As you progress in your career, it often gets harder to ask for help in reaching your goals and staying accountable to yourself to achieve them. If you’ve reached a career plateau, the author recommends three strategies to hold yourself accountable to your goals: 1) Enlist an accountability partner. 2) Go public in declaring and sharing goals. 3) Change your environment.
At the beginning of your career, you were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You asked for help and soaked up the wisdom of your mentors and managers to climb the mountain. But once you experienced success, you found yourself scared to look down. After all, it’s intimidating at the top, when you think of everything you could lose. At this point asking for help begins to feel a lot less like a learning experience and a lot more like proof that you might not be cut out for the job at hand.
And the more successful you become, the less accountability you have. It’s not that you aren’t responsible to anyone; it’s that your goals become a lot more subjective: Lead the legal team, run the company, manage a department. So no matter the outcome, you can say, “Well, I tried my best.” At the same time, your calendar starts filling up with stuff you “have to do” as opposed to things you should be doing. So you find yourself in meetings you don’t fully believe add value and fighting tooth and nail to make time for tasks and projects that actually create impact.
This combination of reduced accountability, a long list of to-dos, and fear of looking incompetent usually creates a career plateau. When we stop working on our individual skills, we stop growing. It’s as simple as that. To break out of this success trap, you have to create a higher level of accountability so that your actions don’t depend on willpower alone.
Here are three ways to get started.
1. Enlist an accountability partner.
A few years ago I came up with an idea for what I needed to do to grow my keynote speaking business: I needed to practice my speeches several times before the presentations, and I needed to get better constructive criticism on the content. But something — fear or maybe laziness — kept me from doing those things. I realized I needed more accountability than I could provide for myself.
Research speaks to my situation. A study by the Association for Talent Development found that your probability of achieving a goal hinges on being specific and accountable. When you decide to pursue a goal, your chances of success fall somewhere between 10% and 25%. By sharing your goal with someone you care about, you raise the likelihood to 65%. And when you ask that person to meet with you on a regular basis to check in, your probability of success skyrockets to 95%.
Pretty incredible, right? I decided to put the research to the test and hired a friend to act as my “boss” and hold me accountable for the big tasks I wanted to accomplish. I know it sounds silly, but even though I knew my pretend boss had no power to fire me, I significantly upped my game. After all, I didn’t want him to be disappointed in me. I’d practice speeches with him for weeks before delivery. He helped me fine-tune any confusing or ineffective aspects of each talk. The morning of a presentation, we’d do a final run-through over Zoom. Owing to the increased practice, I started getting more referrals, and my business growth accelerated quickly.
2. Go public in declaring and sharing goals.
You don’t necessarily need to “hire” a boss to find an accountability partner, but you do need consistent reminders of your commitments.
According to a study on New Year’s resolutions, people who achieve their goals often use a technique called stimulus control, in which they frequently remind themselves of those goals.
To accomplish this, I tell as many people as possible about the big, lofty goals I’ve set for myself. For instance, last year I set a goal to do my first pull-up. And not just one: I wanted to work up to 20 in a row. It would take a lot of stimulus control to keep me going. So I married this challenge with another big goal: raising $20,000 for the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters. I vowed to do one pull-up for every $5 donated. Every time someone contributed to my campaign, I would do the appropriate number of pull-ups and post updates on my social media accounts. Those posts not only helped me raise additional dollars but also made my fundraising challenge a topic of conversation when I ran into friends and acquaintances. That level of accountability pushed me to work a lot harder than I would have on willpower alone, and I ended up raising more than $26,000.
It’s hard to understate the power of community support. For example, I also wanted to read a new marketing book to learn some fresh skills, but I was worried about finding the time to finish it and act on the ideas. So I created a mini-book club and found a few motivated people who wanted to join. Research shows that when you work together with others and create a group for your goals, it significantly increases your interest, resilience, and likelihood of success.
3. Change your environment.
Pursuing a long-term goal such as writing a book, getting a promotion, or making a big life change is a complex, multistep process. It’s easy to lose steam during challenging moments, especially if you’re betting on willpower to get you through it all. Most people who have consistently reached their goals say they didn’t do so only by depending on their self-control; they changed the environment.
In fact, a Florida State University study found that participants who report self-control in spades also take steps to minimize the temptations that could derail them. Although these people might possess steelier-than-average wills, they succeed because they parlay their self-control into choosing environments that will help them avoid distractions and goal-inhibiting impulses. In other words, instead of willing themselves to avoid scrolling Instagram, they leave their phones at home or block the app in their browsers. The best temptation resisters spend less time fighting their impulses than others do because they have optimized their environments to free them of derailing distractions.
Instead of white-knuckling your way toward your goals, step into a new environment in which reaching those goals is supported and expected. When you’re under a legally binding contract, for instance, you have a vested interest in maintaining steady progress.
I started creating contractual obligations for the really big goals I wanted to reach. For instance, when I was first working on a podcast, I struggled to publish weekly episodes. I would find myself posting them later and later each week. So I secured a sponsor to back the show for 52 weeks. Now that I have this responsibility, the task takes on a completely new meaning in my life. I know I won’t miss a deadline. Similarly, while writing my books, I learned that if I involved a coauthor to whom I made contractual promises about deadlines and content, I’d be much more likely to hit my publishing goals than to lose steam halfway through.
If you’ve found yourself treading water in your career after a quick ascent, you’re not alone. It’s not because you lack willpower, and it’s certainly not because you aren’t capable of growth. The root cause of career plateaus is often the underlying fear that accompanies success. Don’t try to fight through it alone. Ask for help from others again to increase your accountability and unlock your full potential.