The Importance of External Accountability

Starting a personal project or changing a habit on your own is daunting. Honestly, why freaking bother? I’ve got a running list of project attempts and life hacks that never came to light. Not for lack of trying – when work/life gets busy, priorities shift. But the recurring ideas I keep coming back to encourage me to keep trying. If illustration is a consistent idea, then there is something valuable enough in my love of drawing to make a project happen. (See Pattern Per Diem.)

Personal Tendencies

After reading Gretchen Rubin’s writing on the 4 personality types – upholder, questioner, rebel, and obliger – I had a better understanding of my own tendencies. (I absolutely recommend the quiz, it’s a helpful tool to learn where your own tendencies lean and make the most out of them.) While I don’t fall 100% into one category, the ‘obliger’ label resonates with me strongly. I do well with and can accept outside rules. Internally imposed structure has often fueled self-destructive, rebellious habits. Whereas societal obligation and general guilt has pushed me to follow through on paying bills, returning library books and acceptable hygiene.

While this may not be applicable to those 100% rebels and questioners I admire, I believe most folks can benefit from the power of external obligation. Though important, it’s challenging to be solely accountable for your creative success. If a project isn’t going according to plans, or isn’t going at all, it’s easy to quit. (See overly-ambitious vegetarian cooking channel, underwhelming self-aware poetry blog, acoustic hip hop cover band…) No one will chastise you for your lack of effort if no one else is involved.

Everyone is creating/working under different circumstances, but over time, those passion projects and important habits will continue to come up. You know where you want to focus, or at least a direction you want to steer in. That focus is invaluable, especially after going through a few failed attempts to figure it out. If you’re still figuring it out, deep breathes, this biz takes TIME. It’s all about pushing through those failures. (More on that later.)

In my pursuit of pattern design, I embarked on a 365 day mission to draw everyday, no matter what. When I originally began drawing patterns, I had no reason to pursue the project other than self interest. It took more than 100 drawings before one of my designs wasn’t just simply awful. It would have been easy to quit after the first terrible few, but I stuck with it, well past a year. Largely in part to the external structures I imposed on myself. After almost 800 designs, that have steadily improved over the past 2+ years, I’m grateful to be aware of those tools.

Imposing external structure

  1. Find a focus. You’ve been through many rounds of ideas and tried a few. You’ve got an inkling of where you’d like to put your efforts. Articulate it. Say it out loud, write it down, sleep on it a few nights. Does it stick with you? Are you itching to try it out?
  2. Tell a trusted friend or family member. Or two. I know there is a stigma around discussing goals with your people before they’ve happened, (as in you’re less likely to accomplish it because you’ve said it out loud and that in itself gives a feeling of accomplishment,) but making the verbal declaration to one or two trusted individuals is the first step in accountability.
  3. Ask for a check in date. What is a realistic timeline for you to get the first steps of your project started? Having actual deadlines will push you to get things done. Treat this like you’re getting paid for it (or will get paid for it eventually.) Don’t lean on your confidante here to make sure you get things done. Be respectful of their time by following through on your check in.
  4. Create work/practice habits objectively. Make terrible work and be ok with it. Detachment from the initial phase of any project or habit building experience is important. Read this quote from Ira Glass, then read it again and anytime after you need to remind yourself of the gap between your work currently and where it could be a year from now.

Be nice to yourself

Understand that failure is inevitable and unfortunately part of the process. But self-discipline is not improved through throwing in the towel. Give yourself realistic deadlines and believe in the power of incrementalism. Maybe you’ve tried other methods/practices that have been successful or maybe you hate the idea of having other people know what you’re working towards. Either way, would love to hear other ideas. Do you use external check-ins to get things done?

<3 H Lee

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