“What the hell is wrong with me?!” The question echoed in my head again and again, “Why can’t I get my shit together?”. I was back on the couch. Watching TV, playing video games. Doing everything else but the thing that I had to do. That I promised myself I would do. And I hated myself for it.
“You can do this. It’s not that hard. Just get up and get it done.” Of course I could do it. That was not the question. I had all the mental and physical faculties. But the resistance, oh the resistance. It was just so much easier to do all the other things. And surely somebody had to watch TV? It must be playing all day for a reason.
What exactly was I avoiding? It doesn’t really matter. But I have been in this situation often enough and I reckon so have you. That time you promised yourself you would finally get in shape. Or back when you vowed to give up smoking. Or when you were going to “eat healthy from now on”.
But then you had a stressful day. And you told yourself it would be ok to miss the workout, have “just one cigarette”, or that certainly there must be some vitamins in doughnut glazing, why else would it be colorful? Down the slippery slope it goes and before you knew it you were back to your old routine.
Are you screwed?
I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is there is nothing wrong with you. Really. If all of this sounds familiar, it just means you are human. You are as imperfect as everyone else and struggle with the same stuff as all of us do. So go easy on yourself.
The bad news is that there is something wrong with you (hu? But you said..). Not you personally, mind you. But with your method. If you experience this over and over again, if you keep failing at creating long-lasting and sustainable change in your life, something is clearly not working.
I was in the same situation. Often. I’d start something I was excited about and then give up on it again. Start something else – same story. I failed over and over again and got more and more frustrated to the point of resignation. Maybe I just “wasn’t the type”.
But then I found the critical factor that finally brought change to my life: accountability.
Accountability – Getting leverage on yourself
If you don’t have to answer to anyone besides yourself, your success depends only on you – your resources, your willpower, your motivation. And depending on your life situation, these can all be very fickle.
Sure you can tinker away on your own for some time. It does work. If you are disciplined and driven enough, you can do all sorts of things. And there might be parts of your life where this is no problem. Where you get stuff done.
But there will be a part or several parts of your life where you are avoiding what deep in your heart you know you have to address. I’m sure if you are honest with yourself, you are aware of it. And you are also aware that you haven’t been able to make a change all by yourself.
There’s no shame in admitting that. You are not a worse person for it. It’s just a fact and it means you need to adjust and maybe that you need some outside help.
So should you give up control over your life and let someone else run it? Hell no. But in a way that is already what you are doing. If you can’t change your life for the better, you are letting your bad habits, destructive patterns, and other negative things run the show. Now does that sound like control to you?
But I don’t want to play with the other kids
I myself avoided accountability for the longest time. I was terrified of failing in front of someone else. I didn’t want to admit publicly that maybe I wasn’t strong enough to go through with my plans. I thought I would just figure it all out by myself. I thought I was the exception. We all do. But we are not.
We get lazy and distracted, we have a bad day, or we are more excited about something else at the moment. That’s not a judgment, that’s merely fact. It doesn’t say anything about us, but is just human nature.
Change is painful. It can be damn frustrating. The trick is to create something which is even more painful and therefore overrides our resistance. And that’s where accountability comes in. It’s the most crucial part to get your butt moving. You can get everything else wrong but if you have someone who holds you accountable, who you have to answer to, big things can happen.
How to create accountability in your life
Find a partner
If you are unable to make a change by yourself, find someone who will help you. Especially someone who you care about, whose opinion you value and who you don’t want to let down. This can be a friend, parent, significant other, mentor, or someone else close to you.
Tell them you want to make a change. You want to introduce something positive in your life and you would like for them to hold you accountable. Because you want to go through with it this time.
Merely having someone to report to, someone who will call you out on your excuses, and who you don’t want to disappoint can work wonders. It can create that extra bit of leverage which gets you to go through with your plan.
Put something at stake
Studies have shown that humans respond more to loss aversion than the prospect of acquiring gains. That means you will work harder if you stand to lose something than if you stand to potentially get something. You can use this to motivate yourself by introducing stakes, which are little bets against yourself. Here’s how it works:
Write out a check for an amount of money which you would hate to lose. Give that check to an accountability partner with the instruction that if you don’t complete your activity by a certain time and email or phone them about it, they should cash the check immediately and spend the money on themselves. Preferably on something with quickly decreasing value.
You think this would be motivation enough? You think this would get you to take action?
It is important that you find a partner who will actually hold you accountable and who will check objectively whether you go through with your endeavor or not. Instead of money you can also bet other things you care about, your PlayStation, iPod etc. Or you can write out the check to an “anti-charity”, meaning a political party or an organization that you hate and where you would rather see your money burn than give it to them. The internet service Stikk is based on this idea.
Don’t go overboard with this. Do not give away your firstborn or have someone shoot your pet in front of you if you don’t mow the lawn every week or similarly extreme measures. Just find something which makes you feel like you have leverage on yourself. You will be able to tell.
Create or join a mastermind group
Mastermind groups are groups of people with similar goals who get together regularly to provide each other with feedback, hold each other accountable, and help each other out. The concept goes back to Napoleon Hill’s classic book Think and grow rich.
The idea is to find another person or a group of people who are on the same track as you. Who want to change something in their lives or who are working towards the same or a similar goal. Meet regularly. They can spark new ideas, see things from a different perspective, provide input, and pick you up when you are demotivated. Most importantly they provide you with someone to answer to besides yourself.
One of my best decisions in 2013 was to create one of these groups with my brother. He is a self-employed designer (find him here) and we are therefore often facing the same issues in our professional life. We now have weekly meetings online where we give each other feedback on our work, develop plans together, and hold each other accountable (we wear digital mustaches, too).
Announce it publicly
Writing this blog is another way of establishing accountability. Stating a goal in public sets you up for ridicule if you don’t follow through. I openly declared my goal of publishing at least one blog post per week to a few hundred people. If now I fail to go through with it, it won’t be in the privacy of my own room, but in front of everyone who comes by to read my blog every day.
(Side note: if it’s some Tuesday in the future and there is no new blog post on here, please feel free to me and call me out on it, I’m serious).
So tell people about your plan. The more public, the better. Write a blog, share your commitment on Facebook, declare your goal to your parents, children, friends, coworkers, and to strangers on the street. Hand out fliers at the supermarket, advertise in the local newspaper, and put it on your answering machine. Report your progress, struggles, success, and difficulties. You will see, having a public goal can be a great motivator.
Accountability is a powerful tool to get leverage on yourself so you can move yourself towards your goals. If you want to make a change in your life, I highly recommend establishing it in one form or another. It has moved many things in my life from the “I should/I want/I would like to” stage to actually going through with it and producing results. And I am just at the beginning. So dare to put a little pressure on yourself, it can greatly improve your life.
This is it for the goal series. If you liked these articles, feel free to jump on the mailing list and hear about new posts the moment they hit the blog (expect an email every Monday – did I mention it’s free and that your data is absolutely safe?). Talk soon.
What can you do to establish some accountability in your life? Who do you have to answer to? Did I forget something? Leave a comment.
Image: Justin See/Flickr