Struggling to Get Something Done? Set Up Outer Accountability (Especially if You’re an Obliger!)

Have I mentioned that I’ve created a personality framework called the “Four Tendencies?” Oh right, I think I have.

Well, if you don’t know about this framework, which divides all of humanity into four categories — Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebelyou can read an explanation and to take the quiz to find out your Tendency here.

Of the Four Tendencies, “Obliger” is the largest Tendency, the one that the most people belong to, for both men and women. And the defining fact about Obligers is that they readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectation. For instance, they wouldn’t miss a work deadline, but they’d find it hard to find time to exercise on their own.

The key point for Obligers: To meet inner expectations, Obligers must create outer accountability—and it must be the right kind of accountability.

While people of other Tendencies may benefit from the Strategy of Accountability, Obligers require it. They need tools such as supervision, late fees, deadlines, monitoring, and consequences enforced from the outside. For Obligers, this is the crucial element.

Also, Obligers must pick the right kind of accountability for them. Obligers also vary dramatically in what makes them feel accountable.

For some Obligers, an auto-generated email or  buzzing FitBit might be enough; some Obligers feel accountable only to an actual person.

I was surprised to find that for many Obligers, the prospect of wasting money doesn’t bring a sense of accountability. An Obliger friend told me, “I’ve always wanted to try yoga, finally, I actually signed up—and I went one time. It was the $300 yoga class.” Maybe money doesn’t provide accountability because it’s their own money; if they’re wasting someone else’s money, they might feel accountable.

So if you’re an Obliger, and you want to create accountability, here are some options to consider:

Accountability partner

Obligers can team up with an accountability partner: a classmate, trainer, personal organizer, coach, health-care worker teacher, family member, or friend.

Unfortunately, informal accountability partners can sometimes be unreliable. If that partner loses interest, gets distracted, or doesn’t want to play the enforcer, the Obliger stalls out.

Because it can be tough to find a reliable accountability partner among friends and family, Obligers may do better with a professional. For instance, coaches—career coaches, health coaches, life coaches—can provide the crucial accountability by setting concrete goals, establishing deadlines, and looking over their clients’ shoulders.

Accountability groups

People who don’t want to pay for a professional, or rely on a single accountability partner, can join or start an accountability group.

As Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, law-school study groups, and Happiness Project groups demonstrate, we give and get accountability, as well as energy and ideas, from meeting with like-directed people.

I created the free Better app for people to exchange ideas and tips about the Four Tendencies, and Better app also makes it super-easy to form accountability groups of all kinds.

Having a client, customer, or student

Clients, customers, and students impose accountability by the very nature of the relationship. An Obliger told me, “I’d been putting off creating an online training course to accompany my podcast on self-publishing. So in my latest episode, I offered a free copy of the training course to the first 25 listeners who sign up. Because people have signed up, I actually have to create the course.”

Similarly, many Obligers mention using getting a paid or volunteer job as an accountability strategy. Want to exercise? Teach Zumba.

Duty to others

Obligers often do things for others that they can’t do for themselves, so an Obliger may be able to meet an aim by thinking of its benefit to other people, instead of its personal value. An Obliger wrote, “I’m Controller of a company, and to create accountability, I tie my personal commitments to my commitment to work: if I get enough sleep, I work better; if I exercise, I have more energy, plus I spend less time and money going to the chiropractor.”

Many Obligers struggle to say “no,” even when they’re feeling very burdened by expectations. To overcome this reluctance, Obligers can remind themselves that saying “no” to one person allows them to say “yes” to someone else. A highly regarded professor told me that he accepted too many speaking engagements, until one day he thought, “By turning down the keynote talk, I’ll give someone else the chance to speak.” That thought allowed him to decline some speaking requests.

Some Obligers feel a duty to their future selves. “I need to do this for future-me.”

Role model

Many Obligers can meet an expectation if it’s tied to their duty to be a good role model, which is a form of outer expectation. “If I stay at my desk until 9 p.m., I set a bad example for my staff.”

Other ingenious solutions:

“I heard myself say, ‘This summer, I’m going to get my finances in order.’ As the words left my mouth, I knew they weren’t true. So I made an appointment with my expensive accountant. I had to get my finances organized to have the meeting with him and not have it cost a fortune.

My Questioner husband came up with this idea to help me fight my sugar addiction: any dessert that I eat, he has to eat double.”

“When I want to finish some writing, I tell someone else that I’ll send it to them for review by a certain date, and I also set up meetings to present ideas, which forces me to get them down on paper.”

“I wanted to stick to a budget, but also wanted to keep my finances private. So how to create outer accountability? I told my family, ‘I’m saving so we can finally make that beach trip.’ They’re so excited, I can’t let them down.”

“My sister-in-law and I both made a list of some healthy habits we want to cultivate, with a three-month time limit. If we both stick with the plan, we’ll earn a spa day. The catch is that, since we’re Obligers, we earn the spa day for each other.  If I don’t follow through, she won’t get her spa day—and vice versa. We would let ourselves down, but we would never let each other down.”

“I wanted to get up earlier, but I live alone. So I created an embarrassing Facebook post, and used Hootsuite to set it to post every morning at 8:00 a.m., unless I get up ahead of time to disable it.”

“I have many suggestions to help my Obliger music students practice consistently: join a band or an orchestra (especially effective if the student has a special role, such as the bass clarinet in a quartet); become a mentor for a younger musician; organize practice sessions in pairs, where a failure to show up will hurt a fellow student; or make a pact with a loved one that that person can’t do some desirable activity unless the Obliger has practiced.”

Whenever an Obliger struggles to get something done, the solution is always the same: external accountability. It’s just a question of figuring out what form it’s going to take.

I can’t emphasize this enough. For Obligers, it’ s not a matter of motivation, or putting yourself first, or balance, or self-esteem, boundaries, or priorities. Plug in outer accountability, and you will be able to meet inner expectations. (Unless you fall into Obliger-rebellion, which is a story for another day and a big chapter in The Four Tendencies.)

If you want to learn more about the Four Tendencies, you can sign up for the free Better app and join the fascinating conversations there.

My book The Four Tendencies goes into much greater depth on these issues. It will hit the shelves in September, and you can pre-order it now. (If you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order it now; pre-orders matter a lot for building support for a book among booksellers, the media, and other readers.)

I have to say, one of the most fun aspects of working on The Four Tendencies was hearing all the ingenious, imaginative strategies that Obligers have devised.

Have you used or seen any other helpful accountability strategies?

  • Sherri Williams

    I’m definitely an Obliger, but for me outer accountability isn’t the most helpful thing. Yes, it helps at the beginning, but eventually I get bogged down by guilty feelings and just keep making excuses. For me, by far the most important thing is a sense of purpose and importance to what I’m doing. If I have a specific goal I’m working towards and believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile, then it motivates me, even for boring or menial tasks. Having other people to do things together (such as working out) makes it more fun, but just having to report to someone else without believing in what I’m doing only adds guilt to the drudgery. If there are external deadlines I’ll get them done anyway because of the time pressure and desire to keep a good reputation, but only a sense of purpose will motivate me long-term for internal goals.

    • HEHink

      Are you absolutely positive that you’re not a Questioner? Two things prompt me to ask this. First, your statement “For me, by far the most important thing is a sense of purpose and
      importance to what I’m doing. If I have a specific goal I’m working
      towards and believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile, then it motivates
      me,” makes it sound like once you have internalized an expectation, you have no trouble working on it. Second, your feelings about accountability and external deadlines are very similar to my own. When I first started reading about Gretchen’s four tendencies, I also was inclined to believe that I am an Obliger, and I think I might still appear and feel that way on the surface because the needs of other people such as my family and students truly are important to me. But the fact that I have trouble doing anything if I don’t see a point or a purpose to it helped me realize that I am really a Questioner. What really tends to keep me from doing things I want to do, even if I do see a point and a purpose, is indecision about which thing is the most important to do first. I keep questioning myself, and looking for more information! And (therefore) can’t wait to hear what else Gretchen has to say about Questioners!

  • amy macfarlane

    Just did quiz, and it says i’m a questioner. Hmmm….i wonder if that’s true?
    Do you have info for questioners getting something done?
    You’re the best
    Amy

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I’ve written a whole book about that!

  • Kathy

    I’m an Obliger and have found that accountability is a key for my getting things done. For the past year and a half, a friend and I have been each other’s accountability partners. Each Monday, we email each other a list of things we intend to accomplish that week as well as a recap of how we did the previous week. We cheer for one another when we get things done, as well as gently inquire into those items that keep reappearing on the list without being taken care of. I’ve found that I think twice before writing something down now, because when I put it in writing, I feel like I’ve committed myself. It’s been a helpful system so far.