Talk to most coaches or trainers about how to achieve what you want, and you’ll hear a common refrain: Tell other people about your goals. Say them out loud. Post them on social. Invite other people into your journey, and see how much harder it is to bail on your dreams. Now let’s knock out this set and get that money, brah. #GOALS, son.
This is the concept of accountability, and before we go any further, I just want to say that I’m not knocking it. If being accountable to other people keeps you on track, great. If it motivates you, awesome. If it makes it that much harder to skip the gym and go ham on a bacon jalapeno cheeseburger at Wendy’s at 11 PM on a Tuesday, more power to you. As we say on the show all the time, take what works and leave the rest.
But here’s the thing.
When people talk about “accountability,” what they often mean is publicity.
Publicize your goals, they say, and see if broadcasting your ambition makes it harder to give up. Publish your intentions in a big manifesto on Facebook, and use those likes to motivate your journey. When you struggle to stick with it, remember that you promised everyone that you’d get that sick job in New York City and bench press 220 pounds and get that e-commerce side hustle up and running, and just imagine how dumb you’re gonna feel if you don’t post that picture of you bench pressing in front of the Statue of Liberty while you manage your drop-ship business from your Galaxy S10. And when that post pops up in your Memories a year later, go ahead and smash that share button, ‘cuz that’s your reward for actually doing what you said you would.
In other words, don’t just change. Show everyone you changed.
As you can probably tell, I find that philosophy pretty problematic. In some cases, it’s straight-up toxic.
For one thing, this kind of self-improvement publicity is exhausting. It’s hard enough to thrive in your career and be happy and find your purpose. On top of that, now we have to market all that, just to make sure we stay on top of things? Just to make sure other people know that we’re on top of things? This cycle of self-consciousness and self-comparison can become overwhelming. In extreme cases, it’s a major factor in the anxiety and depression that social media brings on.
More importantly, this conflation of accountability and publicity — this blurring of “I’m going to do this thing” to “watch me do this thing” — is oftentimes the very thing that keeps us from our goals.
Because the moment we turn our self-development into a public spectacle, we shift our relationship to our goals. We think we’ve found another way to stay accountable for our commitments. But more often than not, we’ve just found another reason to give up on them.
Accountability is designed to keep us connected. Publicity is designed to keep us visible.
Accountability is about our journey. Publicity is about our perception. Accountability keeps us on the path. Publicity keeps us on other people’s minds.
The two look very similar, because we’re usually looking for a way to be accountable to other people.
But when being accountable to other people means posting photos and inspirational quotes and target goals, we’re not actually accountable to someone else. We’re accountable to ideas — ideas about what we think other people want, ideas about what other people find desirable, ideas about how we’ll feel about ourselves when we finally accomplish what we said we would. And these ideas often end up overshadowing the original goal, or poisoning our relationship to it in ways we don’t even realize — something the latest scientific research is now bearing out.
So in light of all that, we gotta ask:
Is it possible that there are actually downsides to accountability?
The answer is yes. But the reasons might surprise you. Let’s look at three of them — and explore how they can actually help you stay on track without driving yourself crazy.
Accountability is narcissistic.
In its best form, accountability creates incentives or disincentives to keep you on track. This could be a friendly nudge from a coworker, a tough reminder from a significant other, or a financial penalty from a concerned friend. One of my colleagues, for example, recently committed to losing 30 pounds by radically changing his diet with the help of a nutrition coach. Every time he failed to text his coach what he had for meals, he’d send my colleague an animated GIF of a chubby panda going to town on some bamboo. According to my colleague, that was exactly what he needed to put down the Ghirardelli and pick up some kale chips. Sure enough, he shed the weight, and he’s grateful for the accountability.
Like I said — whatever works.
The problem with accountability, though, is that it hooks into the ego in a really powerful way.
When we tell other people about goals, we’re basically creating another layer to our journey. We’re basically saying, “If I give up on this goal, I’ll be disappointed. But now that I’ve told other people, they’ll be really disappointed too. So now I really can’t give up, ‘cuz I can live with self-loathing, but I can’t deal with embarrassment.”
In other words, it seems like we’re using another people to keep us accountable, but what we’re really doing is using their perceptions of us.
Believing that we can’t accomplish our goals on our own, we publicize them to someone else, in the hopes that the social pressure of their opinion will act as a stopgap when our own motivation dries up.
We’re what we’re really doing is externalizing our own egos and calling it “accountability.” We’re using our own narcissism — reflected back to us through someone else — to keep us in check.
So what’s wrong with that, exactly? It’s a fair question. After all, isn’t self-improvement fundamentally narcissistic? Aren’t we all trying to get better to shore up our sense of self? Is it really so bad to use our ego, if the ego is what we’re trying to build up?
It’s true that there will always be an element of narcissism in self-improvement. And that’s totally cool. Healthy narcissism is an integral part of a well-calibrated personality. Healthy narcissism is what motivates us to protect ourselves, invest in ourselves, and improve our skills, status and well-being in this world. Healthy narcissism is a life-giving force.
So we don’t need to go full Zen and remove the ego from the accountability equation entirely. All we need to do is be aware of it.
And one of the most important things to be aware of is the tendency for our ego about our goals to eclipse the meaning of our goals.
When we hold ourselves accountable to other people — that is, when we hold our egos accountable by tapping into other people’s egos — we often end up pursuing our goals for the wrong reasons.
What starts as an admirable goal — to get in shape, to chase that promotion, to save $5,000 by the end of the year — morphs into a narcissistic hall of mirrors. We add new layers to the original goal: the perceptions of other people, the shame and guilt we anticipate feeling if we fail, and the social status we’ll enjoy (or lose) as a result.
Now when we go to the gym, we’re not working out to celebrate our own strength and enjoy the experience of our bodies in action; we’re working out to avoid looking lazy, weak or unattractive.
When we chase that promotion, we’re not pushing ourselves to take on new challenges and grow as leaders; we’re pushing ourselves to keep up with our friends, beat our colleagues and avoid looking like failures.
When we put away that money, we’re not saving up to buy ourselves a little freedom or enjoy that meditation retreat in Nepal; we’re saving up to prove something to our family, avoid feeling impoverished or insecure, or avoid the shame of being bad with money.
This is why accountability drives so many people insane. They think they’re giving themselves an advantage, and in many cases, they are. But it’s usually a short-term advantage — a stopgap — a temporary boost that gets you through, like that NOS injection in The Fast and the Furious movies. (Fun fact: the Fast franchise is actually a huge morality tale about the dangers of accountability. Talk about living your life a quarter-mile at a time.) What they’re really doing is adding a huge layer of ego to the equation.
That ego then gets wrapped around the original goal, to the point where they can’t actually separate the two. Why are they pursuing the goal in the first place? Is it to become a better person, or is it to avoid looking like a worse person? Is it to grow as a human being, or is it to keep up with the other human beings?
That narcissistic accountability might actually keep them on track. It might even turn them into the people they wanted to become. But in the process, they lose sight of the deeper reasons for pursuing their goals — the joy and meaning that come from hard work, growth and accomplishment. That’s the cost of ego-driven accountability.
So as you work on your goals, keep these pitfalls in mind.
If you need that accountability, then by all means, embrace it. But notice when your accountability muddies the waters. Check in with yourself along the way, and see if you’re pursuing your goals because you want to pursue them for their own sake, or because you’re trying to please other people or avoid failure, discomfort or shame.
The moment you notice this narcissism creeping into your goals, take a step back and recalibrate. Write down the reasons you decided to pursue your goal in the first place. Know that the only meaningful and lasting gratification will come from your personal relationship to your journey. And remember that outside incentives and disincentives should only act as fuel on the fire. They shouldn’t become the fire. The moment they do, you can be sure that too much ego has crept into your accountability system.
And given all that, you might explore the option of not being accountable to other people.
Maybe you pursue your goals privately, and find out what it’s like to pursue something because you want to pursue it — because you’ve committed yourself to it — and not because your entire Slack channel knows about it.
Maybe you’ll imagine the joy you’ll experience when you post that photo of your weight loss or announce your big promotion on Facebook after the fact, and that anticipatory pleasure will be enough motivation for you.
Or maybe you’ll discover a new way to stick to your goals when the only person whose validation really matters is your own.
I know it’s crazy to imagine, but that actually is possible these days. We just have to sort through a whole bunch of ego to embrace it.
Accountability is deceptive.
The brain is a funny organ. For all its sophistication, it’s also vulnerable to biases and quirks that can lead us astray, usually without our conscious awareness.
One of these quirks is the tendency to confuse imagination for actual experience. Used the right way, this quirk can actually become a superpower. Used the wrong way, this quirk can give us a false sense of accomplishment.
Which is exactly what happens with accountability.
When we tell other people about our goals, we’re not just letting them in on our plans. According to researchers, our brains are experiencing those goals as if we already completed them. As Derek Sivers explains in his fascinating TED talk on the subject, when we tell people about the things we want to do, our brain actually starts to believe that it’s already done them!
Sivers points to a century of research on this phenomenon. In 1933, he explains, Wera Mahler, a German psychologist, found that when other people acknowledge something in us — like a goal or a dream or a target — it feels real in the mind. Fifty years later, psychologist Peter Gollwitzer built on that principle in a watershed study.
In the study, a large group of people wrote down their personal goals.
Half of them announced their commitment to the goal to the room. Half of them didn’t.
Then, everyone was given 45 minutes of work that would directly lead them toward their goal — but were allowed to stop at any time.
Those who didn’t publicize their goal to the room worked the entire 45 minutes on average. Afterward, they said that they felt they still had a long way to go to achieve their goal.
Those who did broadcast their goal to the room, meanwhile, quit after 33 minutes on average — and, strangely, reported feeling much closer to achieving their goal.
Those who publicized their commitment to other people quit sooner than those who kept quiet. And those who publicized and quit sooner said they were closer to achieving their goal than people who just kept their nose to the grindstone.
(Which actually explains a lot about the folks I met when I lived in Hollywood. I’ve never seen so many people in Starbucks talking about writing the next Citizen Kane and also acting like they had already written it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I heard the word “accountability” constantly when I was living there. But that’s a story for another day.)
So basically, the brain has a funny way of confusing publicity with completion — or, as Sivers puts it, “your mind mistakes the talking for the doing.”
Knowing this, what should we do?
The most obvious answer is to not talk about our goals as much — which, as we’ve discussed, is often the best course of action. Not all of our goals need to be shared. And given the research on how our brains are wired, maybe they shouldn’t be.
If we keep our goals to ourselves, we avoid the false sense of accomplishment that comes from talking about them, and “delay the gratification that social acknowledgment brings.” Which, let’s be honest, is often the most mature and productive thing to do.
But I don’t think we need to avoid talking about our goals completely. We just need to be aware of how sharing our intentions can unconsciously undermine them. We need to use our understanding of this cognitive quirk to our advantage, so that we can stay accountable to other people without riding that false wave of validation.
One key is the way we talk about our goals.
Sivers, for example, points out that we could discuss our intentions in a way that gives us little or no gratification.
For example, instead of telling your roommate “I’m gonna shed 50 pounds and finish a triathlon this year,” you might go with something like, “I really want to lose weight and complete a triathlon, so I need to train every day and get disciplined with my sleep and diet. So if you see me going to town on some Buncha Crunch and watching YouTube till 2 AM, please call me out on it.”
That way, you’re sharing your goals without prematurely celebrating the win. The focus of your publicity is not on the end result — which is seductive — but on the process. You’re broadcasting the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal. You’re signaling your commitment to doing the work.
Whatever language you use, the most important variable will always be your degree of self-awareness.
If you’re unconsciously spouting off about all the things you want to achieve in life, you’ll easily fall into the premature gratification pitfall. If you blab about your future plans without having a strong set of habits to achieve them, you’ll get high on that false sense of accomplishment. And if you do this well enough, you might have a very successful career in Los Angeles.
But if you stay present enough to notice your brain’s tendency to feel like it’s done something before it really has, then you’ll have a much better chance of catching yourself in the act. You can then clarify your goal, remember where you are in the process, and recommit to the habits and steps necessary to achieve it — which is the point of accountability in the first place.
Accountability can commit us to the wrong goals.
At the end of the day, we don’t stick with goals over the long term because we’re accountable. We stick with them because they’re meaningful. A truly meaningful goal creates its own accountability. Purpose is a galvanizing force, even when your purpose gets hard. Talking about your goals with other people is just the cherry on top of that high-octane motivation sundae, to butcher that metaphor completely.
But in many cases, we create goals before we know just how meaningful they really are.
You pick up a guitar, for example, and have a blast noodling on it. You then purchase a year’s worth of lessons, spend hours a day practicing and shred the air guitar in the shower every morning, fantasizing about how amazing it’ll feel to be up on stage one day.
Knowing that it’ll take a ton of work to get to that level, you tell your friends and family about this new goal, riding that initial high, hoping that these people will keep you accountable if you ever lose focus and slip up off your path (to quote the great philosopher Lupe Fiasco, who knows a thing or two about accountability).
Then, a few months later, you start canceling lessons and skipping practices. You spend less time noodling and more time agonizing. You slowly realize that you don’t actually love the guitar as much as you thought — not enough to dedicate a huge chunk of your life to it, anyway.
Suddenly, the goal that seemed so urgent a few months ago now seems premature, less urgent, maybe even empty. But you told all those people about it, and now they’re pushing you to stick with it, just like you requested. You’re accountable to a goal you’re not even sure you still want.
So you keep practicing. And you push through the misery. And your passion turns into a chore. And your chore turns into an obligation. And your obligation turns into resentment and self-loathing and a sense of meaninglessness — all because you’re being held accountable to something you no longer want. The social pressure keeps you engaged, because the fear of releasing this goal is greater than the joy of moving onto something you truly care about.
This is the danger of publicizing your goals too early. And it’s a great reason to keep your goals to yourself for a period of time, until you discover whether they’re meaningful enough to be held accountable for.
It took me years to discover how important this principle is. For years, I created accountability around every passing interest, and for a long time, it kept me pursuing goals that didn’t make sense. I was also more susceptible to that tendency, for a few reasons.
I’m a naturally curious person with a number of far-flung skills and interests, and I’ve chosen a job that puts me in touch with tons of different people, worlds and opportunities. In a given week, I can get excited about learning Russian, starting a software business or doing a podcast tour through South America, to name just three actual examples that came up recently.
Before I know it, I’ll be mapping out plans, creating processes and getting super pumped about interviewing Vladimir Putin in his mother tongue, sitting back and counting my stacks from my breezy side hustle, and answering fan mail from my new audience in Venezuela. And to make all that happen, I’ll start talking about those goals with other people — creating accountability long before I’ve even begun.
Inevitably, I’ll get some perspective. My initial high will subside. I’ll look at my already bananas to-do list, and I’ll remember that I have dozens of commitments to fulfill first.
I’ll realize that I actually don’t have a burning desire to speak Russian. I’ll remember that creating a side hustle is never as easy as it sounds. I’ll learn that focusing on my audience here at home matters much more to me than a hypothetical one in a remote country. And I’ll wish I hadn’t talked about those goals before I confirmed that they truly mattered to me.
So now, whenever I stumble across an interesting new opportunity or project or goal, I take a different approach.
First, I shut the f*ck up. This is just a matter of policy now.
I don’t talk about the goal with anyone else, unless it’s to discuss the opportunity, pressure-test it or find out how I actually feel about it. I keep the goal to myself, knowing that in two weeks this shiny new dream might mean as much to me as climbing Mount Everest, which, as you can imagine, I have absolutely no interest in climbing. I’ll give my new interest a little incubation period to settle, work itself out, and tell me if it’s actually compelling.
Then, I play. I explore. I research. I imagine. I dip my toe in the proverbial water.
I download the first level of Russian on Duolingo, do a light Goog on part-time software businesses, read some articles about journalism in South America. Maybe I talk to a couple friends and mentors to get some intel — not to talk about my commitment to the goal, but to learn what the goal would really take. Maybe I book a Skype lesson with a teacher in Russia or schedule an interview with a Columbian dissident. My intention at this stage is not to pursue the goal officially, but to take the goal for a little test drive, see how it feels, see if I actually enjoy it. Then I use that data to decide whether I actually want to pursue it.
Finally, armed with that data, I’ll decide what to do. I’ll either release the goal, knowing that I don’t actually care about it as much as I thought. Or I’ll decide to keep going, knowing that I actually do care enough about this goal to continue.
This step might happen in a single afternoon or over the course of six months. I might play with the previous step for a year or more before deciding. But eventually, my experience will tell me if the goal is meaningful enough to pursue, and my litmus test for that is basically this: Am I having fun? Would I do this for pleasure if I weren’t being paid? Is this sustaining my interest? Is it making me a better host, a better manager, a better person? If so, then it’s probably worth pursuing. And if it is, then I do.
Then — and only then — do I talk about it with other people.
Because only then will the extra accountability actually become useful — when I’m already committed to a meaningful goal, and could use a little extra juice from my friends and colleagues to stay in the game.
If I don’t go through these stages, then I set myself up for a really dangerous trap: pursuing something because other people want me to pursue it (because I made them think that I wanted to), and not because I actually want to pursue it (which has nothing to do with them).
That’s how people become disillusioned, confused and bitter in their careers. That’s how talented people with diverse interests fail to get anything meaningful done. It’s the reason people finish med school and internships and residencies, then realize that they actually hate being doctors. It’s why people spend 10 years writing a novel with the encouragement of their friends and family, only to wake up one day and realize they hate the writing process. Because they talked about what they wanted before they knew if they really wanted it.
Does this mean accountability will always force us to pursue goals we don’t care about? Of course not. It just means that we have to be very careful about when we create that accountability.
If we do it too soon, then we risk creating social pressure to pursue things we don’t actually care about it. If we do it too late, then we risk missing out on the benefits of accountability when we need it most.
But all things being equal, it’s probably more dangerous to create accountability too soon. That’s a mistake that even top performers make, because they have the networks and processes in place to create powerful support systems. That’s why self-awareness, patience and deliberate work are so important here — to avoid this trap that masquerades as productivity.
A New Approach to Accountability
So accountability has some dark sides. Talking about our goals often taps into our narcissism. It gives us a false sense of accomplishment before we’ve done the work. And when we create it too soon, it can keep us chasing the wrong goals for far too long.
But we don’t need to ditch the idea of accountability completely in order to get things done. We just need to develop the right relationship with accountability.
We need to make sure that talking about our goals is not an exercise in ego but a policy of commitment.
We need to know when to stay quiet about our goals and when to publicize them out loud — and, when we do, how to talk about them in a way that doesn’t give us that false gratification.
And we need to make sure that we actually find our goals meaningful and sustainable before we create accountability around them.
Accountability is still powerful. It still has a place in our lives and careers. We just have to make sure we’re creating and using it the right way.
Which also means knowing when to let go of accountability.
Some goals run their course. Some goals transform into bigger, clearer, or different ones. Some goals — especially ones related to mental health, emotional experience and internal transformation — need to be private to some degree.
In those cases, sometimes the most powerful thing to do is to release external accountability.
You might do that by not publicizing certain goals. You might do that by forgiving yourself for dropping off the journey from time to time. Or you might do that by letting other people know that you no longer want to be held accountable for a given goal. These aren’t just valid choices. They’re often necessary ones.
The key to harnessing accountability without falling into these traps is to think about accountability in a more flexible way. Sometimes we need a lot of it to achieve a goal. Sometimes we need none of it. Sometimes we need a lot of it up front and less as time goes on. Sometimes we need less up front and a lot as the goal ramps up. Sometimes we need to do some work before we create it. Sometimes we need to create it in order to do some work.
And sometimes, we need to remember that accountability is never the goal itself, but just one more tool in our productivity toolkit. There’s incredible opportunity in that realization. And even greater freedom.
[Featured image by Danielle MacInnes]