5 ways to stay accountable (without punishing) yourself

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We all have goals. We all want to achieve these goals. It doesn’t need to be a painful process.

1. Look at the whole, not the part. Setting a daily goal or target is normally the first step to improving your productivity, but I’m going to suggest you bring the focus back a bit. Days are unreliable: you can start out with good intentions, only to find that anything that could go wrong has gone wrong, leaving you feeling empty, spent, and in no mood to accomplish anything. Weeks, too, can turn bad, so I have a word-count goal for the month —when broken down into an average per day it is achievable, but it gives me a few days’ grace if things don’t go as planned. Tracking your productivity in this responsive way also allows you to spot patterns: are Tuesdays not a good day for you, or do you get the most done on Sundays? Why? Once you figure this out, you can start to adjust your schedule to ensure you’re getting the most out of your day, and allow for those days where you’re less likely to get anything done.

2. Don’t punish yourself — but don’t reward yourself, either. A punishment system is a terrible idea in the first place, but the absence of reward is similar to a punishment — so by implementing a reward system you’re immediately setting yourself up for more punishment. Personally, I’m not keen on it as a motivator. My day job involves keeping people on track in their addiction recovery. I try to use methods that are positive and rely on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, rewards, and minimise the abstinence violation effect — the ‘fuck it’ feeling that comes when, say, you’re trying to maintain a diet or exercise regime and ‘just one’ slice of pizza makes you say fuck it, might as well have the whole thing now. While this applies to abstinence, it can be reversed into productivity. If you’ve not met your targets for a day or two, it can be tempting to use the ‘fuck it’ response to give up on the whole thing as a punishment for yourself. Accept that you can’t be perfect all the time, and adjust for it.

3. Track — honestly. To keep yourself accountable you’re going to have to track your progress, but you need to be prepared to be honest. It’s a basic point but it makes a difference. And by removing any reward or punishment system, you should find that recording when you haven’t done as much as you’d hoped doesn’t feel so bad. I have a quarterly goals system (point number 1 being put into action!), and if I hit my targets — well, that’s great. If I don’t, they carry over to the next quarter or get scrapped as needed. It’s as simple as that.

4. Track SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. You’ve almost certainly heard this acronym before, but I’m going to apply it not to your work, but to your tracking system. It needs to be specific: in our data-driven world it’s tempting to track everything we can, but stick to what is relevant to your end goal. Make sure it’s measurable: word- or page-count are the favoured ones for writers. If you wanted to track something less quantifiable, such as anxiety levels or mood, make it quantifiable: create your own scale and stick to it. Achievable means it needs to fit in with your work style: most of my tracking is done on a computer, and I am a dab hand with Microsoft Excel, so I have created a somewhat hyper-organised spreadsheet. If you do most of your work by hand, maybe it would make more sense to record it in the same way. On top of that, it needs to be realistic — for example, when I heard about the idea of a bullet journal, I loved it. When I used it for scheduling it was a dream, but to record targets and progress, it just didn’t work for me. As much as I loved the idea of getting out the coloured pens each day, in practice, it’s quicker and easier for me to spend two minutes updating a spreadsheet. Speaking of which, it needs to be timely: quick, simple, and almost reflexive. Now whenever I write something (this included), it goes straight into my word-count box, whether I have finished for the day or not.

5. Learn your style — are you a multi-tasker or like to focus on one project? I have recently finished the first draft of a book. It was fine when I was writing it, but when it came to the editing I found that doing nothing besides critiquing and improving my own work was… demoralising. I felt stagnated because I wasn’t creating anything new. On top of that, an idea I’d been sitting on for a few years just wouldn’t get out of my head. In the end, I gave in and am now working on around four projects simultaneously — and my productivity has shot up. In my professional life, I juggle a caseload of clients and enjoy bouncing from one task to the next in whatever order I choose. Why not apply this to my writing life? Knowing what motivates you and adapting your tracking system accordingly will help you demonstrate your progress in a way that motivates and inspires you.

Right, I need to go and enter the word count for this article into my spreadsheet. Looks like I’m on track to surpass my January target…

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