How To Use Accountability To Hit Your Targets

    hit your targets - dartboard

    “The difference between a job and a career is the difference between forty and sixty hours a week.” – Robert Frost

    Let’s face it: there are plenty of days when we as writers don’t feel like writing what we should be writing.

    When we’ve got a big project facing us, whether that be a novel or a long magazine article or whatever … we get intimidated and we procrastinate. We fail to hit our targets.

    Especially when we control our own schedule.

    Here’s the solution, and it’s just about as can’t-fail as they come: make yourself accountable to someone else.

    Yes, for those of us who became writers so we wouldn’t have a boss, this method sounds suspiciously like having a boss. But this is better, because you choose your own boss and set your own deadlines, and of course you can fire your boss if you want.

    Accountability for the writer means putting pressure on yourself to get the writing done. It means setting up your work so you have someone else to answer to.

    Here’s how you can do it:

    1. Have a virtual boss. Basically, someone to answer to. This can be an editor, a client, your blog’s audience if you have one, a coworker or friend, anyone. You choose, but be sure it’s someone who will hold you accountable (in a positive way) instead of forgetting about deadlines. Simply email that person and ask them to help you out, and work out a setup similar to the one explained below.
    2. Set frequent deadlines. If you have a book that’s due in six months, that’s too far away. You want to have deadlines that are closer, so you’ll put that pressure on yourself to write every day. For example, you might tell your best friend that you’re going to email her a chapter every other day. That means you can’t wait for 5 months before actually starting to write — you’ve got to write every other day at the very least, and preferably every day.
    3. Send your virtual boss your writing in stages. So send each chapter when you’re done for their review, or send them the chapters one section at a time, or a long magazine piece one section at a time, etc. This will allow them to review what you’ve written, so that you’ll be sure not to write two paragraphs and report success.
    4. Have your virtual boss hold you accountable. It doesn’t work if they let you slide. They have to ask you where the writing is if you don’t send it in. Of course, if you have a valid reason for not turning it in (you were hospitalized or sent to prison, for example), they’ll probably let you get away with it. But if you make too many excuses, tell them to call you on it. Pressure is a good thing here.
    5. Blogs work great for this. If you tell your blog audience that you’re going to post your writing one section at a time, every day, then you’ll have pressure to actually write, or you’ll look bad in front of a large crowd of friends. No one wants that. Ask your blogging audience to hold you accountable. Of course, if you’re looking to publish this writing elsewhere, you might not want to publish it on your blog, but instead you could just give them a word count or some other update like that each day — as long as you’re honest!
    6. Consider an online forum. There are online forums for writers out there (NaNoWriMo being the most famous) where you can start a writing group and hold each other accountable and review each others’ work. This could be a great semi-private solution for many writers
    7. Also consider a real-world writing group. Instead of a virtual group, consider one in your area. They’re often held at universities or advertised in the newspaper in many areas … or start your own! Basically, you want to meet once a week and read each other’s writing. A great way to get feedback and have that accountability.

    “No man goes before his time / unless the boss leaves early.” – Groucho Marx

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com. Grab a copy of her free report, How to Create an Irresistible Lead Magnet in Less Than 5 Hours. In her “spare” time, Mary’s also the brains behind AlistBlogging.net. and GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Question: What was the reason for “Of course, if you’re looking to publish this writing elsewhere, you might not want to publish it on your blog,”

      I want to get feedback by putting pieces of my nonfiction book on a blog. I wasn’t sure why you advise against it. I hope you can help.

    • John Ingle says:

      As a software developer by day, you second and third recommendations ring particularly true with me. They remind me of Agile development methodologies. In software we say “release early, release often” and given how well it seems to work for the development of complex computer programs, I can see why it might work for writing too. Good article!

    • After reading this, and many days of banging my head against glass for not working on my cyberpunk novel, I am appointing my mom and my husband as my virtual bosses.

      Thanks for this.

    • All though I can see that your suggestions work great for some they wouldn’t work for me since I hate being controlled by an outside force. This includes accountability.

      I need to be able to hold myself accountable for my own work, otherwise I would only kid myself, because what happens if there is nobody else to hold me accountable? I seem to work best in this regard when my work schedule is so full that it is close to bursting as nothing gets my bum more into gear than being really busy.

    • This was very interesting, thank you, Leo!

      I had a quick browse of your fab blog a few days ago, having found you through Copyblogger and Zen Habits.

      I have my very own virtual boss, except she’s not so virtual! My friend Lucy comes round or calls me on the phone every day to say ‘What have you written today?’ She kicks my bum when I don’t do what I say I’m going to do, so I have to be careful what I say in front of her!

      Thank you again. I look forward to reading more, and am going to revisit Zen Habits again now.

      :o)

    • Just “having” a blog and updating daily has been helpful to me because as the readership grows, so does the expectation that I’m actually working on something. And I keep progress bars on the side.

      I’ve also found comms like nanowrimo and novel_in_90 (which is an ongoing Livejournal community) to be really helpful for accountability. I just wish there were more groups focused on editing accountability instead of just rough drafts.

    • As for me, the problem is not so much in completing a project, as in starting and getting involved. If you really like your job – the only thing you have to do is to follow the creative impulse. However, I admit that some people need a boss – virtual or real – to experience this impulse as such.

    • Tony says:

      Some great suggestions. I find if I tell someone about a project it definitely brings an added degree of motivation to my project.

    • Bob Younce says:

      This is so true! When I started blogging my novel progress, my productivity and progress almost doubled. It’s ironic, in that you would think adding the task of blogging to maintain that “virtual boss” would take more time away from the real work, but it really doesn’t.

      Awesome post.

    • I love the idea of a virtual boss simply because it’s worked well for me in the past. When I was writing my first book, I told my best friend about my plans. Every time I saw him (which was quite often) he’d ask for an update and I knew I had to deliver. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I’d ever have gotten off my butt!

    • Al at 7P says:

      @Mary Jaksch I GoodlifeZen.com,

      I like how you think. I definitely agree – passion is the the ultimate motivator 🙂

      I reach into my emotional toolbox and use fear whenever I need that extra kick to finish projects, but if passion wasn’t there when I started it in the beginning, the work is usually not worth finishing.

    • Now this is an interesting Post. As a writer I have had trouble being consistent with my writing, and even though I started a blog with the intention of writing every other week, I failed at that.

      I like the ideas you listed above, which I think I will put to practice. I once had thoughts of doing something close to that but never put it to practice. Not quite sure if the reason I fail to write is because I am a Freelance Designer first and a writer second. I think it is because as a Designer I make money and as a writer, well I don’t see the profit in it.

      To tell the truth I prefer my writing over designing. Writing is something I have loved ever since I held a pen in my hand, and is something I will always love. And your Post has just made me realize that my poor dedication to my writing is the reason I don’t write as often.

      Thanks for the post! Looking forward to many more.

    • Genia says:

      About real-world writing groups: I found mine via meetup.com. You can search by your location or by interest, and if there isn’t a suitable group in your area you can start one.

      The Nashville Writers Meetup now has several “sub-groups” for our members’ different interests. The Novelists group is becoming an accountability partner for accomplishing my writing goals; on the 2nd Saturday in February I’ll turn in my novel outline for feedback. The Fiction Writers group, different than the Novelists, concentrates mostly on short fiction and presents challenges and prompts every month. I’ve become an assistant organizer and will be hosting the Nonfiction Writers group starting in February; I’d like to combine accountability and writing challenges/prompts to help us all meet our goals.

      Great stuff, Leo — I’m loving the whole site!

    • I’ve been at this a very long time. I believe, in all likelihood, that the virtual boss will become another tool for procrastination if procrastination is what you are after…For instance, if you are supposed to be writing a novel, you shouldn’t be posting in a blog…unless you’re comfortable with where you are on the novel. I think something like this (virtual boss) might work as an exercise, but in the end it is your own discipline in question. You have it, or you don’t.

      You mentioned Nanowrimo – I’ve done that for several years now, and sold two of the three novels. During November, I finished the entire books. Having a schedule and sticking to it is just not that hard if you are enjoying what you are doing – and if you are not enjoying it, maintaining the writing as a career may prove problematic. Of course, people do jobs they don’t like all the time, but in writing your level of “investment” has to be higher to get a good output.

      So…to be short where I’m growing long…it might be fun and positive to have an assigned virtual boss, but it won’t work better than any other plan unless you possess the discipline to “git ‘er done.”

      DNW

    • miracle says:

      Maybe an additional benefit about being accountable to your blog readers is that you can create a sense of anticipation among them. This could lead to higher sales when the book is finished.

    • @AL AT 7P
      I’m interested in your suggestion that fear and desire are motivators. I see FEAR or LOVE as the engines behind actions.

      I think you are right that being accountable to someone plays into fear as a background motivation. Whilst that may be useful at times, I have concerns about allowing fear to be a central force in the creative process.

      For one thing, fear kills joy. And creativity.

      I think a better way to crank up productivity and discipline is to foster our love of writing. Passion is the ultimate motivator!

    • Good article!
      A couple of thoughts here, from my personal experience. If you really want to create internal accountability (although external is a good alternate if the task is that crucial) as a writer, work as an editor for a while, even on a volunteer publication! You will see a wide spread of behaviors around meeting deadlines, and it has always motivated me to meet or beat the deadline set by MY editor when I freelance.
      The chunking of larger projects into smaller pieces is vital. Another piece to consider is your motivation for the project. If it’s a project that you initially proposed (even if another is now contracting with you to finish it), what originally excited you about the assignment or idea? If it was something assigned to you, what about the assignment motivated you to accept it?
      I find that reconnecting with the excitement I felt when I accepted the assignment (even if it was “I can make my car payment this month”) helps me keep up with my writing schedule.

    • Al at 7P says:

      I can see how some would have difficulties with a ‘virtual boss.’ When I think of a boss, I think of the pointy-headed Dilbert character. Add to the fact that this is a self-induced mental trick, which is similar to setting your clock 10 min. fast to make it to meetings on time (the clock trick is a big pet peeve of mine).

      At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I actually like the idea of a virtual boss and will try to use it. Yeah, it is a mental trick like the clock one – although I dislike seeing the clock trick used, I never, ever, tell someone not to do it. Whatever works, works.

      There are two ways to motivate people: desire and fear. If desire isn’t enough for me to get out of bed and start writing, then the fear of missing a deadline should. For me, the virtual boss would help manifest that fear. After all, when I do my own editing, I evoke the ‘virtual editor’ in me, so why not the ‘virtual boss?’

    • I like the writing group idea. I joined one a few months ago for exactly that reason – to help keep myself accountable. I also found that it’s just nice to meet and talk with other ‘people like me’.

      Of course, there are plenty of writing communities online, and blogs like this help make writing less of a solitary occupation. It’s still nice to meet people face to face and know that they get me.

      It’s important to find the right group, but once you do, you might just wonder why you hadn’t joined sooner!

      Another great post.

    • BarryG says:

      If you have time for a quick read, I recommend The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. If you do not have time, I suggest you find some. (He also wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance and several other successful historical novels.) He writes on ancient warfare and is one tough minded S.O.B. In the War of Art he makes a very compelling case for the kind of rigor that comes from being accountable to something bigger than yourself- but not a boss.

      To give you a flavor, in the introduction, he talks about how Adolf Hitler spent his inheritance on art school- but found it easier to start a world war than to face an empty canvas. Do not look for tea and sympathy here. Yet as a writer himself, Pressfield is very practical about how he sets up his life to write. Many of the simple things he talks about are now part of a daily routine that serves me well- and not just in writing.

      In short, Pressfield personifies Resistance and describes all of the ways that it will destroy a creative endeavor. And he goes on to describe the resources that line up to support us when (and only when) we show up for work. Lastly, he redefines creative expression -writing or plumbing supply, whatever floats your boat- as a sacred obligation rather than an indulgence. In Pressfield’s world, deadlines are an obligation to the entire planet.

      This is a short read- but is the kind of small book that is likely to stay permanently on your desk as a reminder. It stays on mine to remind me of my own best self.

    • Not sure a virtual boss would work for me, but I think a writer pal helps. I don’t use my writer friends for accountability, though. I think if you’re going to succeed in writing you have to POSSESS that discipline.

      Another great article:)

    • Margherita says:

      Virtual Boss??? Does it work? mmmm not sure, think about your bills, that works better

    • Leo Babauta says:

      @Mary … congrats on your success! You may be the rare person who doesn’t need tricks like this to motivate you. But these tricks are just tricks — I’m not suggesting you actually need a boss. It’s just a way to hold yourself accountable and put that positive pressure on yourself.

      I’ve found that positive public pressure works well in creating new habits — I’ve used it in creating numerous habits, from running to quitting smoking to waking early to eating healthier to becoming a better blogger. It’s a powerful tool and it works for writing as well. It’s worked well for me, but if you don’t need it, more power to you!

    • Leo, I actually like your idea of getting up early and establishing that routine as “my boss”. The sense independence and extra productivity keeps me on my schedule.

    • @ Leo
      I don’t agree with your idea of creating a synthetic boss, Leo. I wonder if that sentiment is still a left-over from your time in servitude? It took me a long time to really get the fact that I am accountable to myself. What I do with my life, how productive I am, how hard I work or play – all of that is up to me and my own discipline.

      I’m lucky because I’ve had triple training in discipline: I trained and worked as a professional musician, then did 18 years of martial art training and have been involved with Zen for more than 2 decades. All that amounts to discipline plus! And I need it to keep myself on track.

      I’ve kicked out all bosses – virtual and otherwise – and happily work for myself. To keep myself on track I set clear goals.
      cheers,
      mary

    • I’ve found that the most effective way to hold myself accountable as a writer is the money–I don’t get the check until I turn in the project and I can’t pay my bills or eat until I get the check.

      Just as effective is what you said, Leo. Being accountable to someone else–in my case, editors–is a strong motivator because it appeals to your dignity and honor; you’ll get the project done when you said you would. Not fulfilling stated obligations is a horrible feeling.

      So is not having any money.

    • Greate blog. Greate style. Great writing. Thx a lot.

    • Charles says:

      Shudder!!!…, It really DOES sound like HAVING A BOSS! But it’s true! Self discipline is the most difficult part of being your/our own Boss. The whole world, especially friends and family, think that because we don’t “go away to the office” any more, our time is theirs. NOT!!! But often we just can’t say, NO!!! to them, “I’m at work now and my fee is $1,000.00 per hour. If you want some of my time, please pay in advance or know it must be pretty dammed important to interrupt my work.”

      How do we get that across to the world–our friends and family in a clean happy sensitive way?

      Charles

    • Great article, I find holding myself accountable is difficult. There are so many distractions that you can run into day-to-day. I have done #5 so far to great success, I feel that it is mandatory I post on the topic I have listed on my blogging schedule when it is do— otherwise I feel like I am personally letting down my subscribers that expect that content to be there.


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