Who’s Holding Your Feet to the Fire? The Power of Intentional Accountability

Before I became a coach, I didn’t know much about coaching.

I’d heard the term “life coach” tossed around, but I didn’t understand why people needed to be coached in their lives. Why would I need someone else telling me to do what I already know I should be doing?

(Now I know that coaching has nothing to do with being told what to do.)

If the coaching profession could be distilled to the single most valuable tool for clients, it would be accountability.

Coaches do many things to help clients reach their goals. They challenge them to pull ideas and dreams to the surface. They help the client determine and focus on what’s most important. And they support and guide the work of creating actions and strategies for positive change.

But if the client is doing nothing in between coaching sessions, all of the hard work during the session is for naught.  Quite often, the only thing standing  between the client and his or her success is accountability to the coach.

If you pay good money for a coach, agree to the actions you intend to take, and promise to report on your progress the following week, it’s hard to show your face at that next appointment if you haven’t done the work.

A good coach will hold the client’s feet to the fire and question them on why they didn’t follow through. And an ethical coach will release a client who consistently fails to follow through. Coaching only works for the coachable. And coachable clients respond to accountability.

The Motivation for Accountability

We experience subtle forms of accountability all the time.

If you are working out at the gym and a beautiful woman walks by, you’ll probably do a few more reps at the bench press.

If your boss asks you and your co-worker to write a report, you’ll do your best work to ensure the co-worker doesn’t outshine you.

If you go for a jog with your neighbor, you may push yourself to run a bit farther than you would by yourself.

Accountability can be powered by integrity, fear of embarrassment, pride, or shame. Whatever the reason for using it, accountability works. It provides the element of tension to get the job done — to make something happen that might not have happened without it. Or at least to do it better.

By putting yourself out there in front of others, you are holding yourself accountable to their good opinion of you. You are setting the bar for yourself, and then jumping up to tap it when someone is looking.

Intentional Accountability

But what about when someone isn’t looking?

How do you jump up and hold on to the bar to sustain new positive behaviors?

The most powerful scenario for accountability is the one you intentionally create for yourself. This is the accountability that can support you through important, sustained self-improvement.

When you are trying to make a positive change in your life — to create a habit or reach a goal — accountability can be your best friend. And it’s a friendship you need to fully embrace if you really want to succeed.

My friend and master coach Steve Chandler tells the story of wanting to lose 20 lbs. He walked into his office one day and told the ten people that he’d give them each $1000 if he didn’t lose the 20 lbs. in five weeks. He put $10,000 on the line. That’s serious accountability. That’s intentional accountability.

In the Habit Course, Leo, Katie, and I teach course participants the power of accountability during the early stages of habit creation. In fact, setting up an accountability plan is a crucial element of The Simple Method that we teach.

It’s one thing to tell yourself, “I’m going to write every day.” It’s another to tell yourself and dozens or hundreds of other people — and to ask those people to pay attention, to ask about your progress, to hold your feet to the fire.

Setting Up Intentional Accountability

So how do you set up intentional accountability? There is no one right way. In fact, it never hurts to set up more than one system of accountability — like an additional alarm clock to make sure you get up in the morning!

Here are some ideas for setting up accountability for your own self-improvement goals:

  • If you want to achieve something big, something that has many layers or steps, and that might take several months, consider hiring a personal coach. Big change requires more accountability, because you are likely to grow tired, discouraged, or bored before the process ends. A coach will help you stay on track.
  • If you want to create a specific, individual habit (like writing, meditating, running, etc.), find an online forum, support group, or blog where you can report your goals and progress. You can even use social media like Facebook and Twitter for accountability.
  • If you are working on something personal, like spending more time with your children, improving your spiritual life, or creating a good hygiene habit, ask your spouse, friend, or a close family member to help you stay accountable. (Although be careful with hidden agendas or potential conflicts with spouses.)
  • Consider putting something on the line to hold your feet to the fire. You may not be able to promise $10,000 if you fail to follow-through, but perhaps there is something you could promise to confirm the seriousness of your intention to succeed.
  • Be sure you tell your accountability partner or group exactly how you want them to hold you accountable. Do you want to be called out if you haven’t followed through? Or do you want only positive reinforcement when you get the job done? This is particularly important with spouses and family members, as you don’t want accountability to feel like shaming or nagging.

If you have a self-improvement goal or habit you would like to create but haven’t been ready or known how to get started successfully, I hope you will consider The Habit Course. Not only will you receive accountability from me, Leo, and Katie as we coach you through habit creation, but also you will learn all of the skills to create sustainable habits for life.

Leo will be hosting a free webinar on Monday, April 23, at 7:00 p.m. EDT, called How I Used the Power of Bad Habits to Change My Life. You don’t need to register in advance. Just click on http://www.ustream.tv/channel/the-habit-course and use the password habitjedi.

13 thoughts on “Who’s Holding Your Feet to the Fire? The Power of Intentional Accountability”

  1. Barrie, my oneline blogging friends, my FB family and my Twitter family all keep me SO accountable. Such encouragement, support and inspiring feedback I would NOT want to be without! Love this post–so practical, yet soulful!

    • Hi Rose,
      Isn’t it wonderful to have an online community of friends who are there for you? My “virtual” friends are some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever encountered. I’m so glad you are part of this community. 🙂

  2. Hey Barrie,

    This post brought up a question for me, more of just something that I was contemplating, and wanted to get your thoughts (and whoever else wants to reply). I’m guessing what you’re talking about in this post are the things that you know you want to do because they’d be good for you, but subconsciously you might not be fully behind it? The reason I say that is because if we’re talking about someone’s passion, to me they should never need accountability to motivate them. If I am doing something I love, I want to do it as much as possible, and never need motivation to do it.

    However, if it is something like losing weight, I can see that as something where accountability would definitely help! It’s the perfect example to me, because most people would love to look great, but don’t really enjoy the steady and consistent exercise and good eating habits part of it. Here, I can see some good supportive accountability helping. I also think that, at least for me personally, even more important is taking the time to decide WHY I want to do something. If I just say “I want to lose 10 pounds in 6 weeks”, I’d probably need outside accountability to motivate me to accomplish that. But if I say “I want to lose 10 pounds in 6 weeks, and these are the 10 important reasons to me WHY I want to do that, and here is how I will feel when I have lost that weight”, and look at that every day, that’s more something that feels right to me. I am more comfortable with self-motivation and self-accountability like this in most cases if possible, but there’s no question that outside accountability can definitely help.

    I think the main thing that I hope people keep in mind is to make sure, like you said, to have it be positive accountability. Just because something is effective doesn’t necessarily mean it’s helping you completely. If I have to offer people $10,000 each time I want to do something, that feeling of “I’ll lose $10,000 if I don’t do this on time” would sure wear me down, and while I know you weren’t at all suggesting living life that way, I’m hoping people are careful not to go overboard with feeling like they need to get things done NOW and take accountability to a level of intense pressure. The level you are talking about in this post is healthy, and I just want to make sure you know I don’t think you were suggesting a pressure-filled way of doing it, I just thought I’d share my thoughts in case anyone has a tendency of taking things to the extreme 🙂


    • Hi Paul,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and well-articulated comment. I am talking about anything that we really want deep down inside but have resistance (for whatever reason) to following through. Even things we are passionate about often present us with difficult actions — like the example I gave about blogging. I am passionate about running my own business, but part of my business is keeping my business records, seeing an accountant, etc. But I hate that stuff. I know it must be done, so I have accountability to help me get it done. Sometimes we do need negative accountability — like if I don’t pay my taxes, I might get a big fine! Setting up your own negative accountability (like Steve did) can actually help you make huge leaps. But it isn’t something you need to do with everything. Only things where you really don’t want an escape route! 🙂

  3. Aloha Barrie,

    I love the phrase intentional accountability. It has such a nice feeling to in, something I could really align with and USE to create major movement in my life.

    I find that when I have an emotionally rich vision, am clear about what I do want and achieving it is measurable taking action is easy.

    When it is something I sort of really want but don’t take the time to get that clear picture nothing or very little happens. I try but don’t do.

    Intentional accountability, I like it.

    Thanks for the great post.

  4. A powerful shift happens in us when we accept accountability and responsibility for our goals and promises.

    It is as if a very deep part of us is testing our integrity and maturity. When we live up to our dreams, it rewards us with the insights and resources we need to go further.

    I think we all have very big dreams locked away inside us and accountability is the fastest way to find them.

  5. Ohh accountability is HUGE! I didn’t realize it until I partnered with my own life coach…And I think that really is where all of the change came from. Sure, maybe I could’ve come up with some of our homework assignments on my own…But there were many times I only DID them because I knew he’d be waiting to hear about it.

    If you don’t think anyone is paying attention, it’s easy to slack. Love the reminder and the suggestions – I second the recommendation of a life coach!

  6. Ohh accountability is HUGE! I didn’t realize it until I partnered with my own life coach…And I think that really is where all of the change came from. Sure, maybe I could’ve come up with some of our homework assignments on my own…But there were many times I only DID them because I knew he’d be waiting to hear about it.

    If you don’t think anyone is paying attention, it’s easy to slack. Love the reminder and the suggestions – I second the recommendation of a life coach!

  7. Be Who You Are! Accountability can change everything. You can be inspired, even motivated; Think Big, make goals, have good intentions. And when you’re really ready to realize it all: Find a great Life Coach, join a quality Mastermind or Accountability group, like ours (all available at the link provided when you click my name) and make great things happen in your life! Really good article, thank you! x

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