I’ve spent a lot of time by myself in the past couple years. While single-handedly starting my business in Brazil and traveling alone in Asia, I’ve found only extrinsic motivations keep me from reverting to my default state of internet-induced slobbery. Lacking face-to-face contact with friends, family, and mentors, it has been tough to gain the inspiration and motivation to better myself.
Fortunately, even when facing very different work and personal environments, three friends and I committed to holding each other accountable for our own self-improvement. Over two years, we’ve consistently set monthly goals together as a group and held monthly calls evaluating ourselves and each other’s progress.
This habit has been one of my greatest assets since graduating college, and I credit my accountability group with providing me important structure in my very unstructured life. I like to think we’ve combined forces to make ourselves and each other healthier, wiser, and more likely to fulfill our greatest ambitions.
With time, we’ve tested different components of our accountability group, but what follows is my view of what works well for us and might to do the same for you.
Find the Right People
None of this can function with the wrong group dynamic, so choose carefully.
Draft your friends. Tough love is a deciding factor in making the group function well. You should feel comfortable criticizing anyone in the group when she is slacking, and I’d cringe giving and taking criticism when the person isn’t a friend. Of course, you have to truly care about everybody in the group’s success to gain long-term reciprocal accountability.
Make sure there’s mutual admiration and a drive to stay respected. Because I hold each person in my accountability group in high esteem for his character and accomplishments, I want to impress them all. Simultaneously, I don’t want to embarrass myself among those I admire, which encourages me to meet my goals.
At a certain threshold of inaction, the group will disintegrate, so pick proactive and honest members. This phenomena has struck our group often and is the greatest threat to the group actually benefiting us: one person performs poorly and starts to slip on reporting progress, so the others lose motivation and do the same. Slacking will eventually affect everyone at some point, so the only defense is if at least one of us at any given time rallies the group, reports his progress, and pesters the others until they do the same.
The easy reaction to another’s inaction is more inaction. Thus, the only solution is consistent check-ins, even if you lose face by admitting weak performance.
Share some important commonalities. I’m not saying you have to be carbon copies of each other, and certainly being too alike could insulate you from unfamiliar ideas, backgrounds, and experiences. Still, everyone in my group is interested in social impact, business, and world travel and culture. Consequently, when I declare a monthly goal to arrange for myself three homestays with poor families, everyone in the group will understand my aim and give helpful feedback. My accountability group would be far less worthwhile if it instead were to comprise my other friends who don’t share my interests and aspirations.
Four people is the ideal number. While we initially contemplated expanding the group from the four of us, we haven’t discussed including others since then, probably because four people feels like the “Goldilocks” size. With pressing schedules, we can even struggle to pick an agreeable time and then conduct a meaningful call in an hour. More participants would just complicate an already difficult task. Additionally, having an even number lets us split into rotating pairs for more frequent check-ins, sometimes including sending daily priorities to each other.
Be in nearby time zones. From the beginning, my entire group has never been in one place, nor hardly even the same side of the globe. Even though we’ve quite consistently kept our accountability habit despite our distance, you’re stacking the odds against yourself by forming a group with far-flung people. It’s hard enough because a practice like leads to self-selection by those with time-sucking work and personal schedules.
In the best case scenario, at least occasionally replacing monthly calls with face-to-face gatherings can strengthen the group’s social pressure element. I’ve noticed both positive and negative reinforcement feel stronger in person than by phone. Just by traveling with two friends from my accountability group, it feels harder to escape from my monthly commitments.
Set the Right Goals
Since we began in 2013, our goals have spanned the realms of work, relationships, health, spirituality, finance, creativity, and beyond. As the point of our accountability group is to become better humans, no goal is off-limits, but don’t narrow your objectives to just one area. The group’s duty is to question and advise on each other’s goals, ensuring everyone focuses on what matters most.
These parameters seem to make our goal setting most successful:
Have one focused group call per month. We send out a Doodle poll to pick a call time a few days beforehand, and we each summarize our own performance on the past month’s goals in a group email before the call. Ultimately, our calls are most valuable when we don’t waste time recapping. Use calls to pose questions, challenge each other, and ask for and offer help related to your goals.
Set process goals, not outcome goals. The difference between the former and the latter is that a process goal is an action entirely in your control. However, an outcome goal depends on other people and circumstances, which you often can’t control.
For example, a process goal is to “email 10 new potential customers in a week” while its corresponding outcome goal is to “sell $5,000 of products in a week.” What if the company’s products you’re selling are unappealing to customers, and there’s nothing you can do about that? Setting that outcome goal and then failing to meet it might discourage you, when the failure was hardly your fault.
As such, process goals are more effective than outcome goals, especially when matched with persistence and experimentation. My logic is process goals only measure your own effort, so it’s harder to rationalize excuses for not completing them. Moreover, process goals force understanding of how you do something, which is necessary for you and your accountability group to change and improve your approach.
Choose quantifiable and easily provable goals. It’s difficult to hold yourself and others accountable for vague goals. For instance, picking the goal of “go to the gym” isn’t very helpful if your aim is physical fitness. Instead, try to “complete 4 sets of 5-7 repetitions of deadlifts, squats, and bench presses to muscular failure every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
Better yet, it’s satisfying to send your accountability group a screenshot of that online course module you finished or a photo of you drenched in sweat after your run. At the same time, receiving this proof from others in your accountability group boosts social pressure for you to accomplish your goals.
Limit yourself to between one and three big goals per month. A greater number leads to you neglecting some of your goals when unexpected distractions and challenges inevitably occur. It’s easier to be able to remember each other’s few major objectives, so you don’t need to reference an old email before checking in on each other’s progress.
I hope our habit prompts you to see if group accountability can benefit you and your friends. Also, I’d love to know if anyone else practices something similar and how we can improve our process.
Above all, I’m grateful for my accountability group for their dedication to making me a better person and for their unwavering friendship. Moreover, thanks to Spencer Ingram for instilling a foundation of “less talking, more doing” in me during our weekly accountability sessions at HackCville in 2012-2013, which has formed the ethos of our group.