It’s not accountability that we need. It’s consequences. We think we would reach our goals and adopt new habits if only someone else would come along and hold us accountable. The truth is, if we’re in a situation in which we can get away with breaking our commitments, then there are no consequences. At least, there aren’t any consequences that we believe in.
Certain things we do automatically. We do things because we know how, it’s not a big deal, we can do them without thinking about them, or we actively enjoy them. We take showers, brush our teeth, feed the cat, and buy snacks. Nobody has to hold us accountable, although some of the death glares from the cat might count.
Other things we do without accountability are to: put gas in the car, buy groceries, deposit our paychecks, pay attention when we drive, text our friends, follow celebrity gossip, squash bugs and spiders, play games, and really actually tons of other activities. These are things we would never procrastinate. We wouldn’t procrastinate even if they’re disgusting or scary, like spider detail, or time-consuming, like gaming or waiting in the checkout line. We understand that these actions lead immediately to results that we want. We also understand that not doing these things leads to results we do not want, like missing a must-see TV episode or not knowing whether the newest royal pregnancy will produce a boy or a girl. Well, okay, we won’t be able to avoid that last one even if we try.
The trouble is that there actually are consequences to everything, but they usually don’t make themselves known in the short term.
It’s not that we don’t believe in these consequences. We know full well that we should be “saving for retirement,” for example. The problem is that we don’t really truly believe that the day will come when we’ll personally feel these consequences because we don’t believe in a Future Me. Who is that crazy old coot to tell me how to spend my money? The Me who exists on this continuum in the time dimension, that Future Me who has white hair and sun spots, is not a real person! I’m much too smart to grow old! Oh, sure, I mean, I’m going to be rich and famous and have a maid and a butler and a chauffeur, but that version of me will be young and fit and sexy. We spend more time planning what we would do if we Won a Million Dollars in the Lottery than we do planning how much we should put aside for retirement and whether we should buy long-term care insurance.
We want accountability to help us keep the commitment to work out because we know that otherwise, we’ll never do it. We won’t do it because we don’t like it and we don’t want to. We won’t do it because we don’t believe in a time when our mobility will be limited. We don’t believe we’ll ever have a harder time climbing stairs or sitting down than we do today.
Is there any other habit that we even want as much as we claim to want the habit of exercise? Not that I’ve noticed. I don’t hear people asking for an accountability partner to help them pay off debt, save money, wear sunscreen, stop driving while distracted, or get more sleep. We don’t actually want to save money - we want to win it. We don’t actually want to get more sleep, at least not if it means going to bed any earlier. We don’t even think that distracted driving is a problem, at least not the way we do it, because we can totally text and drive, unlike that other guy weaving between lanes. The lack of sunscreen we immediately regret when our skin burns, not that that helps us remember the next time.
We think we want accountability because we think we can delegate a sense of responsibility. If we haven’t developed new habits, if we haven’t reached our goals, it’s because other people are too inconsiderate to nag us into living our values. Other people have let us down! How could it be our fault, if we can’t find any examples of people so inspiring that we Finally Feel Motivated?
The only way we can change is if we change our minds. If I want something different in my life, then it’s up to me to change my behavior. If I want to change my behavior in the short term or the long term, I have to tell myself a different story. I have to talk myself into it. I have to convince myself that the consequences are real. When I believe in the consequences, I don’t need accountability, because nothing can stop me. I’ll keep my commitments to myself and others because I understand what will happen if I don’t.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.