Once you’ve made sure your goals are positive and realistic, and you’ve gotten yourself into the habit of making mindful choices, the next ingredient you’ll probably need in your plan for staying motivated is personal accountability.
You know that keeping yourself accountable to your own goals is a basic key to success in any endeavor. Even with all the information you need and all the good intentions in the world, you won’t get very far if you continuously let yourself off the hook when it’s time to actually do what you need to do—even if you do that mindfully. There’s nothing that will de-motivate you faster than frequently letting yourself down when it’s time to put your intentions into action.
That doesn’t mean you need to be perfect with every decision—perfectionism is a trap you definitely want to avoid. And it also doesn’t mean you need to have the will power and self-discipline of a world-class athlete in training. For most of us, accountability is all about having the right kinds of tools and the right kind of support to draw on when the going gets tough.
One of the most effective tools you can use to hold yourself accountable is your own individualized Contract for Success.
Your Contract for Success is literally a written agreement you make with yourself about how you’re going to handle things when the going gets tough. It has three elements:
1. A list of the specific situations, habits, and/or problems that you know, based on your past experience, are likely to cause problems again in the future. This could include problems like a spouse who likes to bring home snacks you’re trying to avoid; a busy schedule that frequently makes it hard to find the time for exercise; your own tendency to come up with excuses and rationalizations when you just don’t feel like doing what you need to do; and/or your habit of beating up on yourself verbally when things don’t go as planned, to the point that you feel like it’s pointless to keep trying. Basically, the idea here is to put any recurring problem that makes it hard for you to stick to your healthy lifestyle goals on this list—including problems that might be mainly “internal,” like negative self-talk, rationalizing, or emotional eating.
2. A list of “countermeasures” you can take to deal with each of these problems before they sabotage your plans. This is basically your Plan B document—your effort to figure out how you can best avoid, minimize, or handle the problems listed above before you actually find yourself in the situation and get all caught up in the stress and pressures it causes. Are there things you can do to keep the problem from coming up at all, or reduce its frequency? Are there people you can turn to for help with handling the problem when it does come up—someone to watch the kids for a little while so you can exercise, a co-worker you can talk to when work stress starts building up? Are there affirmations, readings, or inspirational quotes/images you can use to chase away the rationalizations, excuses, or verbal self-abuse when your mind starts heading in that direction, or ways to remind yourself how you usually feel better afterwards when you stick to your goals, and worse when you don’t? Is there someone you can talk to for a little reality-check, if you’re not sure whether you’re rationalizing or just accepting a situation that really can’t be changed or handled better?
3. Some strong incentives for actually using the countermeasures you decide on, and/or some undesirable consequences for not using them. Obviously, this Contract isn’t going to do you much good if you write it all out today, file it away and never use it again. This needs to be a real working document that you use regularly to remind yourself about what you can do to avoid problems before they happen. So, you’ll want to build in some incentives for taking your contract seriously and using it regularly to keep yourself on track.
Here’s one set of incentives and consequences that I’ve found helpful:
Pick two organizations or causes that you have strong feelings about—one that you feel strongly positive about and would like to support, and one that you feel the opposite way about. If you follow politics, for example, your groups could be the Democratic and Republican national (or local) committees. If you're a vegetarian, you could pick a local organic cooperative you support and the National Meatpackers Association. Or if causes don't motivate you much, you could make one cause a reward or vacation fund for yourself, and one a gift fund for some relative you don't like much. You get the idea.
Then, decide on an amount of money you’re willing to risk each day for this accountability challenge. Make this amount significant enough to matter to you, but not big enough to break the bank or cause financial anxiety. If you don’t want to use money for this project, you can use your time—a certain number of minutes you’ll volunteer to do some work for each cause.
Set up two jars, one for each of these causes. Then, at the end of each day, take a few minutes to think about how things went with your goals during the day, and if you ran into some problems, decide whether or not you did your honest best to anticipate the problem and use your countermeasures. Then put your money or work-commitment in the appropriate jar--if you did well, the money goes to the cause you support. If not, it goes to the bad guys. At the end of each month, settle up your “account” by sending in the money or scheduling your work hours with each organization.
Remember that what counts as success here is not whether you actually stuck to your eating or exercise plans, or whatever goal you're concerned about—it’s whether or not you used your Contract for Success to try to solve or avoid problems before they happened. Your Contract for Success is all about getting yourself to be more proactive in managing your time and your resources, instead of just reacting to whatever happens, as if you had no control over that.
There will be times when unpredictable stuff just happens and you really don’t have much control over events, so you don’t need to reward or penalize yourself in those situations. But, if you want to stay motivated, you do need to be honest with yourself about whether you’re doing everything within your power to make things come out the way you’d like them to. The alternative is feeling powerless to manage your own life, which is death for your motivation.
If you think you might have problems sticking to your Contract, enlist someone whose judgment you trust, tell them about your Contract for Success, and ask them to help keep you honest when it comes to reviewing your day and, especially, actually handing over the money at the end of the month. I think you'll be surprised at how hard it is to give money or time to someone you don't care for much--and how motivating it can be when you know letting yourself off the hook is going to lead to that.
There are also lots of things you can do to boost accountability through social involvement and support, and we’ll look at those in the next tip.
What predictable problems often get in your way? What countermeasures do you think would help you avoid these problems before they happen?