Fighting Procrastination with Accountability

PUBLISHED ON FEB 14, 2021: 770 words, 4 minute read

Starting a project is easy. I get super excited and have all sorts of wild ideas where it could go. Consistently working on one after the initial energy has faded? Much more difficult. I have a stack of half-baked projects sitting around my room and hard drive waiting for the someday that never seems to come. It’s frustrating to be reminded of all these unfinished ideas, but it’s never enough of a push to trade out my current priorities.

Observing & reading people who are prolific and successful in their fields, consistency seems to be the magic sauce to most any activity. Do anything enough times and you will be better than when you started. The only way to guarantee you won’t get better is to not spend any time on it. I recently discovered I enjoy writing, and I wanted to get improve since it has long term benefits. With consistency in mind, 5 months ago I set myself a goal to write 52 pieces in 52 weeks. Unfortunately, knowing consistency is vital doesn’t automatically find you the time for the important, but not urgent, tasks in life. The dreadful combination of poor time management and procrastination has led me nearly half-way with not even a quarter of the articles needed.

Now what?

I’m way behind, and whatever habits I have in place are not cutting it. Turns out, willpower is overrated for sticking with a new project. Following advice from books like Atomic Habits, I plan to set up systems in my life which leverage stronger motivation than “That would be a cool thing to do”. These systems should help me put consistent time & effort into my chosen activities. First on deck is writing. I enjoy the process as well as seeing a finished piece published, but it still has more friction than sitting on Instagram all day. Crazy that procrastination can kick in even when you like the project!

Not all motivation is created equal

Willpower and the initial wave of excitement can only go so far, I have to look toward other strong motivators in my life. I don’t sit in a chair all day staring at the wall, so something must get me out of bed. Some tasks come easy, like work and feeding myself, while others sit and rot. Money and survival are pretty powerful motivators, but many habits which would be positive aren’t tied into them, hence the struggle. Writing helps me improve and become a better person, but it will take a long time to see any obvious benefits, if they even happen. What is needed is a way to tie tasks which have potential long-term benefits to the short term rewards my dumb brain can understand.

Loss aversion

Enter loss aversion! Humans hate to lose things, even more than they like gaining them. I am motivated by money to go to work, buy cheaper food, look for deals when shopping. It stands to reason losing money would be painful. An important caveat here, the amount of money has to be significant enough it hurts. You are trading the guilt of not having done the task with the pain of losing money. If the amount is too small, it just absolves the guilt and misses the point. Freakonomics talks about this with a daycare center which had parents tardy for pickup, relying on the goodwill of the staff to stay late with their kids. Once a fine was put in place, the number of late parents doubled, likely because the money was less expensive than the guilt of having to face someone who stayed late for you out of kindness.

Accountability group

If I want to accomplish long-term goals, I gotta put some skin in the game. To that end, a couple friends who are in a similar boat joined me to form an accountability group. Before we started, each person defined their own criteria for success and the punishment they would face if they failed. Once a week, we check in to see who made the cut and who’s a big weenie and has to fork over cold hard cash. A similar approach which may be useful in the future is Burn or Burn, where you have to light your money on fire if you fail. My goal is to get back on track with my writing challenge and produce at least 1 draft each week & at minimum publish biweekly. Only time will tell if it’s enough to get back on track with my challenge or if I am just handing my friends the key to my bank account.


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TAGS: SELF-HELP