You hold yourself accountable now, but you didn't in the past
January 12, 2021 6:24 PM   Subscribe

I've realized that the biggest obstacle to being the person I really want to be is that I don't hold myself accountable, or I do for a brief time but don't persist. I want to change this.

There are some big changes I'd like to make in my life, and major projects I'd like to complete to make space for new projects that I also want to complete. I've been reading a lot of the self-help literature on forming good habits (making healthy choices, meeting commitments, maintaining focus and attention) and breaking bad ones (procrastination, being distracted, inability to stay on task among them) and two of the keystones of success are self-discipline and holding oneself accountable. I'm good at them in some areas (relationships are one) but not others.

I've also read some books on self-discipline and they seem to boil down to "just do it." But implementing that requires holding myself accountable to just doing it.

Is that a challenge you've faced and overcome? How did you do it? If there are tools you used, what were they? And finally, how long did it take before you were really good at self-discipline and accountability?
posted by angiep to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Frame challenge: I have rarely had success with brute-forcing myself into developing a better habit through sheer willpower. (I think the only habit I've managed to form that way is flossing daily.)

Instead I've learned to focus more on making small changes to my life/routine so that I don't need as much willpower to do the things I want to do. (If you've already considered this approach and it's not helpful, feel free to disregard the rest of this answer!)

  • Sleeping with my curtains open, so the natural light makes it easier to get out of bed more quickly in the morning.
  • Setting up my yoga mat the night before, so I just have to roll out of bed to do morning yoga
  • Buying the pre-divided butter sticks, so I don't keep avoiding the dreaded task of cutting off a new stick of butter
  • Starting ADHD medication (after consulting with my doctor) so work and household tasks don't seem so overwhelming (side note -- the struggles you mentioned are classic ADHD symptoms, might be worth looking into if you haven't yet. if you do have ADHD, advice for non-ADHD people may be frustrating.)
  • Finding a hobby that I actually enjoy and look forward to doing, and can do alone in my living room so there's no barrier to practicing
  • Trying to achieve my goals by signing up for regular classes/meetings where I have to show up at a particular time and do the thing in a big group, so that I don't have to depend solely on my own self-motivation
Basically, I've tried to retrain my thoughts from "Ugh, I'm so undisciplined, I can't do X" to "OK, I want to do X and I'm not able to at the moment. How can we problem-solve to make X easier?"

I'm still not where I'd like to be -- for example, there's a pile of junk in my hallway that's been there for months that I keep meaning to get to. But, my self-esteem is much higher which makes life more enjoyable.

For things that I absolutely must do because an external person is depending on me, and I can't find any other ways to make them easier, I do some combination of the following:
  • Plan to do the task at my highest-energy, best-mood part of the day, which for me is around 10-11am
  • Pump up my self-esteem beforehand by doing a hobby I'm good at, or looking at past work/tasks I've done well, or reading praise from friends/colleagues
  • Put on some high-energy music
  • Visualize myself doing the task well
  • Visualize how great everything will be once I've done the task, and/or visualize the end goal that this task is contributing to

posted by mekily at 7:06 PM on January 12, 2021 [21 favorites]

A classic of the genre is Ben Franklin's 13 virtues from his memoirs: starts near the bottom of the page with, It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection... the word “moral” having a broader meaning back then and including good habits.

If you have a perfectionist streak, finding the ideal phone app for tracking improvement on or gamifying habits can turn into a wild goose chase preventing you from actually working on the habits, but of course his system was all on paper.
posted by XMLicious at 7:13 PM on January 12, 2021

I am reading a library book called "Tiny Habits" that I think you might find helpful. The basic premise of the book is that willpower only goes so far:
I’ve researched human behavior for over 20 years at Stanford University.

I've learned that only 3 things will change your behavior in the long term.

Option A: Have an epiphany
Option B: Change your environment
Option C: Take baby steps

Creating an epiphany is difficult. So rule out Option A unless you have magical powers—I don’t.

On the other hand, Option B and Option C are practical. And they can lead to lasting change
posted by aniola at 7:33 PM on January 12, 2021 [8 favorites]

My best "change your environment" advice is to spend a lot less time online.
posted by aniola at 7:34 PM on January 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: 1) It sounds like you do get many things done (read self help books), but other things are tougher. Are there any commonalities and do they relate to any beliefs/assumptions you have about the things you do and what you value?

For me, I've noticed that anything I try to do, where I am the only beneficiary, rarely gets done. But, if I am doing a thing for someone else (coworker, husband, cats), I can just get it done. Once I noticed this as a theme, I started to intentionally try to do things for myself to just "get in the practice" of doing it, and over time, I've found it easier to just get going, because *big mental change* I was a person worth doing things for. This has taken 6+ months? after recognizing this as a theme and intentionally trying to practice/act something different, while working with my therapist.

When I brought this theme up to my therapist, it was around the time I was stuck on wanting to buy a big expensive hobby thing just for myself -- and when she offered to hold me accountable (i.e., check in with me the next week to see if I made progress), it somehow... magically got me going? (lol?) and she has been a good "unsticker" of things.

This recognition has also helped me ask for a little bit of help from others - e.g., I basically told my husband that I *needed* him to support creating the space for said big expensive hobby thing in our home, and unlike lots of other decisions where we could debate rationally as a couple, he stopped talking about the downsides and helped me more often see the upsides. Now, I can more frequently "catch myself" when I shy away from doing a thing and I can remind myself that I just need to try to do the thing, b/c the more I do things for myself, the more my brain will find it easier to do things for myself in the future.

2) The other things that have helped is reading Atomic Habits. Yes, it sounds a bit hokey (and I hate that graph of exponential improvement that sometimes gets associated with it), but it was a legitimately well written, in depth book about the how and the why of habit / behavior formation. My personal take aways: a) anything worth doing probably takes a lot of little efforts over a long period - so, you might as well start doing a little bit of that thing each day, and once you've locked in that habit, then you can worry about making that little bit into a bigger bit, etc., b) the first part of a habit are super critical to nail consistently each day, and... then, all the rest of the steps become so much easier.

3) This video has also really spoken to me. It is from a therapist talking about motivation. My takeaways: a) you literally can still do the thing even if you aren't *feeling* motivated, b) you will feel motivated AFTER you do that thing, and c) valuing the "relief" you feel once you've done that thing over the long term guilt/dread you feel when you don't do that thing.
posted by ellerhodes at 8:32 PM on January 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

Getting diagnosed with ADHD and getting an Adderall prescription helped me a lot, but ymmv of course.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:50 PM on January 12, 2021

"Better than Before" by Gretchen Rubin is much more nuanced than "just do it", and I found her personality framework wrt expectations very helpful. I, personally, instinctively resist accountability, even self imposed, and so most of my habit changes are from either 1. Making it easy/convenient 2. Internalising that the habit is a choice, but that the consequences of the action are ones that I prefer.

Example 1: I book my next dentist appointment before I leave their office, on a day at a time that I like, I put it in my calendar with a reminder so I don't forget, and I go to it, because it is legitimately easier to go to the planned appointment every six months than to feel anxious about the state of my teeth. Example 2: I take the rubbish out of my car when I get the good parking close to the bins at my house. It's the easiest time to do it, and I like that my passenger seat is less regularly embarrassing. Example 3: Clear work benches and floors make me happy, as does putting stuff where it belongs. But first I had to organise everything and decide where it lived, so that the putting things away bit was easy and mindless.
posted by kjs4 at 10:55 PM on January 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The way I see it, self-accountability is a false trail down a dead end toward a missed point. The entire point and purpose of doing the right thing, it seems to me, is because it works better.

Doing the right thing in order to gain praise or avoid blame is, to me, a waste of my time. If the only reason I'm doing the right thing is because I'm accountable for the things I choose to do, either to myself or to anybody else, then that definitely counts as an attempt to gain praise and/or avoid blame, and I think that's doing it wrong.

From this perspective, then, the project of learning to do the right thing becomes a strictly practical concern instead of having this whole pointless and distracting moral superstructure. How exactly am I to go about retraining toward the right thing in a way that gets the job done with minimal suffering?

For me, what it all comes down to is building new habits and my best success with forming new habits has always involved shifting the goalposts as soon as I encounter internal resistance.

For example, I got sick and tired of the fact that the drying rack in our kitchen was always overloaded with a mountain of stuff that nobody ever put away. So I resolved to form the habit of always taking off and putting away two more items than I was putting on the rack, so that the mountain would acquire an inbuilt tendency to erode away.

The obvious point of resistance here happened every time I approached the rack with a wet item in my hand. I had to push myself to overcome the surge of resentment that came on the point of deciding whether or not to go through with the putting-away step, and the thing I found effective for that was a goal shift: telling myself that this isn't about improving the state of the drying rack, this is about doing an experiment to find out whether systematically building a new habit actually works.

After about two months I found that just the tiniest sliver of that reminder was enough to tip the balance toward the new habit, and after about four the habit was solidly locked in. I now experience internal discomfort if I attempt to stop myself from putting away N+2 things when depositing N.

So that's the trick:

Step 1: decide on a new habit you'd like to form. Best chance of success will involve the smallest modification to your existing habits that you think will get the job done.

Step 2: Whenever the time comes to do a new thing instead of an old thing, practice the actions that you're trying to make habitual and pay attention to your internal resistance points.

Step 3: avoid any attempt to moralize about your internal resistance points, instead considering them to be no more and no less than what they actually are: the completely predictable and totally justifiable resentment at having to do new work instead of just running on existing habit.

Step 4: Remind yourself that the point of doing this is to practice building new habits and that the purpose of taking this as-yet-non-habitual action is to further that goal.

If you apply these four steps consistently then I expect you'll find, as I have, that they become habitual.
posted by flabdablet at 11:55 PM on January 12, 2021 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all wonderful suggestions, although I've only marked a couple as best answer. I've read Atomic Habits, Tiny Habits, Charles Duhigg's books, and Jen Sincero's books. A wonderful MeFite also MeMailed me a procedure that worked for them. People here who suggested an evaluation for ADHD are not the first. I live in a large city so chances are there are resources I can call on.

I'm trying to complete a very big project at the moment and find myself stuck at 75%, and I mentioned there health goals I'd like to meet. I'll post on MeTa in a couple of months and let folks know how it's going.
posted by angiep at 6:04 AM on January 13, 2021

The main thing to understand about habit-building is that it has strong parallels with both physical exercise and meditation: by the time you're actually suffering due to having not done enough of any of these, there isn't time to do enough to alleviate that suffering, and knowing about any of them without actually doing them is almost completely useless.

None of these things are like downing an aspirin to get rid of a headache. All of them are primarily preventatives for future suffering, not cures for present suffering. I firmly believe that this is why so many people will tell you "I tried that and it didn't work".

So for the time being, I recommend that you just do whatever it takes to push past 75% on the big project and put the health stuff off for a while; meeting health goals via habit modification is certainly doable but is definitely something best achieved without deadline pressure if possible.

That said: if your habits fit together something like mine do, you might find that progress on the big project can be aided with a bit of structured procrastination.
posted by flabdablet at 7:06 AM on January 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

I used to defend EVERY comment I made, even if they are total BS.

Nowadays, I'd like to think that I at least own up to my mistakes, and do NOT "choose a hill to die on" on rather frivolous topics, as I have no more desire to get the last word. You usually can't argue with stupid trolls, as you'll sink down to their level, and sometimes, YOU (i.e. I) are the stupid troll.
posted by kschang at 1:45 AM on January 14, 2021

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