harriet Gray holds weekly meetings over Google Hangouts (an online communication platform) with a select group of fellow creatives.

‘I have definitely become more organised and productive since setting up our Monday morning meetings,’ says Harriet. ‘We share advice and brainstorm together on ways we can reach our individual targets and get advice on new products. We also empathise with each other when things haven’t gone quite as well as planned, and find ways to improve next time. It’s great to have an extra lifeline to turn things back round when it all feels like it’s going wrong, and to receive that extra cheer of encouragement when things are going well.’

Millennials seem to find accountability particularly helpful, perhaps because the experience of answering to a teacher or parent feels so fresh. When it came to meeting her fitness goals, 30-year-old Amber Sutcliffe found that joining a netball team was key – and it has provided other benefits. ‘All the women I play with are so supportive of one another both on and off court,’ she says.

‘I think that when you have this kind of positive relationship with a team you don’t want to let them down, so I always turn up when I say I’m going to, try my best and get in a fun cardio workout without a treadmill in sight.’

It’s why women often sign up to bigger physical challenges – such as Cancer Research UK’s Race For Life – in pairs or groups, explains Dr Rebecca Beeken, behavioural scientist at the University of Leeds. ‘It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing something, but if you’re letting someone else down in the process it becomes harder. They help you to problem-solve when things aren’t going well, provide positive feedback when they are, and encourage you to believe in your abilities,’ she says.

From work goals to fitness and even dating, accountability is an invaluable tool. According to Stickk – an online community that asks you to create a commitment contract for your goals (either by enlisting a supportive referee or setting financial stakes) – its members have used the service to meet ambitions as diverse as learning to play the piano and going on a specific number of dates before they turn 30. On Facebook, a quick search for accountability brings up groups dedicated to everything from meditation to cooking.

Whatever your aims may be, when you’re finally ready to tackle that project, the first item on your to-do list should be clear: find an accountability buddy, join a group or enlist the help of a mentor or coach, then ask them to hold you accountable for meeting your goals by checking in with you on a regular basis. This one simple step could put you on the path to achieving your biggest success yet.

Five apps to make you snap into action

Better
Gretchen Rubin’s app and online community is a great place to look for an accountability partner or group.
betterapp.us

Coach.me
Sign up for low-cost coaching and get accountability through chatting with someone online
or by phone.
coach.me

Streaks
Users learn habits by creating ‘streaks’ on Snapchat and responding to regular reminders – if you miss a day, you break your streak.
streaksapp.com

Rescue Time
A browser extension that tracks how you use your time online and delivers reports to show how much of that time was considered to be productive.
rescuetime.com

Stickk
Pledge your cash to stick to a commitment – Stickk will donate your money to an ‘anti-charity’ (a charity whose values you oppose) if you don’t deliver.
stickk.com