Is It Better to Be Free or Be Held Accountable?

To get things done, you have to try, but you can’t try so hard that you burn out. Therefore, you must try to strike a balance between freedom and accountability.

Freedom: If you can work from a place of freedom, that is the ultimate win. When you can do anything, but you decide to do something productive, you’re working from a place of freedom. Work under this condition is generally easier and flows better because you aren’t forcing it.

Accountability: The counterargument to freedom is accountability. Sure, it would be nice to get everything done under the banner of freedom, but it’s just as likely that you’ll get nothing done under that banner. When completely free, there is no guarantee that you’ll do anything of significance.

Accountability is a restriction of freedom that pressures you to act a certain way. The upside is a stronger chance of doing something meaningful, and the downside is burnout or rebellion. 

Extremes are Popular, But Ineffective

People love extremes, but most things work best in the middle, where you gain benefits from the extremes without many of the downsides.

Think about how most people set and pursue goals. First, they aim for something like a diet program, which attempts to transform the way they eat overnight with extreme accountability and food restrictions. This wears them down until they “break” the diet. Once they break through the diet, they’re more likely to use their newfound complete freedom to overindulge on the foods they “weren’t supposed to eat” on the diet. They go from overwhelming accountability to reckless freedom. We overcompensate like this whenever we go too far in one direction.

When you have excessive freedom which leads to reckless behavior, doesn’t it fire you up to make a big change? You’re at risk for overcompensating.

When you feel completely controlled and restricted by some program you’re following, doesn’t it make you want to quit and do the exact opposite just to demonstrate your freedom? You’re at risk for overcompensating.

The Sweet Spot of Growth and Progress

The sweet spot for progress is a place that doesn’t subject you to the main downsides of excessive freedom or accountability. It’s a place of comfort or slight discomfort (as growth often requires some discomfort). It pushes you some, but not at the cost of your sense of freedom (and sanity).

I know this idea is not as popular as extreme change attempts, but maybe that’s a good thing, since 92% of those fail.1

Struggling to live in the way you want to live is a sign that you have an imbalance of freedom and accountability. Try to figure out which one you’re lacking, or if you have too much of one.

Signs of Too Much Accountability

  • No breathing room or flexibility (you feel trapped)
  • You loathe what you have to do every day
  • You frequently make excuses to get out of doing things
  • You feel burnt out

Signs of Too Much Freedom

  • You get bored easily
  • You don’t know what to do with your time
  • You have no plan

It’s possible to feel signs of too much accountability and too much freedom at the same time. That happens when you lack direction but know you have a lot to do. It’s when you’re thinking vague “I have so much to do” thoughts and not thinking specifically about what you can do right now. By defining a small action that you can take right now to make progress, you will define what you’re accountable for and give yourself breathing room. Defining your next step limits your sense of accountability to that small task and nothing else (at this moment).

The Inherent Balance of a Mini Habit

Mini habits balance freedom and accountability very well. A mini habit gives you the accountability to do something every single day, but the task itself is small and easy. Then, you have the freedom to choose to do more (or not). For many people, this has been the sweet spot that allows them to make daily progress without wanting to punch through their drywall. It can even be fun!

The sweet spot of freedom and accountability is largely dictated by the brain, which is designed to change slowly and steadily. We can see this in how habits naturally develop “in the wild.” For example, smokers don’t begin chain-smoking on the first day because they’re suddenly addicted. It takes time and repetition to build and develop the (bad) habit.

Some experienced smokers have said that if someone tried to smoke a whole pack their first time smoking, they would probably vomit and be unable to finish the pack. Such an extreme experience would be unpleasant and could turn them off to the concept of smoking before it has a chance to become habit. But if habituated into smoking, smoking one pack a day is easily done. This is fascinating to see because unlike good habits we try to force upon ourselves, these bad habits happen at a natural pace. With the exception of mini habits and other similar strategies, habit and goal-setting advice is awful because it ignores the natural way change works and tries to force the issue with contrived “motivational hacks” that keep us at the extremes of trying to do too much or doing nothing at all.

Application goes beyond habit formation because the way the brain forms habits is also a guideline for daily non-habitual behaviors. Whenever you feel frustrated, bored, or stuck, ask yourself if you have the right amount of accountability and freedom. 

I’ll be bringing the balanced mini habits concept to weight loss in great detail later this year in my book, Mini Habits for Weight Loss. I’m excited for the impact it will have on those willing to try something different. It will be an opportunity for anyone who has been caught in the dieting trap that bounces people from extreme accountability to extreme freedom.

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