Why accountability works

Whether you’re accountable to yourself or someone else, it’s an essential tactic for making behavioural changes
Published April 20, 2020

You may have heard the word “accountability” bandied about in health and fitness circles, but how do we actually achieve it and why does it matter? 

Molly Carmel, LSCW-R, founder of The Beacon Program and author of Breaking Up with Sugar, explains.

“Accountability is essential for any sort of behaviour change, big or small,” she says. Here’s why: “Holding yourself accountable makes you more likely to follow through on commitments you’ve made.” Being accountable also makes it more difficult to throw in the towel when your journey toward your goal gets tough, which it inevitably will, she adds. 

Accountability also “allows you to keep a better eye on your progress, which helps you to stay motivated” and “increases mindfulness, which helps in attending to the day-to-day achieving of your goals.”

Without accountability in some form, reaching our goals is pretty difficult, perhaps nigh impossible, Carmel explains, particularly if the path toward our goals requires us to work through discomfort, negative emotions or requires the sacrificing of other priorities.

“There will always be moments that it is easier to throw in the towel. Without accountability, we can’t get through those moments,” she says. “We are much more likely to be successful when we make our environment, our life and those around us more supportive of our goals.”

The benefits of accountability may be clear, but how do we actually become accountable? 

“The key to accountability,” Carmel says, “is creating a system that keeps you on the path to your goals, even when you aren’t feeling motivated, [when you’re] feeling emotional or moody, or other priorities are competing for your attention.”

Accountability can come in many forms, and you can choose to be accountable to yourself or to other people – both are beneficial.

Being accountable to oneself is effective, Carmel says, because being driven internally to reach a goal can be more motivating than encouragement from outside sources. It’s also something you can always tap into, she says, because “you are always in a relationship with yourself – meaning, while other people may come and go out of your life, you aren’t going anywhere.”


Tips for being accountable to yourself


  • Create reminders

“Change is hard! Hard, but totally doable,” Carmel says. “It requires retraining your brain to create new pathways so you can signal new behaviours. Left up to our own devices, we are likely to forget our goals, and how badly we want to achieve them, allowing [us] to revert back to old habits without even realizing it! This is why creating reminders can be so helpful – they cue a new behaviour in a moment that you may forget or not otherwise think of it – this means setting an alarm when it’s time to work out, setting calendar alarms when you are going to work on your meditation practice, even setting a reminder to eat lunch if you’re working on weight loss. After a while, reminders will be less necessary [as] your brain will become accustomed to the change and it will happen automatically.”

  • Reward yourself

“Rewarding ourselves after we do hard things makes us more likely to keep following through with our goals,” says Carmel. “Choose a reward that doesn’t interfere with your long-term goals – if your goal is to work out more, you can allow yourself a TV binge when you get home. After a few hours writing your novel, you can treat yourself with a bubble bath and face mask.”

  • Log your progress

“Self-monitoring – keeping a record or log of your progress – is one of the most basic and most effective tools for accountability,” says Carmel. “This can look like tracking your food if you’re trying to lose weight or tracking how many pages you write a day if you’re trying to complete a screenplay. Logging works because it helps you to keep an eye on your day-by-day progress; it motivates you in seeing when you are moving closer to your goals and when you are moving farther away.”

  • Create SMART goals

“All too often, we make goals that are too vague, open-ended or unrealistic,” Carmel says. “Be sure your goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.”

The downsides of having to hold yourself accountable on your own is that sometimes we’re just not in the mood and sometimes our goals can feel overwhelming to achieve alone. We’re also prone to lying to ourselves when no one is watching and we’re not feeling up to working on our goals. 

This is where it becomes beneficial to bring others into our accountability circle. 

“Having a person – other than yourself – to be accountable [to] can be a real game changer. Partnering (or grouping) up can help motivate you when you’re not feeling so inspired. It can also build in someone to give you the ‘real talk’ you need when you’re not feeling your most inspired.”

You may also find yourself in a situation where you are being asked to help someone else stay accountable in reaching their goals, or perhaps you see them struggling and want to reach out and offer your help. Here’s what Carmel says you can do. 

  • Offer to be an accountability partner:  You can be a study partner or a fitness buddy, for example.  
  • Ask for a commitment: You can ask your person for a commitment from them to achieve their goal and then ask what you can do to help support them in that commitment.
  • If you live with this person, Carmel says, ask how you can help make your environment more hospitable to them changing their behaviour. “If your partner’s goal is to not eat sugar, [maybe you can] offer to stop buying the ice cream you usually have … making the environment less challenging is one of the most important ways you help someone reach their goals.”

Ultimately, when it comes to accountability, Carmel says, any form of it is better than none, and it’s important to do what works for you, not what may work for someone else. Carmel’s advice? “Be compassionate – but real – with yourself when things aren’t working.”