Do you want to eat better? Do you struggle with procrastination? Have you ever wanted to be more focused on the big things in life, like my secrete passion to become master juggler? Developing good habits and fostering principled virtues are difficult for many of us. They require continued practice and effort. With all that work, the process of developing or changing habits may seem to require exceptional willpower that few of us have. How do you make the development of habits inevitable? The answer: daily accountability calls.
A good friend of mine, a teacher at the prestigious VanDamme Academy, introduced me to the idea of the daily accountability call (who got the idea from his friend, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress). Every morning during the work week, we spend 15-20 minutes answering simple, yet directed questions about selected habits that we want to improve. These questions take one of two types, things we expect to accomplish before the end of the call and questions reflecting on our previous day’s success. The questions are always low commitment, like “Rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how self-aware you were yesterday,” “Is your room clean?”, “Is your inbox empty?”, or “Did you spend 5 minutes yesterday juggling?” By asking the same questions day after day, we begin to internalize the questions, turning the constant attention into inevitable actions. Not inevitable in the sense that we are determined, but inevitable in the sense that our most frequent thoughts get the most attention and hence action. It really can be that simple to overcome a lack of willpower.
Why does this work? It works because we induce our mind to consistently think about your daily actions. Depending on the complexity of the habit, it can take as little as a month and as much as a year to before a habit becomes ingrained. But all of us are prone to get distracted by vacations, holidays, birthdays, special projects, or kids vomiting projectiles for a week straight. These distractions throw us off from habit formation, making it difficult to develop the habit unless we use our force of willpower to get us back on tract (or the force of willpower to not to vomit ourselves). By placing the habit formation in the hands of a friend, we become accountable to our friend. You are accountable to your calling partner and he is to you. Since you write the questions you must account for, you control the habits and virtues most meaningful to you. If we get thrown off for a day or even week, your daily calls puts you right back on track. And since you write the questions to ask each other far in advance, no short-term mood swings or emergencies throws us off track.
It is important to keep the questions at a low commitment level so that we do not come to dread the meetings, otherwise the temptation to skip, delay, or cancel the accountability call becomes to strong. That would defeat the purpose of the call. I enjoy keeping in touch with my friend, who lives on the opposite side of the country. I want to look forward to the conversation, so I like to keep the questions positive and conversation focused on incremental improvement. Each call should not be one admitting constant failure. Nor should it feel like a police interrigation. Occasionally, bad days happen. That is expected. If a series of bad days do not prompt a change in behavior, then perhaps the habit is ill-defined or not as important as originally thought. Reconsider or modify the questions if need be, but don’t give up the call. Keep in mind, incremental progress every day leads to huge improvements in the long run.
It is also important not turn the call into a bull session. This can be difficult if you or your call partner are talkative. If this is the case, set a time limit. No more than 20 minutes per call. If there is a story you want to share with him or her, quickly schedule a time to talk later in the day to share the story. Or pick an accountability partner who is more matter of fact or to rushed to spend more than 20 minutes on a call.
This simple technique is a great way to make habits inevitable through daily thought and action. Use it and enjoy the benefits.