27 Jan 2018

Accountability Theory: Getting Stuff Done Despite Little Motivation

A guide on getting things done when you have little motivation to do them.

This guide is part of the 5-Part Productivity Guide.

Check out all 5 parts in The Only Productivity Guide You’ll Ever Need.

The Productivity Guide:

What this method is

If you’re the type of person who gets an idea and actually has the willpower/internal motivation/discipline to get it done —- then great! You can X right out of this guide because you really don’t need it.

But if you’re someone like me, who has a TON of projects and ideas but often little motivation to follow through and actually do them, then this guide is for you.

I generally have a ton of projects I love the idea of doing, but on a day-to-day implementation level, have little motivation to follow through. In those cases, I use the system below to get around that. This includes doing the hardest intro to coding course, Harvard’s CS 50 as a side project while doing a full courseload at Oxford University, waking up at 8:30 am on average in college despite having a natural tendency to wake up at 11 am, and following through on a bunch of side projects (like this blog!).

What this method isn’t

It’s not a quick skim or a list of 10 tips.

It’s a long-form description of 3 full blown systems. Getting through the full guide will likely take a couple hours and setting up the system will take even more time. Proceed only if you’re willing to put in that time.

It’s not a cure-all.

Everyone responds to expectations and work differently — that’s why there are so many different organization systems and productivity guides out there. Gretchen Rubin describes 4 different categories in which people fall into based on how they respond to expectations:

  • Upholders meet both inner and outer expectations.

In other words, if an upholder is assigned a work project (an outer expectation, held by his boss), they’ll surely get it done and get it done on time. If they make a commitment to themselves (an inner expectation) to make progress on a personal project, they’ll follow through on that too. Example: Hermione Granger.

  • Obligers meet outer expectations but not inner expectations.

Most people are obligers. If an obliger is asked to turn in an assignment by X date and time, they’ll surely turn it in by then. But if they give themselves an assignment by X date and time, they’ll have a hard time getting it done. Obligers work best when there’s some sort of external accountability present.

  • Questioners follow through on inner expectations and outer expectations which make sense to them.

They’re constantly asking ‘why’ and digging 5 levels deeper into things to fully understand them before accepting or following through. In other words, if they want to do something, they will, but only if they fully understand why they’re doing the task at hand.

  • Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations.

They hate being told what to do and often times giving them a directive will make them disobey. When they do choose to follow through on something, it’s because they genuinely want to do something or because they feel it’s an important component of their identity. Example: Steve Jobs.

This guide is written very much for obligers, and to some extent, questioners. If you’re an upholder or rebel, this guide is likely not for you.

This guide isn’t about building motivation or self-control.

Is it possible to build self-discipline or motivation? I have no idea. What I do know is that developing self-discipline, self-control, or perseverance is hard and takes time. Time that we don’t have when we have X, Y, and Z things to do.

Instead of placing so much importance on willpower and motivation, I think the better route is to find a way to change your environment or habits to make the change easier. This guide is about exactly that — accepting one’s lack of internal motivation and still getting stuff done by changing one’s environment through self-imposed accountability.

Let’s get started - De-constructing Productivity

We can deconstruct productivity by identifying the environments in which we are most productive versus the ones in which we are not. I think we can all admit our most productive intervals happen in the context of either work or school. But why? Why do we tend to get an enormous amount of work done at work and school despite having little internal motivation to do so?

I’d argue it’s because we have 3 key elements:

1. Clarity in what needs to be done.

When we’re not sure what needs to be done on a school assignment or problem set, we ask the professor or the TA until we have a clear sense of what needs to be done. In a work context, we’d ask our bosses or colleagues what a deliverable entails if there’s any amount of confusion. This clarity then allows us to better de-construct a goal or deliverable into more actionable tasks that we then proceed to work on.

2. Clarity in when a deliverable is due.

If our boss or professor hasn’t provided a deadline for a deliverable, it tends to get put on the backburner in favor of other action items.

More on this later, but suffice to say, having a clear notion of when something is due increases the likelihood it will be completed soon. Indeed deadlines can be incredibly motivating.

3. The presence and awareness of consequences if an action item isn’t done.

In the context of school, these consequences of non-action present themselves as really bad grades (a consequence of not studying) and at work as a lack of respect from co-workers, a lower work evaluation, letting others down, etc. In both cases, the consequences are both understood beforehand and severe.

This guide focuses on creating these 3 elements to get shit done.

Accountability as a Solution

Simply put, when you’re not getting stuff done it’s usually because of one of these reasons:

1. A lack of clarity of what needs to be done - The Goal Organization Guide focuses on this.

2. A lack of clarity of the time one has to set aside for a task - The Time Organization Guide focuses on this.

3. A lack of accountability for deadlines & quality of work

Accountability is the invisible magical force that gets us to be productive in school and work despite lackluster motivation.

Sure, we end up working right up till the deadline and the night before, but we get it done.

3 Elements of Accountability

  • A strict deadline.
  • A set of consequences if a deliverable isn’t completed on time.
  • A figure of authority enforcing the deadline and consequences.

By nature, our home environments and personal projects lack all 3 of these elements. As a result, these projects get ignored when in competition with work or school deadlines.

Why? Because the latter has strict consequences for incompletion and a deadline, both of which we know will be enforced, unlike our personal projects which are er. . . more flexible.

So the solution is fairly simple: we need to introduce these elements into the achievement of personal projects.

Using accountability to get things done

The crux of this system is having a friend hold us accountable to ‘turning in’ a set of deliverables by a specified date. If we don’t, we have to pay up the pre-determined consequences.

To do this, we need the following elements:

I. An Accountability Buddy who’s willing to hold you accountable.

This friend needs to be willing to enforce a deadline and a set of consequences.

Make sure your friend isn’t too close to you that they’ll let you off the hook easily. Sometimes, our friends are so close to us that they transform into inner expectations. If your friend/loved one is likely to let you off the hook if you don’t perform well, find someone else to hold you accountable. If you’re serious about getting things done, you have to be serious about the consequences if you don’t get it done. That simply makes getting your tasks done more likely.

II. Strict, pre-agreed upon consequences if deliverables are not done by a given time or by a certain standard.

What motivates you to get something done? Use that as a consequence. Financial incentives (e.g. paying a friend $10) work really well here. Why? Because it makes you more likely to do it.

Sometimes the shame of not meeting a promise is sufficient – it really depends on what motivates you personally and what impact your friend’s view of you has on you and your motivation. Try it without money if you’re curious, ideally with someone who’s opinion of you matters to you. If that doesn’t work though, money almost always will ;)

If you think you might be unwilling to actually pay if you fail to meet the deadline or deliverable standard, you can pay your friend in the beginning (when setting up the accountability sprint) and have them return you the money only when you’ve met the standards. This is a lot less awkward than forcing your friend to make you pay them money.

III. Explicitly written tangible deliverables with fail-proof ways of measuring success.

More explicit deliverables make it easier to check if you’ve actually followed through on what you intended to do.

Your friend won’t truly be able to measure your success if your deliverable is, ‘study for Calculus test’ or ‘read up on starting a startup’.

Making the deliverable more specific, like ‘Read chapters 7-10’ is better, but still sub-par; how will your friend truly check if you’ve read?

Instead, setting a deliverable of ‘Done problems 1-30 on pages 400, 450, and 438 each (90 problems)’ or ‘Read and took notes on chapters 7-10’ are far better.

IV. An explicitly written form of submission.

What format is the deliverable? Some good examples:

  • An email containing 4 graphs . . .
  • A URL to X, Y, Z finished articles . . .
  • A Fitbit heart-rate tracking graph as proof I exercised for 20 minutes
  • A screenshot of 20 sent networking emails

V. Explicitly written deadlines.

This one’s pretty easy — something along the lines of 11:59 pm EST +/- 5 minutes.

It’s generally a good idea to include a 5 minute grace period. The last thing you want is to lose $20 because you finished something 1 minute late.

Implementing an Accountability Sprint

Cool. Now that we have the ingredients of our accountability framework, we’re ready for an:

  • Accountability Sprint — a period of time when your friend is holding you to a deadline, and you’re in the productive zone of ‘sprinting’ to meet the deadline and deliverable standards and avoid the negative consequences.
  • Accountability Declaration — this is the formal write-up of the deliverables, due date, and consequences that you’ll message or email your Accountability Buddy.

To give you a better sense of how to implement this well, I’ll run through an example of converting a bad Accountability Declaration into a good one. I’d recommend you take a moment now to figure out what you’re trying to work towards and have a draft that you can modify as you read through this.

Setting up an Accountability Declaration

A Bad Declaration

“I’ll email you statistics on distribution of wage/salary income of people with college degrees in metropolitan centers.”

Why it’s Bad

It’s Vague

So what exactly does checking for “distribution of wage/salary income”” mean? How do you quantify ‘statistics’ into something checkable? How many metropolitan centers? There’s a lot of ambiguity that creates unnecessary wiggle room.

No Deadline

There’s no due date associated with the task. By when? What time? You want the accountability declaration to be as specific as possible so that there’s absolutely no wiggle room (unless pre-outlined) on your end.

No Concrete Deliverable

What tangible element is the friend going to check for? It’s unclear.

It’s Too Esoteric

It’s not in layman/easy-to-check terms. Unless your friend is a labor economics and statistics expert, she’s going to have a really hard time figuring out if you really did all of the items above. And if she’s not sure, most people will likely let you off the hook, which is really bad because it compromises the integrity of the system.

Plus, you irritate your friend by asking them to parse through rather dense material, rather than giving them an easy set of things to check for.

A Good Accountability Declaration

A better accountability declaration would be the following:

Overall Topic: Distribution of Wage/Salary Income

Deliverable I: 4 bar graphs of the distribution of wage/salary income of Americans.

  • Delivery method: A PDF report, sent via email.
  • Rubric: Check all 4 bar graphs are there, emailed on time, complete with detailed legend and a short paragraph explaining the data.
  • Consequence/Due Date: $10 penalty paid by Venmo if not emailed by 11:59 pm EST.

Deliverable II. A set of 4 mean, median, and quartile information blocks for each of the graphs

  • Delivery method: Sent in body of email.
  • Rubric: Check all 4 sets of data are there (12 in total), emailed on time.
  • Consequence/Due Date: $5 penalty for each of the 12 data blocks, paid by Venmo if not emailed by 11:59 pm EST.

Do you see what a huge change in specificity that is from the original declaration? Specifically, we parsed ambiguous terms like “statistics” into very checkable elements (mean, median, and mode information blocks) along with fixing all the problems listed above.

A Template for Accountability Declarations

Use the following template when writing out declarations and mirror the specificity of the example above when writing Accountability Declarations:

Overall Topic:

Deliverable I:

  • Delivery method:
  • Rubric:
  • Consequence/Due Date:

Other Important Implementation Tips

Aim for week long accountability sprints, not longer (at least in the beginning).

My accountability sprints are never more than 1-2 weeks long. If you’re just starting out, it’s especially important to have shorter accountability sprints for 2 reasons:

  • If you fail or mess up, you have less money on the line to lose. You don’t want to make a month long accountability declaration, get sick and thrown off schedule, and ended up owing a ton of money for missed deadlines. With shorter, week-long deadlines you have far less to lose.

  • Shorter accountability sprints allow for more fine-tuning. The shorter the cycle, the more quickly you can change up what is and isn’t working (see the next tip).

  • Shorter feedback cycles can be more rewarding. You meet the deadline quicker and therefore feel the euphoria of accomplishment more often. It’s pretty energizing.

Fine-tune your system as you set up further accountability sprints.

Did you overestimate how much you had to finish the first sprint? Then fix that for the next one. Were you not specific enough in describing deliverables? Fix that in the next one.

Since your sprints are only 1 week long, you can easily fix something that’s off.

Eliminate as much ambiguity and wiggle room in your description of the deliverable as possible.

The point of accountability declarations is to remove all possible wiggle room.

Why? When we have trouble meeting a deadline, we look for wiggle room. We look for cracks in the veneer, for ambiguity, for the minimum possible we can do to still get credit. That’s just human nature and it’s totally okay – it simply means we have to put in more effort in limiting the wiggle room at the beginning.

When I was in college, I desperately wanted to wake up earlier. So I told my friend I’d send her a photo of a “Hopkins workspace by 8:30 am +/- 5 minutes.” The problem with this declaration was that I was able to take a photo of a building 2 minutes away which was technically on campus masked as a workspace — this was invisible wiggle room that resulted in me getting to my real workspace at 8:45 or 9 am. Instead, the next time around, I became way more specific, pointing out that I’d send her a photo of “Brody reading room” — aka the actual workspace I meant to be in, thereby getting rid of the ambiguity and wiggle room.

In the last few minutes when you’re rushing to meet a deadline, you’ll look for all the possible ways you can undercut the deliverable while still getting credit. Acknowledge this habit in the beginning and address it by making water-tight accountability declarations.

Cool Accountability Examples

Using accountability to wake up early.

Using accountability to meet specific personal project & social goals.

Using accountability to exercise daily.


My friend let me off the hook. Is this really that bad?

Yes. yes. yes.

When people let you off the hook for missing a deadline or a deliverable standard, it compromises the integrity of the system.

In the short run, it’s good, because you save how much ever money you put on the line. But in the long run, if you know you’ll be off the hook this time, you’ll figure you’ll be off the hook in the future, leaving room for you to slack off in future accountability declarations. This fundamentally compromises the very thing that makes the system work – an expectation of performance.

So if you tried it, and it failed, no problem. I’d recommend trying again, making sure you’re following all the tips above.

This helps me get work done, but how do I make sure what I’m doing is high quality work?

We’ve all experienced that feeling of cramming before a deadline — heck that may just be a routine for us. The fact of the matter is, accountability frameworks can guarantee that you’ll get something done well, but not necessarily done well.

Sometimes you can quantify what it means for a deliverable to be done well – for example, specifying “4 bar charts” and further details about the charts, but often, it’s hard to perfectly quantify what our best work is.

This is a weakness of the accountability framework largely because quality is largely dependent on internal motivation.

The best way to try and maximize both quantity and quality is to:

  • Perform an accountability sprint to get as much as I can done.
  • Once the work is done, go back to add to the quality.

Continue to the next part of the guide: Time Organization Guide — the ultimate guide on organizing time.

This guide is part of the 5-Part Productivity Guide.

Check out all parts together in the Productivity Guide, or see the individual pages below: