Using an accountability buddy to help you consistently stick with a habit or work on a goal is fine as a temporary measure to get yourself into the flow of action, but it’s also a crutch.

Ultimately you want to be accountable to yourself first and foremost, not to a buddy, team, company, organization, app, or external entity.

That may sound counter-intuitive, especially if you’re accustomed to external accountability.

External factors can increase your sense of accountability because you don’t want to let other people down. You want to do your part to pitch in. That’s understandable.

But externals don’t last. At some point you’ll move on from the school, team, company, boss, parents, or situation that provides your accountability. Then what? Find another external group to hold you accountable? Accountable to what? Their goals or yours?

Being accountable to others often adds extra busywork too. You may need to do extra paperwork or reports to prove your efforts to someone else. Bosses do performance evaluation. Teachers dole out assignments and tests. Concerned parents check up on you. When you’re accountable to yourself, you can track your own data when you find that beneficial, but you needn’t bother with extra reporting to convince others of your standards.

In the long run, I think you’ll find the payoff better if you invest most deeply in self-accountability. You always have yourself, so your inner accountability buddy is with you 24/7 for life.

I like holding myself accountable to my future self. I know that I’ll be my future self someday, so my loyalty is to him. I want to build him up with good habits that enhance his life. I want to complete projects he can look back upon and feel proud of. I feel grateful that my past self put me in a strong position because of his many efforts, and I know my future self will feel the same about my efforts today.

Can you still hold yourself accountable for doing your personal “shoulds” when no one is looking? When no one would know or care, can you still push yourself? Can you go the extra mile when you’re the only one to hold yourself accountable?

It’s fine to add the benefits of external accountability on top of personal accountability. Working with a strong team can be super motivating. But be wary of substituting external accountability for internal accountability. Don’t lean so much on the externals that you let your inner fire atrophy.

If the team goes away, if you lose your job, if the external accountability drops off, do you still maintain strong discipline? Or does the structure of your life fall apart when it’s just you alone and no one is watching?

I struggled with this for a long time in the past, leaning too much on externals for accountability. When strict structures went away, my life crumbled from lack of discipline. I was accountable to no one, not even myself. I got in enough trouble that the courts intervened to hold me accountable, sentencing me to dozens of hours of community service. I ultimately concluded that was no way to live and began the struggle of trying to hold myself to a higher personal standard.

That was not an easy path by any means, but I do feel it’s been stronger than relying on externals to push me. It feels better to push myself because then it’s a choice, and I can be sure to push myself in purposeful ways that makes sense to me. My orders to myself are meaningful, carefully chosen, and aligned with my values. I don’t have to deal with ill-considered commands from elsewhere.

Personal accountability also enabled me to stretch into areas where no one else was directing me to go. I didn’t go vegetarian and then vegan because of external pressures. I chose it and committed. I didn’t do so many personal growth experiments because of external accountability, even when I blogged about them. I can still do private 30-day challenges and feel just as accountable, even when there’s no public eye watching me.

No accountability buddy got me out of bed at 4:30 this morning. No one pushed me to run for an hour, then do yoga. No one is telling me to get my work done today. No one will achieve my goals for me.

Again, it’s okay to lean on external accountability to get yourself into motion sometimes, but don’t let your personal accountability languish from lack of investment. Personal accountability is more reliable and consistent than external accountability, but it takes more practice to build.

Even when you’re doing something service-oriented, the internal accountability can come from the effect it has on your character. Fall in love with the inner rewards of being a kind, generous, and compassionate character. Do you want to embody such a character? If so, then hold yourself accountable to behaving in alignment with that character. Look into a mirror, and see what the guy in the glass has to say.

Do you want to spend your whole life being driven by carrots and sticks from other people? Or do you want to empower yourself to build a strong, self-accountable character who can do your should-dos without whining, complaining, or external rewards and punishments?

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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