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

The Mail on Sunday - You - - News - IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS ZARA PICKEN

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!’

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.’

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.


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