What if accountability systems don't work for me?

"I can't learn anything by myself."

Have you said or heard this before?

Say you want to learn Korean. You buy a bunch of books, download a bunch of apps, then... well, you study at first. But after a while, it just kind of falls to the wayside, and you don't make progress.

You start googling Korean language schools in Korea. If only you could attend one of those, surely you would succeed. There would be classmates all around you, teachers taking attendance, a set schedule of lessons you have to attend. Surely in that situation, you would achieve your fluency goals.

But, like 99.99% of us, dropping your life and moving to Korea for several months is not feasible in your current situation.

So you go on not learning Korean, but sometimes thinking about how you'd like to. And this cycle continues for years, decades, maybe even your whole life.

Feel free to replace "learning Korean" with just about any hard-to-attain goal:

  • Writing a novel or screenplay
  • Saving up to buy a house, car, etc.
  • Starting your own business
  • Losing 50+ pounds

Unless you've already achieved this goal, chances are you've thought something along the lines of:

If only I had more time/money, I could [do the thing].

Time and money aren't the problem

If you're trying to sell a product, and you ask the customer why they didn't buy, they'll usually tell you that it was because of time or money. (If your product sucks, they might say it was because of value — for example, they chose a competitor's product.)

Money is just a story.

I'm paraphrasing a wise quote by Seth Godin.

Once you have enough money to survive — i.e. for basic shelter and nutrition — everything else is a story you tell yourself. Depending on your age, culture, and life experience, this story shifts.

  • I can live in a house without a toilet.
  • I can share a toilet with other people in my building.
  • I can share a toilet with roommates.
  • I have to have my own toilet.
  • I have to have my own toilet in a separate room from the shower/bath.
  • I have to have my own toilet in a separate room from the shower/bath, and it needs to have a fancy Japanese washlet that sprays water, plays noises, and keeps my bum warm.

You would not die if your toilet were a ditch behind your house. But you probably don't see that as a viable option. When you're browsing places to live, pictures of a gross-looking bathroom probably weigh heavily in your decision to consider living somewhere different.

Time is similar.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone tell me that they don't have time for something they want to do, and then I see them wasting their time on things they don't need to do.

There is never enough

You don't have to read business books for too long to come across Parkinson's law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

So don't give your subordinates a week to get the job done. Tell them it needs to be done in 4 hours! Muahahahaha!

I think it's an accurate adage, although you'll probably hear it used in the wrong contexts.

Parkinson's law is most useful, however, if you apply it to things that you may not have considered "work." What if you had all of the following time constraints applied to your life?

  • 3 seconds to choose your clothes for the day
  • 10 seconds to choose your breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the day
  • 4 minutes to take a shower
  • 15 minutes to look at your phone during the day

Your first reaction might be to come up with rebuttals for these kinds of limits:

  • I need to look professional!
  • I need a healthy, balanced, diet!
  • My shower is the only time I get to relax all day!
  • If I couldn't look at my phone, I'd lose my mind.

If you tried out these kinds of constraints, however, you might find that you have to shift the way you do things in order to fit into them.

Back when I had a job that required me to wear professional clothing, I made sure that my shirts, jackets, and coats all matched all of my pants and shoes. "Deciding what to wear" meant grabbing what was clean. I knew it matched because my entire wardrobe matched.

If you wanted to eat healthy, it wouldn't be possible to decide all of your meals for a day in 10 seconds unless you had some kind of a system for determining what food gets eaten at what time on what day. Maybe this means you have a meal calendar that you stick to. Maybe it means you eat only one meal a day. Or maybe it means you hire a personal chef to worry about it on your behalf.

If you only have 15 minutes per day to look at your phone, you'll probably only open your phone when you have a legitimate reason to do so.

Side note: You don't have to live life with a bunch of rules to do these kinds of things. If you just start to get annoyed at any wasted time, you'll get better at it naturally. Remember that the two biggest wasters of your time are other people and your phone. Other people will never value your time as much as you do. Everything in your phone is designed to keep you looking at it for as long as possible.

What happens when we create all of this new free time?

It disappears.

Time is a lot like money. It doesn't matter how much you make, you will spend it. And you'll spend it on the *wrong things unless you have a system in place to prevent that from happening.

*Wrong in this case meaning non-productive.

The 4 tendencies

There is a classic bit of advice on how you can consistently go to the gym: Swap gym bags with your friend. They won't be able to work out unless you go because you have their shoes, gym clothes, etc. And vice versa.

This method works for a lot of people. But I highly doubt it would work for me. If I had a friend who could magically convince me to try it, I would spend a bit of time resenting my friend every gym day, then eventually I'd tell them the deal is off.

Because I don't give a shit about my friend's gym bag. There is no practical reason for me to have it, other than to cause me added hassle and stress.

I had a similar aversion to study groups back when I was in college. Why would I waste my time meeting with other people when I could just study at home, learning more information in a smaller amount of time?

And yet, other people quite legitimately do not succeed without exchanging gym bags or attending study groups. My guess is that they are Obligers, one of the four personality types in Gretchen Rubin's awesome book The Four Tendencies:

  • UpholderI do what others expect of me, and what I expect from myself.
  • ObligerI do what I have to do. I hate to let others down, but I often let myself down.
  • QuestionerI do what I think is best according to my judgment. If it doesn't make sense, I won't do it.
  • RebelI do what I want in my own way. If you tell me to do something, I'm less likely to do it.

Here they are framed differently:

  • Upholder — Meets inner & outer expectations.
  • Obliger — Meets outer expectations. Resists inner expectations.
  • Questioner — Resists outer expectations. Meets inner expectations.
  • Rebel — Resists inner & outer expectations.

I test heavily into the Rebel personality type, which explains why these traditional accountability systems never produced any positive effects in me.

And yet, I still manage to get quite a lot of things done, maintain productivity, and make progress toward hard-to-achieve goals.

For a very long time, I myself wasn't sure why. But it's quite clear to me now.

Your identity determines your actions

I've always been a little bit obsessed with what my values are.

During my early twenties, I couldn't go a couple months without writing down the type of person I wanted to be, the things that mattered to me, and so on. (It would take a few more years to internalize the fact that words are cheap and actions are valuable.)

I spent so much effort cultivating a vision of the person I am.

To give an idea of the practical applications of this, consider the current system I have in place for ensuring that I continue posting on this blog and writing chapters of a novel I'm working on:

For my wife's birthday present this year, I gave her ownership of both this blog and the first novel series I ever write. Every week, I have to publish one blog post and send her one chapter of the novel.

It sounds like an accountability system — something an Obliger would benefit from — but it's subtly different. I would like to believe that I'm the type of person who:

  • Doesn't break promises to his wife.
  • Gives his wife amazing, memorable birthday gifts.
  • Consistently shows his wife that he cares about her.

In other words, I'm not concerned about disappointing her. I'm concerned about being the person I believe myself to be.

It's very hard to come to terms with the fact that you're not the person you believe yourself to be.

Imagine you're friends with a woman who believes she's a great mother. Can you imagine trying to convince her that she's not? You would have your work cut out for you. On the flip side, try convincing your friend he's great when he hates himself. Not easy.

We invest so much mental energy into our identities that we are incredibly resistant to changing them or admitting that they're false.

Why not tweak that to our benefit?

I'll come back in a year or so to explain how this little experiment worked out.

Wish me luck!