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Accountability Keeps Your Goals on Track

The gist: You’ll tell the truth more often if you think lying will be uncovered. And that’s exactly the accountability you need to stick to your most difficult goals.


When I started my business, I had a procrastination problem. I’d convinced myself that waking up at 9:00 and starting work at 11:00 would be fine.

It didn’t take long to realize that it wouldn’t be fine at all. I was accomplishing nothing. So I committed to a fix: waking up at 6:00 and getting straight to work.

Then, for months, I continued to wake up at 9:00 and putz around until 11:00. Just like before.

During this time, I remember taking a survey asking me about my daily habits. I reported that I was an “early riser” who woke up at 6:00 or earlier every day. I guess that was an aspirational answer.

This pattern continued a few more months until a friend mentioned he had the same problem and suggested becoming accountability partners.

The plan was simple: we’d meet each other on Skype by 6:05 each morning, lay out our plan for the day, and then get some important work done immediately after the call before eating, showering, or letting other distractions get in the way.

It worked brilliantly.

Suddenly, I was accountable to someone who could call me out. If I wasn’t there on time, it was obvious what happened; I’d slept in.

And, in a completely “Duh!” kind of moment, there’s now research proving a bit of accountability will take you a very long way towards actually accomplishing the goals you say are important to you.

Research tells us that a simple accountability trick like this can be the difference between success and failure for your most difficult habits and goals.

Accountability Forces You To Set Smart Goals And Stick To Them

If you’ve ever tried to create a new habit with a friend or group, you already know this: Having someone to hold you accountable makes your chances of success skyrocket. It’s why programs like Weight Watchers works.

The question is, why does it work?

There’s a psychological study with the answer.

Three researchers set out to learn how to get people taking surveys to be truthful with their answers.1

When researchers ask people to answer sensitive questions like…

  • How often do you exercise?
  • Are you a smoker?
  • Do you have an STD?

…people tend to fib—even if they know their answers are anonymous.

The desire to be seen as socially acceptable2 is so strong that you’re apt to lie about delicate questions even if no one will find out.

That’s true even if it means reinforcing a bad habit that hinders your progress on important goals.

But what if someone would find out? This is what the research tested. And they did it with what’s called a “bogus pipeline” experiment. That’s an experiment where the subjects are connected to a fake polygraph test to coerce them to answer questions truthfully.

One question they tested was, “How often do you exercise?”

Most participants gave a standard answer; they exercised a “normal” amount each week. But one batch of answers came back lower. They admitted they exercised less than normal. You might think that was completely random, but it wasn’t.

You can guess which group was more honest.

Thinking they’d be found out if they lied, they group using the fake polygraph test told the truth.

Keeping Goals on Track

Everyone lies occasionally. Especially to make themselves look or feel better.

But the research tells us if you think you’ll be caught, you’re far more likely to be honest.

How can you use that knowledge to keep your goals on track? The same way I used it to keep myself on the straight and narrow for my 6:00 wakeup call.

I knew if I didn’t actually get up on time, there’d be no way to make an excuse; I’d be found out by the person who was counting on me to show up.

Not only that, but I knew he was counting on me for his success as well. Lying wouldn’t just hurt me, it would hurt him, too.

Since I knew I’d be found out and there was no way to rationalize my way out of taking action towards my goal, I rubbed my eyes every morning when the alarm went off and got up because I didn’t want anyone to know I’d failed to meet my goal and I didn’t want to let my friend down.

If I hadn’t had that bit of accountability to keep me motivated, it would have been a lot easier to hit snooze, close my eyes, and tell myself, “we’ll just start tomorrow” … day after day after day.

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

If there’s a new goal or habit you’re trying to dedicate yourself to, you can keep yourself on track by setting up your own accountability measures.

  1. Find someone to check in with every day who will know if you’re telling the truth or not. It could be someone from work or a friend with a similar goal.
  2. Tell your friends and family about your goal. Sharing your plans with an audience increases the feeling of responsibility to complete the goal. And having the regular support and check-ins that follows will remind you of the work you need to do to finish on time.
  3. Focus on goals that are more internally motivating. After all, the easiest habits to build are the ones you don’t care if anyone else know about.

Footnotes

  1. Source: Motivation to Report Sensitive Behaviors on Surveys: Evidence From a Bogus Pipeline Experiment
  2. Even if the only person you’re fooling is yourself