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An Accountability Partner  

November 13, 2014

If I said to you that “you could earn money for free by simply accepting free gifts from me on the condition that you must take my money”?

Free money? Not quite. What I’m about to discuss is a fascinating productivity tool called an accountability partner. What do they do? No money for the answer here! They hold you accountable.

The idea is that you have some goal to reach on a regular basis, lets say daily. You somehow send your partner updates on a reular basis; I’m sending blog posts to a friend so I write here. What happens is that your partner checks your work. In the simplest version of the challenge, that’s it.

“How’s that meant to increase productivity?” you say.

The concept works around the idea of honour and such. In olden times honour groups flourished and members were compelled to act lest their honour be questioned and shame brought upon them. This shame was a powerful motivator. Not only was your own drive pushing you on to success, but your honour group (or the customs of society at large) was also pushing you to success. This was a powerful combination.

Today, we don’t have honour groups, and in a (relatively) tolerant, inclusive world, we have less strict / obvious social customs, but we still have pride. By yourself you can easily rationalise away your oinaction. Checked Facebook? It was contacting a colleague. Forgot that task? You were busy today, but you’ll do it tomorrow. In short, we’re quite capable of rationalising away our decisions.

The feeling of being watched is powerful though.

Ever been at a formal dinner and been on your best behaviour? Ever see a naughty child fall silent under the teacher’s focused gaze? These people are changing their behaviour in response to feeling scrutiny. That’s what you feel when you have an accountability partner. What will they think if you fail? Here, unlike your rationalising, your imagination works against you. People are self-conscious generally – you think everybody might notice a stray hair on you in the street, yet nobody really does. Similarly, the accountability partner compels you to act.

And this does great things. It boosts your productivity, makes you create instead of consume, and forces you to get things done!

A slightly tangential example of this is an experiment by researchers at the uni Newscastle. They had a set-up where people could take tea, biscuits and coffee from a table; in exchange, they were supposed to pay. There was no supervision. The only variable that changed was the framed picture on the wall. One was a set of flowers. The other was a pair of eyes. Which one made people pay for the items more? The pair of eyes, which increased payments over 300%. Yes, over 300%. In short, being watched, even by an inanimate object set of a subconscious decision to ‘stay in line’ among these subjects; with an accountability partner, you are compelling yourself to ‘stay in line’ with your goals.

In short, it’s a very powerful tool. But… what happens if you don’t pay?  In some versions of this set-up, nothing. I, however, prefer to heighten the pain. If I fail my challenges, I have to pay my partner money for every time I fail. If I fail to pay, the other person then publicly humiliates me on my Facebook account. This last punishment is totally outside my control, and thus effective. (Needless to say, losing money is not my plan; remember, the idea of the partner is to lift your productivity, not put you in debt… though that may be why a partner signs up).

‘How else can I improve this idea?’

I also set minimum standards to ‘pass’ a day’s task. If your goals is just ‘exercise’ and you half heartedly do a handful of push-ups, you could rationalise it away with specific numbers. Not so if you say “50 push-ups in 3 minutes” – that’s a hard goal which you can’t escape from.

You could – as I am toying with – have multiple partners to heighten financial pain, or set-up reciprocal partnerships. Really, its up to you.

Finally – and I am thinking of this – one might expand what you are accountable for to avoid what I’d call “productivity diversion”. Productivity diversion is where the actual amount of productive work stays the same, just the type of work changes. Its like the issue of bilateral trade agreements and whether instead of increasing trade they simply ‘divert’ trade that would otherwise have occurred and funnelled it into the bilateral agreement. Or, on productivity, I am typing this on my way to work. My plan a few days ago was to be reading on the way to work. I still am, and perhaps being a legal book of sorts makes me eager to type, yet the possibility of diversion exists. By expanding the range of things you are accountable for, you’ll be forced to do everything to do avoid harsh penalties, and even if some productivity is diverted, your overall result will be a net rise in productivity.

All in all, I think the accountability partner idea is a great one to try and increase productivity; that’s why I’m trying it. While there are many other avenues for productivity, I think that focusing on pride is one good solution. Not to cultivate pride for pride’s sake, but for productivity’s sake.

So if you’re wanting something to help you do a task you regularly forget to do, think about shaming your pride, watching your back. Look for an accountability partner.

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