The Accountability Manifesto

I began the Accountability Journal almost ten years manifesto
ago. At the time, I was in a grad student at a prestigious, highly competitive university in the UK and desperately trying to finish my dissertation. If you’ve ever worked independently, whether for school, self-employment, or any kind of project where you can’t simply “clock-out,” then you know how quickly the job becomes your life, and everything else gets pushed to the wayside: friends, partners, health, personal hygiene, you name it. If you remember learning about gases from elementary school, you know that one of the defining properties of gas is that it will expand to fill any given container. When you’re working without direct supervision, writing acts exactly like a gas: it will expand until it takes up all of the space in your life.

I was terribly unhappy, but there were so many reasons why I shouldn’t have been. I grew up in a rural community in the southern US, where people rarely left the state and very few travelled abroad. And there I was living in a breathtakingly beautiful part of England, surrounded by history and culture, but I was glued to a desk from dawn till midnight trying to prove that I could keep up in the British university system.

I was miserable and couldn’t take any more. So I sat down and I began to write what I referred to as The Accountability Manifesto.

Manifesto sounds overly melodramatic, as if I hoped to start a socialist revolution or neo-Dadaism, but I’m drawn to the theatrical, and it captures the sense of passion and commitment I needed to turn things around.

Step One

I began by making a list of every area of my life that I felt was being neglected or left undeveloped. I thought I’d have four, maybe five big things I wanted to change, but when I really started thinking, there were nine. I wanted to be athletic and active, despite spending 12 hours a day on a computer. I wanted to live in a clean space like a normal human being. I wanted to go out and explore this beautiful country and appreciate the amazing opportunity that I had to live there. The list went on and on and on. The list keeps going on. At any given time, I have nine to twelve areas or projects that I’m focused on.

Step Two

Did you ever see the movie What About Bob? In the film, Richard Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist who explains to his patient (Bill Murray) that you can accomplish anything, if you just take baby steps. It becomes a recurring joke in the movie, but it’s actually kind of true. I decided that each day I was going to spend just a little bit of time working towards those nine goals. Maybe I didn’t have time to do all the dishes in the sink, but I could set aside 10 minutes once or twice a day to wash a few plates. Even if I couldn’t make time to go to the gym, 20-30 push-ups or sit-ups weren’t going to hurt. It was just a way to get started. Baby steps.

Step Three

At the end of every day, I opened up a Word doc, and I explained what I did and what I didn’t do. I described how I felt and what I learned. Taking the time to think through my day and emotions was the hardest part of the entire project because it took time and focus, but it was also the most beneficial. The journal was simultaneously my therapist and my boss. I knew I had to report to somebody. Somebody was going to hold me accountable.  Even if it was only the blinking vertical line, and that damn animated paper clip.


Step Four

Over the years, I’ve given up on the Accountability Journal, picked it back up, gone on vacations, picked it back up, took a hiatus, picked it back up. You get the idea. Each time, I tried to identify what had made me put the journal aside. Hint: It was almost always a vacation. The Accountability Journal works best for when you have a lot of priorities and/or zero motivation. When you have less stress, you don’t need someone holding you accountable. Yet each time I find myself overwhelmed, I come back to the Accountability Journal, and without fail, I immediately begin to live a more active, fulfilled, accomplished life. Stick with it.

Over the years, I’ve had to adapt to new situations and interests, rethinking my areas or focus or setting smaller goals. If something isn’t working efficiently, it often helps to make a schedule, i.e. I’ll run every other day. I’ll practice guitar on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I’ve even adapted the ways I keep my Accountability Journal. Once or twice a week, I write out long, self-reflective entries. For all the other days I just make notes or what I call a “To-Done” list. (But maybe that’s a post for another day.)

Step Five

At the end of the day, I felt productive because I knew I had to account for my time, but I was also more aware of all the things I was accomplishing and learning to give myself credit instead of self-flagellation. When I get discouraged because a 25-minute timeslot isn’t long enough to learn JavaScript, I can look back over the last week or two, or even a month, at all the hours I’ve spent learning new code.

As they used to say on MTV Cribs, in an entirely different context, of course, “This is where the magic happens.” Even though you’re taking out 15-30 minutes for each of your goals and side projects, the time you spend working on your dissertation, revising an article, or finishing that report seems twice as productive. Your focus is better because your day is more enjoyable. You actually get more work done.

If you want to try it for yourself, here are the five easy steps.

1. Make a list of focus areas: things you want to change , accomplish, or learn.

2. Baby steps: break down each area into 2-3 mini-goals.

3. Journal it. Really think about what you’re doing. Ask yourself the hard questions.       Be your own therapist every once in a while.

4. Stick with it, but adapt it.

5. Be proud of everything you’ve accomplished.

Hey, you’ve already read this whole post, so you’ve really already started. Baby steps.

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