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One Surprising Secret to Changing Yourself for the Better

An ingenious way to make yourself accountable.

Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock

In Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I outline 21 strategies we can use to change our habits. Don’t be alarmed: Twenty-one may seem like a huge number, but it’s actually good—it means that each of us has many options from which to choose. In different situations, at different times, different strategies will be most helpful.

It’s clear, however, that one of the most popular and effective strategies is accountability. When we know we’re answerable to someone, most of us do a better job with our habits.

For the people we can call Obligers—those who meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet the expectations they impose on themselves—the Strategy of Accountability is crucial. Key. Central. Necessary. If you’re an Obliger, external accountability is the element that will allow you to follow through. But for Rebels—those who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike—it can actually be counter-productive.

(Are you an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take this Quiz. More than 53,000 people already have.)

Because accountability is so important, I’m always looking for new, ingenious ways that people have created it—and I’ve noticed that some people create accountability by pulling another person into the process. In the New York Times, Gina Kolata's article, "Doctors Strive to Do Less Harm by Inattentive Care," explains that Dr. Michael Bennick wanted to reduce the number of times that patients were awakened in the middle of the night to get their blood drawn.

Here’s what he did:

“I told the resident doctors in training: ‘If you are waking patients at 4 in the morning for a blood test, there obviously is a clinical need. So I want to be woken, too, so I can find out what it is.’ No one, he said, ever called him. Those middle-of-the-night blood draws vanished.”

The doctors were in the habit of ordering blood tests in the middle of the night, so they’d have the results when they made rounds in the morning. But when they had to wake up another doctor, as well as a patient, their habits changed.

This reminded me of a writer friend whose book was long overdue. She created a standard email response that said, “Please email only if you have an urgent message.” Despite that word “urgent,” people kept emailing her. So she changed the message, “If you have an urgent message, please email my husband, and he’ll convey it to me.”

She gave his email address—but no one used it.

How could this approach be adapted to other circumstances? I’m trying to think of ways to draw someone else in, as a buffer…maybe:

  • You can eat ice cream, but only when your spouse eats it, too
  • You can use a device only when your kids are using one, too; many people wish their children spent less time on devices, so this might be a good deterrent
  • Before you make a purchase over $50, you have to call your brother and tell him

Can you think of other ways to use a person as a buffer? I’m eager to hear your suggestions.

Gretchen Rubin
Source: Gretchen Rubin

Are you planning to read Better Than Before in a book group, spirituality group, or work group? Email me if you'd like a discussion guide. Or if you're reading The Happiness Project or Happier at Home. I'll send you the guides right away.

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Tags: habits, strategy of accountability