Posted On 2020-05-24
Co-written with Dan Valentine
In this post, we describe a system we call Accountability Buddies whereby two or more people meet regularly and hold each other accountable for their commitments. We didn’t invent this system, but have been using it to good effect for 8 months.
- Dan, a software developer from Ireland. Dan kicked off a session of Accountability Buddies at a community retreat in September 2019 and paired up with Kai.
- Kai, a software developer from Germany. Kai is the author of this blog and had the idea to write about the experience together.
Coincidentally, each of us started out with one additional commitment partner. Kai’s second pairing was a short-term arrangement via text messages, focused on one topic that was simple to measure and communicate: gym visits. Dan maintained his second accountability buddy this whole time, speaking over video.
In the rest of this post, we take turns describing our experience.
Over the past 8 months I’ve been on a journey to improve my personal productivity and overall effectiveness in life, and one of the major tools I’ve used has been Accountability Buddies. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always had lots of big ideas about projects I want to work on, like getting fit, or building a cool app, or studying something important. But mostly what I’ve ended up doing with my free time is playing video games and browsing internet forums.
I’ve been trying to improve my productivity for a long time, but I’ve always struggled to make lasting gains. Occasionally I’d get a burst of motivation, decide that I was really gonna start being productive from now on, and do a lot of work on a personal project for a weekend. I’d usually be back to playing video games within a week.
I always felt like I could do so much more with my life if I could sustain those bursts of motivation, but it was starting to seem pretty hopeless.
I used to be very into productivity on the Internet. I read Merlin Mann on his 43 Folders blog and listened to David Allen about his Getting Things Done (GTD) system. Eventually, I became less interested in ongoing talk about new systems. I kept my GTD system on the back burner and focused on one theme in my life at a time.
In September 2019, I attended the community retreat where I met Dan. My focus at that time was to work towards writing online, and I entered Accountability Buddies to help me with that.
Dan and I scheduled a video call every Saturday. I wrote down notes about Dan’s and my commitments for the upcoming week. The following week, I would ask about Dan’s commitments and report on mine.
Having accountability buddies didn’t suddenly make me super productive. I promised all sorts of different things – from calling my grandma to learning TypeScript to meditating every day. Very often, I would have to admit to some failures during our calls. It was always disappointing, but then I got to start a new week with a fresh set of commitments and determination not to let my buddies down again. We didn’t just talk about our goals. We talked about how life was going generally, and the calls quickly became friendly, social chats that always left me feeling good.
We also talked about our general approaches to productivity, and I got a lot of ideas to try out and eventually incorporate into my own life. One of the most important things that happened during the entire 8 months was Kai suggesting that I read Getting Things Done. GTD describes a complete system for tracking and organizing all of the tasks and projects in your life, and a mindset of calm efficiency that goes along with it. It really resonated with me, and as I implemented the system in my own life over the next few months, my organization and productivity shot through the roof. I started to, at times, resemble the picture I’d always had in my head of who I wanted to be.
My first commitment was to write regularly. This planted the seed of what would later turn into this blog, with my launch post reusing some of my early text.
One theme of our commitments was habit formation. Both Dan and I used habit tracking apps, and for a time we sent daily screenshots to each other between our weekly calls. From February, I established a daily meditation habit that I’ve been keeping to this day. In addition to the weekly call, I established a system of flexible daily calendar events for meditating.
The other theme was project work. Between November and February, I used our weekly meetings for one-off commitments around the house and helping a friend, given that I was in the middle of moving between two cities that time. Lately, I’m getting back into project-like commitments again, not least of which was this blog post.
How I use the system has changed quite a bit since the start. Early on, I didn’t trust myself to get anything done, so I would promise my buddies everything on my todo list. This led to me having way too many commitments, and feeling stressed about them. As I improved my overall productivity, and especially after I implemented GTD, I began to trust that I would do the things I set out to do.
These days, I don’t commit to most of my tasks with my accountability buddies. I trust that I will do them, or that I will have a good reason for deciding not to do them. Often, I have several important goals for the week ahead, but commit to none of them with my buddies.
One thing I still commit to regularly are habits. I’ve been committing to various different habits for different lengths of time since the start, and I’ve always found them difficult to maintain. I think I’ve got a fairly effective system now though – here’s what worked for me:
- Daily messages are much better than weekly calls for reporting on habit commitments. If you fail a habit one day, a daily message gives the chance to immediately own up to it and get a fresh start. And for establishing any kind of habit, immediate positive or negative reinforcement is very helpful.
- Don’t try to develop too many habits simultaneously. At one point I was reporting on 10 different habits to Kai every day, and it was an unmanageable mess. I almost never had a perfect day where I accomplished all my habits, and therefore I was never able to really feel good about them.
- Read Atomic Habits – it provides a clear, understandable framework for how to think about and develop habits.
The other things I still commit to are tasks that I’ve been procrastinating, or that I’m not feeling very motivated to do but are still necessary. The little bit of extra motivation from a social commitment is usually enough to make it happen.
My approach to commitments is to never feel like I’m forcing myself when I make the commitment. If I feel resistance to a task, then I want to explore and understand my resistance, not power through it. I choose commitments that seem easy to do. As a result, my expectation is to keep nearly 100% of them, and I will often exceed my commitments and feel inspired.
At times, this modest approach meant that I fell back to committing to habits that were already well-established, such as my meditation streak since February. When this started to feel too easy, I would remember my focus on one theme in my life and choose one action towards that.
A funny aspect we discovered was the Day-of-the-Call Effect. Dan would tell me that he finished his commitment just hours before, because he didn’t want to face me and admit failure. In my case, because I generally chose easy commitments, I sometimes had a sense that delivering on the literal commitments was too cheap, and the Day-of-the-Call Effect would get me to exceed them by a lot.
I said earlier that I would often have to admit failure on our calls. If I often failed to do the things I promised, what was the point of the system?
Here are the benefits I see:
- Even if I failed some of my goals for the week, I always tried to succeed in at least one thing so I wouldn’t have to report complete failure. When you’re as unproductive as I was in the beginning, even these partial successes are big wins.
- Having a scheduled weekly call meant that I had to reflect on my productivity at regular intervals – I was more aware of what I was doing and failing to do.
- Each call was a chance to mentally reset – I had fresh goals, and a week to achieve them, and I didn’t have to worry or feel guilty about what happened in previous weeks.
- Kai and Laura were a great source of inspiration – often I would copy their goals. Laura telling me she was going to do physio next week would remind me that I’d been neglecting my own physio, and I would promise the same. Kai talking about getting back into meditation would make me excited to try it too. Good social role models are super valuable.
I’m very happy with how Accountability Buddies has been going for me. We’ve become friends and bring enough time to our weekly calls to get into some depth about the context of the past week and our thinking surrounding our commitments. This reflection and the occasional friendly challenge by Dan have been valuable in shaping my thinking about the upcoming weeks.
Overall, the benefits have been well worth the cost of having a couple of nice video chats with friends every week. I’ve made great gains in my productivity over the past 8 months, and having accountability buddies has definitely been part of that. I plan to continue for the foreseeable future. Here’s some advice if you’re considering starting your own accountability buddy arrangement:
- Decide on a specific time to talk every week, and set a recurring Google Calendar event for it. Discussing scheduling every week is too much hassle.
- For habits, message your buddy immediately every time you do the thing. Use the weekly call to summarize.
- For normal tasks, just promise 1 or 2 things at a time, and focus on the things you really need the extra bit of motivation for.
- If your buddy has been failing at a task, encourage them to think about why they’re having trouble with it – is it actually something they want to be working on right now? Maybe they need to rethink their goals. Kai did this for me several times, and it helped me critically examine the difficulties I was having.