Try this: External Accountability

In this series of blog posts, I’d like to invite you to figure out what works for you. The idea is to try different approaches and find what resonates the most with you.

This week’s suggestion is to use external accountability. This is when someone is waiting for you or relying on you to do something.

For some people, this is truly key: in order for them to do something, they must have external accountability. In Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework, these are the Obligers; namely, people who meet external expectations but resist internal ones. (You can take the free quiz here in order to determine your tendency.)


Deadlines are a classic example of external accountability. Your supervisor says, “I need that report by 9:00 on Monday morning.” It’s a true deadline, someone else has imposed it, they are truly expecting you to deliver, and if you don’t, there will be consequences.

For many people, this works like a charm. Importantly, self-imposed deadlines are not the same because then you yourself have set the deadline, so it’s an internal and not an external expectation, and there are no immediate negative consequences if you don’t meet it.

Buddies or peer groups

Another source of external accountability is a buddy or a peer group. Let’s say you want to go to the gym, but you don’t often keep an appointment with yourself, so you can rather make an appointment with a friend. If your friend is relying on you to exercise together, then you’d be much more likely to respect the commitment.

A similar idea can be to sign up for a class where the instructor will actually check whether you’re present, you’ll be taking up someone else’s spot if you don’t show up, or you’ll receive a fine if you miss the appointment.

Peer groups can also serve a similar function, examples being book clubs, running clubs, dance groups, etc. Basically, there’s a date and time set, which gives you the opportunity to participate in an event. Peer groups can be better than buddies in the sense that even if one person decides not to show up, someone else still will. However, the downside is that you feel less personal responsibility because you know someone else will be there even if you aren’t, which diffuses the responsibility.

Higher stakes

Some people take external accountability a step further. It’s possible to hire a coach, in which case you literally pay money to have someone check up on you, and you can also set it up in such a way that you have to pay a fine if you fail to do what you said you’d do.

I’ve also heard of people harnessing the power of public embarrassment. One person wanted to get up early, so she scheduled an embarrassing tweet to be published at 7:00 am. Every morning, she had to get out of bed, go to the living room where her phone was charging, and cancel the scheduled tweet before 7:00 am. That seems like really high stakes to me though!

Some people also make bets they really wouldn’t want to lose. My husband is now learning German, and he committed to practicing with the Babbel app five times a week for thirty minutes. If he skips more than three days in a month, for a week he will have to wear a sweatshirt with the logo of the rugby team he hates the most. Apparently, that’s extremely motivating for him because he hasn’t missed a single practice for the last two weeks.

Don’t try to change yourself

Is external accountability helpful for you? Great! Harness its power as much as you can.

Often, people who benefit from external accountability feel frustrated that they can’t keep commitments to themselves. “Why can I get everything done when it’s for someone else but not when it’s for myself? Do I not respect myself enough? Am I not motivated enough?”

I don’t think it has anything to do with self-respect, necessarily. And it’s also not a matter of motivation–motivation can help in the beginning when something is new and exciting, but it’s not a stable basis for habit formation. So you shouldn’t try to get yourself more motivated or increase your self-respect for the sake of keeping your habits (improving your self-esteem can be a good idea for other reasons, of course).

Basically, don’t beat yourself up for requiring external accountability! It’s who you are, and now that you know this about yourself, implement systems of accountability for your important habits. You’re all set, no need to change yourself!

And what if you respond in the opposite way to external expectations? Do you rebel against deadlines? Do you feel suffocated when somebody is breathing down your neck? We’ll talk about this next week!

Photo: Our little hiking accountability group 🙂

Photo credit: Lee Ayres

One thought on “Try this: External Accountability

  1. Pingback: Try this: Make a possibilities list – A Good Life

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