Healthy Choices with Liza Baker: Accountability

In the afterglow of the New Year’s celebrations (Western and Chinese), last month’s column was about how to set goals in a way that makes them more achievable than your average New Year’s resolution.

It’s all well and good to know your desired outcome, set your SMART goals, break down the objectives and activities—and you’re going to need to consider who or what will hold you accountable for executing against the plan, which is what we’ll take a look at this month.

Bio-individuality rules

Remember, we are all bio-individual: what works for one of us won’t always work for another, and definitely doesn’t work for all.

If you’re looking for an accountability system, you may need to spend some time experimenting with a few different ones to discover what works for you.

If you find something doesn’t work, don’t berate yourself; instead, give yourself some self-compassion and look at why it didn’t work with curiosity in place of judgment.

Decision fatigue

Are you an incredibly (enviably? disgustingly?) self-disciplined person?

We’re few and far between, and as much as you may envy us, know that it’s as much of a curse as a blessing.

Most people have a reasonable amount of self-discipline and willpower, and many long for more.

The good news: making the choices that create the habits to reach our goals—health and otherwise—is now considered to be less about willpower and more about physical environment. (For an in-depth discussion of this, check out Creatures of Habit on NPR’s The Hidden Brain.)

In brief, the idea is that our brains are constantly making decisions—not minute to minute but second-to-second. And our brains get tired, and there’s a word for it: decision fatigue.

After a long day’s work making decisions (personal and professional), the brain defaults to the easier choice. You can just imagine what that is when faced with: healthy snack or candy bar? work out or go home? cook or eat out? go to the gym or go to the bar? clean the house or watch Netflix?

It’s about your environment

If you are trying to make a new habit or change an old one, you’re not likely to figure out how to reduce the number of decisions you make in a day; what you can do is set up your environment to reduce those decisions you are trying to affect.

The best-known example is going to the gym:

  • If you’re a morning person, pack all your stuff the night before—what you need for the gym and what you need for work. Lay out your gym clothes, and when you get up, put them on—I’ve even heard of people who will sleep in their workout clothes to skip this step.
  • If you want to work out after work, make sure you take your workout clothes with you, and choose a gym that is between your work and your home: after a long day, you’re not very likely to drive out of your way to go to the gym, but if it’s on your way home and you’ve got all your stuff, you’ve increased the chances that you’ll swing by.

I get that this example is for those of us who have the luxury of a gym membership and a choice of when we want to go: if you have young children at home, you’ll likely need to be more creative about making your environment more conducive to working out regularly.

  • Trade off the morning or after-work “shift” with your partner (again, an assumption that you have a partner and s/he’s willing and available to help out).
  • Hire a babysitter or swap childcare with a friend after dinner or on weekends.
  • If your gym has childcare, take the kids to the gym.
  • Exercise when your kids are at their after-school activities: find a park to walk in near their location, walk laps around the ballfields or in the buildings where they are, find a gym nearby.
  • If you don’t belong to a gym, involve younger kids in your physical activity, which does not have to involve classes and equipment: you’ll get your body moving and your children will learn the importance of exercise. Ever tried to keep up with a five-year-old at the playground?
  • Work physical activity into your daily life: walk as you talk on the phone, do body weight exercises during small breaks, hold a walking meeting instead of a coffee meeting (you’ll save money, take in fewer calories, and you might be able to work in some social time and/or take care of walking the dog at the same time—what I call intentional multi-tasking!)

Whatever system you come up with, remember it needs to work on your toughest days—the ones where everything seems to conspire against you. It’s also well-advised to have a plan B: if you planned to run during lunch and it’s raining, what will you do instead? Can you walk in the mall or do stairs inside your office building?

Can you see how in all these examples, it’s more about the environment in which you find yourself rather than what you committed to achieving?

Some alternatives to experiment with

Need some ideas to get started?

  • Sit down with your calendar and actually schedule time to work on your goals: I get that you’re busy, and the good news is that if your activities from the goal setting we did last month are small enough, you can probably fit them into as small a window as 15 minutes! Schedule those appointments with and for yourself and keep them! Treat them as you would an appointment with your boss, your lawyer, your doctor.
  • If someone else handles your schedule, bring that person on board and be very clear that you need x amount of time every day blocked off as “personal” and that this time should not be scheduled over for any reason. Whether you share what you’re doing during this time or not is up to you—some assistants are happy to hold you accountable!
  • Find an accountability buddy, someone who will work toward the same goal with you or someone who will otherwise hold you accountable, whether it’s by regularly reminding you to do what you committed to or someone you text on a regular basis to report on your progress.
  • Find an accountability app—there are lots of them out there!
  • Look for the positive rather than dwelling on the negative: if you didn’t complete your activity today, can you say you did some of it? Did you do something else that was helpful to reaching your goal?
  • Celebrate your wins, no matter how small! (Now, remember, don’t reward weight loss with an ice cream sundae; instead, find a way to treat yourself to a non-food reward.)

And finally…

If you have tried and tried and still can’t find a way to hold yourself accountable for changing your habits and reaching your goals, consider two final possibilities:

  1. Your goals may need revising! Go back to last month’s column and consider whether you didn’t really identify your why, whether your goals are SMART enough, whether your activities are small enough.
  2. You may need to invest financially in external support: paying for accountability may seem ridiculous, and it’s something that a health coach is trained to do. Lucky for you, Ann Arbor has a large number of health coaches, and you’re likely to find one who is a good fit for you and fits your budget. And if the cost is a bit of a stretch, you may find that it serves to urge you to really get your nickel’s worth. We often take seriously only that which we pay for.

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work on her website and join her in person or in her virtual community.