Humans are social creatures, and group dynamics make us do fascinating things. I doubt I would have run naked in the snow once in college if my friends hadn’t done it too. In a more sober fashion, I cranked out the draft of a novel in 2013 because I had to check in with my writing partner every Friday to say I’d written 2,000 words. When we are answering to other people, we can do things we can’t do on our own.
That’s the theory behind accountability groups—small groups united around everyone achieving a common goal. Ginni Chen of iDoneThis, a product that helps workplace teams be accountable to each other, notes that "you can actually see, concretely, what everyone’s doing and it makes you feel like you have to keep up."
Chen set up scores of accountability groups for an iDoneThis project in January 2012, uniting users who wanted to quit smoking, drink less, exercise, and so forth. Tracking these groups gave her insight into what makes a group work. Likewise, I talked to Samir Singh, co-founder of Make.me, a multi-player game centered around self-improvement goals. Having observed hundreds of accountability interactions for product development, he’s also seen what makes such groups effective.
Here are six key things you need to do to make your accountability group succeed.
You need an objective definition of success. "Be healthier" can’t be tracked. "Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day" can. Big goals should be broken into discrete, measurable chunks. "Finish my dissertation" becomes "Work for an hour on my dissertation, three mornings per week." Your goal also needs to be realistic. Life will prevent everyone in your group from exercising every day, but holding yourselves accountable to visiting the gym four times per week will then let you give people pats on the back for additional sessions.
It’s a funny thing about self-improvement—you’d think it would be for people whose lives are a mess. But as I’ve learned from marketing my own self-help books, the average reader already has a great life. He just wants to make it better. Likewise, your accountability partners should have a track record of achieving difficult things. You want people who value discipline, and need a group to instill more of it.
Singh suggests that groups need four or more people for resiliency—that is, to keep functioning if one person drops out. But one note of caution: Be careful about including your spouse in your accountability group. If you join a group together, include several other people, so the dynamics of your relationship do not dictate the group’s.
Someone needs to track progress and remind people to check in. A game/app like MakeMe can do this for you, and paid accountability groups (e.g. Savor the Success’s "Savor Success Circles") will facilitate this as part of their value proposition. But if you’re pulling a group together on your own, someone—probably you—will need to take this on.
Groups work best when people feel most connected. "We as a culture, walk around with the wrong mental picture in our minds about how people achieve," says Singh. We don’t succeed because we fear failure. Instead, "The closer together the group feels, the more likely it is that the individuals will achieve." We do amazing things when we feel others are invested in our doing them.
Consequently, groups where everyone simply checks in once a week with "success" or "fail" aren’t going to be as motivational as ones where you’re posting photos of you at the gym or flossing or eating your vegan lunch. You want to be able to share your struggles too. So set up an email list or a private social networking group to facilitate this, and if you’re the leader, post a lot. Hopefully, others will too.
Once you understand point four, you can understand this paradox of accountability groups: "You need a way to make it okay for people to fail," says Singh. "Failure cannot be fatal." While you’d think that one-and-done consequences would lead to success, they don’t. New habits are hard. Since sharing struggles brings people together, you need a group where everyone brainstorms how to solve the problem if one member smokes a cigarette after a fight with his girlfriend, or skips the gym because his boss kept him late.
As Chen puts it, "When it’s going well, you don’t feel lonely. Your own approval is enough." It’s when things fall apart that you actually need the group to get you back on the wagon.
Someone who hits the gym three times one week when the group is pledging four times is in a different category from someone who doesn’t go at all. Eventually, your group needs consequences if people aren’t trying, because these free riders upset group dynamics. MakeMe has a "make or break" card group members can play on these occasions. The recalcitrant member is given one more chance not to let the group down. If she does, she’s out.