The Power of Accountability Partners

As we start a new year and a new decade, many people are setting goals and resolutions for themselves as they feel energized by the possibilities as the calendar turns. And yet we all know that our motivation for these goals and resolutions quickly declines, and we often fall back into our old routines by February.

Part of the reason that these goals fail is that we have the intention to change, but we have not yet developed the habits to sustain the change we desire. So we are relying on sheer willpower to do the activities that are necessary for our goal; unfortunately, willpower is finite and gets exhausted quickly, and we revert to our old habits. To make a sustainable lasting change, we must rely on building new habits, rather than setting goals, as Shane Parrish nicely describes.

So how do we create new habits? It seems like the same problem – we need willpower to create new habits, and we have finite willpower. How can we increase our willpower to sustain us through the necessary transition period to build and lock in new habits?

One simple and powerful intervention that has helped me to create big shifts in my life is accountability partners. I will put in more work to not disappoint somebody else than I’m willing to put in if it’s just me that I will disappoint. Accountability partners leverage the social monkey brain to use the fear of shame to provide extra energy and willpower to follow through on the commitments I’ve made. That may sound abstract, so let me use my recent examples to illustrate.

I’ve told the story of my transition to coaching, but I left out how an accountability partner helped me accelerate my transition. The friend who asked me at Overlap’16 how I wanted to measure my life was also looking to make a career transition to find more meaningful work, so we agreed to schedule weekly phone calls to check in on our progress. And those phone calls were hugely motivating for me; it gave me a weekly spur to do something to investigate new possibilities such as coaching, even if it was as small as having a short conversation with a coach to learn more about what they did. As I kept making these small efforts each week, it built into a habit of taking action towards becoming a coach, and now I’m self-employed as a coach three years later. This experience was one inspiration for my small steps lead to big change post. I will note that my accountability partner also changed her life as a result of our conversations – she worked up the courage to apply to her dream company, and has since advanced quickly to become a director there.

Another example is how I transitioned from Google to pursue coaching full-time. At my coaching certification in February of 2018, a classmate and I were discussing how we loved this work, but we had comfortable jobs that we had each been in for over ten years, and it was scary to contemplate leaving that stability to pursue the unknown of coaching work. So we set up biweekly calls to push each other to investigate coaching possibilities and learn how to take that leap out of our comfort zones into coaching. Each call was a supportive check-in – if one of us had done nothing, that was fine, but hearing that the other person had done something was inspiring and lit a fire of possibility. And a year later, we both had left our comfortable long-term jobs to do coaching work.

An accountability partnership can come in many forms:

  • Weekly or bi-weekly check-in phone calls as I described above
  • Workout buddies so that when it’s hard to motivate to get out of the house, you know that somebody is expecting you
  • Writing partners – I had grad student friends who set up writing dates, where they would meet at a cafe, and simply work on their theses silently side by side
  • Making a public commitment e.g. saying that you will post on a regular schedule (something I’m aspiring to do in 2020)
  • I’m sure you can think of many other possibilities

The power of an accountability partner is using our fear of disappointing others to overcome the inertia that keeps us from changing, in part by dissecting a big scary long-term goal into something that you’re taking a step towards each week. Small steps compound into a habit, and habits have the power to transform.

So I invite you to consider how you can take your New Year resolutions and find an accountability partner who is similarly motivated. As the proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Who can you go together with in your intended direction?

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