You’re working on a big project. It’s taking weeks. Even months. And you’re going it alone.
At first, you were excited. Jazzed. You poured energy and commitment into it along with your heart and soul.
But admit it. After a while, you lost focus. You had a week or two when you didn’t take action, and it fell to the back of the queue. You didn’t just feel alone with the project, you felt lonely.
Now you’re behind. Really behind.
And you have no idea how you’re going to catch up.
Use Peer Pressure to Your Advantage
But there is a way to maintain your commitment. To keep your energy and enthusiasm high, and feel like you’re no longer alone.
We’re taught to think of succumbing to peer pressure as a flaw, but our dislike of letting others down can actually be a powerful motivator.
An accountability group—in which a small bunch of people share their goals, report back on their progress and hold each other accountable—is a fantastic way of getting things done.
A great example of this is the annual “NaNoWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month) event, during which participants commit to writing 50,000 words in a single month. Accountability is built in: daily word count updates, regional writing groups, forums and buddies are all designed as ways to check in and report back.
But this tactic doesn’t just work for writing novels; it can be applied to any sort of goal from losing weight to running a business. You can create your own accountability group to create the check-ins and support that will enable your version of success.
And you can set the group up right from the start to make it as effective as possible, ensuring that everyone achieves their goals without friction, hassle or extra work.
To get serious results, you need to keep just a few things in mind.
1. Don’t (Just) Invite People You Like
It can be tempting to invite only your closest friends, or those you get along best with at work. But sometimes friends have a hard time offering constructive criticism, and a little distance and objectivity from group members can be helpful—when encouraging each other to focus more, for instance, or calling each other out on a lack of progress.
Accountability groups may not suit everyone—they work best for people who are driven to meet external obligations (try Gretchen Rubin’s ‘Four Tendencies’ framework to see how you and your potential group members respond to expectations). So keep this in mind when extending invitations to join your group.
And don’t just invite friends—go out to your wider network. Use social media and any interest groups you belong to, and set clear expectations (see #2 below) so that invitees can screen themselves in or out. You’re only looking for 6-8 people, so choose wisely.
2. Ensure Everyone Knows What to Expect (and What’s Expected)
When you invite people to join your accountability group, describe its purpose clearly so everyone understands the “psychological contract” of the group.
Keep its focus front and center, and be sure you are inviting in people who will actively participate.
Also be clear about what the group isn’t. For example, mastermind groups are commonly confused with accountability groups.
In a mastermind (an idea based on Napoleon Hill’s 1937 book Think and Grow Rich), the group meets regularly to share and work on challenges using the power of the group.
In an accountability group, the focus is more individually action-oriented. Members may suggest ideas or solutions to issues, but the main purpose of the group is to encourage action by holding each other accountable to their set goals.
A written description or group contract can be helpful. For example: “The group’s goal is to encourage regular action from each member. Everyone will post weekly goals, and report back at the end of the week on what they did and didn’t achieve.”
3. Take Charge and Keep Everyone on Board
Although the collective energy is what makes this method work, someone does need to run the group. Someone must:
• structure it
• ask the group for updates
• give a gentle nudge if a member hasn’t checked in for a week or two
• ask members diplomatically if they really want to be there if they’ve stopped checking in.
This requires drive, commitment and probably a small dose of bossiness-balanced-with-tact. It isn’t for everyone . . . but there are advantages. For me, running my own group has meant that I’m not only committed to my goals as a member, but I also know I’d be letting people down if I didn’t put up the posts to let everyone share their updates.
If you want to contribute rather than run the group, find someone else to do this for you to ensure that consistency is maintained.
4. Avoid Letting Style Outweigh Accessibility
Don’t overcomplicate things.
While setting up a recent group, I got lost down a rabbit hole of possibilities and I held everyone up by a week or so while I did research on the growing number of “accountability apps” out there (e.g., make.me or Idonethis). These apps can be powerful, game-ifying your experience or helping you to structure it, but they can also add another layer of complexity.
Know your audience. In my group, for instance, not everyone uses their mobile devices religiously but everyone has a Facebook account. I resisted at first, wanting to use an environment specifically designed for accountability, but in the end I realized that clarity, accessibility and ease of use were more important than style and fun features. So I set up a private Facebook group, and this has proven extremely effective.
5. Keep Your Setup Simple…
…and stay simple.
In my current group, I put up a thread on Mondays saying something like “Accountability Goals Week Commencing <date>: Post your goals here.”
I state the date so that people know which thread is the right one for the week, and I use a photo to make it pop out of their newsfeeds. (I also use bad jokes like posting a picture of a mountain and asking “what mountains are you going to climb this week,” but that may just be me…)
On Sunday I post another photo with this: “Goals update week commending <date>: How did you do this week? Share with the group here.”
This sharing makes up 80% of the activity in the group. We try to keep it clean and distraction-free (no cat posts here!) so that our purpose—achieving our goals—is always at the heart of the group.
We’ve had the occasional thread on “learnings,” about what kind of goals have and haven’t worked for us in terms of the group and goal-setting, and sometimes the odd question or support thread. This is an opportunity to connect with others and know you have a supportive community around you while not heading off into the weeds.
6. Keep Goals Smart and Stupid
Help the group shape personal goals that are “SMART”:
Specific – Rather than “work on my course,” say “work on module 2 of my writing course.”
Measurable – Can you tell when you have achieved the goal? For example “complete module 2.1 and 2.2 of my online writing course.”
Attainable – The goal should be achievable (even if it’s a stretch).
Relevant – Each small goal should relate to whatever your bigger goals are.
Time-bound – Be clear when you will complete each goal.
But also keep each goal “stupid”—as in, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” Overly complex goals can drain your energy while you work out what it was you were supposed to be doing.
A “stupid” goal, with too many different aspects which also aren’t specified clearly, might be: “complete and do well in this week’s course module, get home admin tasks done, and do rest of my day job work. Get better at presentation skills and do non-fiction reading.” A SMART goal would be “By Friday, complete modules 2.1. and 2.2, submit homework and get feedback from my professor on my performance.”
7. Agree on Consequences (but Tolerate Failure)
The group’s energy is crucial, so if you have people who have stopped checking in, ask them if they’re still interested in being there. Try setting up the consequences of non-participation up front. For example, my group has a “rule” (pinned to the top of our Facebook page) that “if you don’t post anything for two weeks (unless you’ve told us all you’re away), then you’ll be gently released from the group.”
But be flexible. Everyone will have bad weeks where they don’t achieve their goals, or busy weeks where they fail to check in. A small nudge may be enough to help them refocus. If not, give them some private feedback to ask if they really want to be there.
Get Serious Results (and Keep Your Sense of Humor)
Run well, an accountability group can be fantastic for making progress over time on your goals. It will force you to look strategically at the week ahead and establish clear priorities that you can check back in on if you start to procrastinate or become overwhelmed about what to do next.
And after a bad week, you’ll have a community of people who will support you, and will remind you to wipe the slate clean.
That way you can start each week fresh, with a smile.
A great accountability group will help you keep on top of your projects, not only letting you catch up but get ahead.
Choose your group wisely and set it up well, and you will be ready to achieve some serious results.
Ellen Bard’s mission is to help you shine more brightly in business and life. She has a fancy degree, works with those who want to be productive but still kind to themselves, and loves all things that sparkle. For more ideas on self-compassionate productivity, grab her free pdf “101 Ideas to Boost Your Creativity, Have Fun, and Play.”
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.