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Mind Body and Soul: Crowdsourcing Self-Control: Success Through Accountability

By: Michelle Vessel

Anyone who has ever sworn off a bad habit at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve or filled out an annual self-evaluation form at work is probably already familiar with the concept of SMART goals. For decades, the conventional wisdom has held that in order to have the best shot at success, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. Though there are reams of scientific research and word-of-mouth anecdotes to back up this concept, several recent studies have caused a stir by suggesting that there may be one key ingredient missing from the SMART goal recipe: accountability.

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What Is Accountability?

Due to its association with the political sphere, the term “accountability” has picked up something of a negative connotation over the years. When a lawmaker or official is believed to have overstepped the bounds of his or her office, disgruntled constituents and teeth-gnashing editorial writers often call for greater accountability, almost as a form of punishment. But in its most basic sense, “accountability” just means being called on to account for one’s actions, usually in a public setting.

When it comes to goal-setting, accountability means sharing your stated intentions with someone else, be it your significant other or your 300 Twitter followers, and checking in with that audience on a regular basis to update your progress and hash out your successes and shortcomings.

Why is accountability important?  Well, people who build an element of accountability into their self-improvement efforts often radically improve their chances of long-term success. In one study conducted by researchers at Dominican University in California, study participants who had an accountability network were 33% more likely to lose weight than were those who kept their goals to themselves. In a similar study carried out at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, dieters who documented their eating habits on social media platforms were more successful in their efforts than those who were instructed to go it alone.

Devise an Accountability Plan That Works for You

Why do so many well-intentioned people skip accountability when it comes to setting goals? Mainly, making a public proclamation that you need to make a change – whether that means losing weight, improving your on-the-job performance, spending more one-on-one time with the kids, or whatever variable it is that needs tweaking in your life – can be kind of embarrassing.  According to Dr. Tricia Leahy, a researcher with the Miriam Hospital Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Rhode Island, the challenge is finding the right amount of accountability for you. The “sweet spot” is an arrangement that takes you slightly out of your comfort zone, but not so much so that you dread checking in with progress reports. Ideally, you should feel challenged in a positive way, but not paralyzed by the fear of humiliation.

Luckily for today’s goal-setters and go-getters, we’re living in a golden age of opportunities and options. Whether you prefer cutting-edge apps or a more personal, human-centered approach, it’s a snap to set up an accountability system that works for you.

High-Tech Accountability Tools

From complex online programs that appeal to spreadsheet fans and data nerds to simple apps that conveniently keep your change efforts on track via your smartphone, the last few years have seen a tidal wave of new technology-enabled methods of gauging and reporting your progress toward goals.

On the Web

There are a wide range of popular websites, many of which cost nothing to join, that can help you stay accountable by sharing your results either with a select group of friends or the public at large. Popular choices include 43Things.com, HabitForge.com, and JoesGoals.com. The website DietBetter.com turns weight loss into a social challenge, while Stickk.com ups the ante by allowing users to bet on their success. If you succeed at your stated goal, you get the money back. If you fall short, your money gets donated to the charity of your choice (or to an “anti-charity” whose cause you disagree with). Many of these sites also have mobile apps for on-the-go accountability updates.

Socially Speaking

Some of the simplest and most popular tech tools for accountability updates are social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Many recent studies have focused specifically on the use of goal-related tweets, status updates, check-ins at the gym and meal photos as accountability tools, and those who consistently report their progress using these methods tend to be more successful in achieving their goals than average people.

In the Palm of Your Hand

For those who find the prospect of manual social media posts too tedious, there are also a slew of platforms and apps (mostly diet- and fitness-related) that can help you stay accountable by posting your progress to social media sites automatically. Platforms, apps and sites like Nike+, MyFitnessPal, iFit, DailyMile and RunKeeper make it a cinch to post your workout stats without you having to lift a finger.

A Little Privacy… Please  

If you like the idea of an online accountability system, but would rather keep your goals away from the prying eyes of the fellow churchgoers and business associates that follow your social media accounts, there are other options available. Many accountability sites allow you to choose an anonymous username rather than using your full name. Similarly, you could register for and start spending time on bulletin boards related to your goal, whether that’s running your first marathon or improving your parenting skills. If you opt for an anonymous form of online accountability, however, experts say it’s important to make sure you’re engaged and emotionally invested enough to care about the approval of the community of users – otherwise, it won’t matter to you if you have to tell them you’ve fallen off track.

High-Touch Accountability Tools

If all this talk of tweets and status updates leaves you cold (or bewildered), you may be a prime candidate for a more personal take on accountability. Though groups like Weight Watchers and 12-Step organizations have been around for decades, a growing number of people are hooking up with partners or a crew of like-minded folks to check in on goals, give progress reports – and even offer up a little tough love when necessary.

Accountability partners or group members don’t have to be focused on the same goal. In fact, it may be more beneficial if you’re tackling different types of targets so that meetings don’t devolve into nitpicking or one-upmanship. Experts suggest scheduling get-togethers or progress reports on a regular basis. These can range from text message or email exchanges to tête-à-têtes over coffee or cocktails, or anything else that works for the group – as long as each member or partner is offering up a report on a regular basis.

For the ultimate in one-on-one accountability, you may want to consider working with a coach. Skilled professionals are available to help clients work toward many types of achievements, ranging from making it as an entrepreneur to competing in a triathlon. Technology has enabled a wide range of options and pricing levels for coaching services. You can select less expensive email coaching or pricier face-to-face sessions, depending on your budget and the extent of  support you’re looking for. Though it’s not for everybody, many of those who have made the investment in coaching describe it as an enormously helpful form of accountability.

No matter which approach you opt for, adding an element of accountability to your next attempt at self-improvement is a smart way to drastically increase your chances of success. If a willpower deficit has caused you to fall short in the past, try relying on the support (and scrutiny) of others as motivation to stick to your plan this time around. And who knows? By bravely proclaiming your goals to the world, you just might inspire others to take on tough challenges, as well.

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