Do you struggle to keep yourself accountable to your goals? Do you find yourself tempted to watch Netflix or start scrolling through social media when you know no one’s around to see you get sidetracked? If so, you’re not alone. But there are many strategies that can help you stay accountable and achieve your goals while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. In this handout, we will discuss some of the key elements of accountability and offer some ideas for how to stay accountable.
What do you want to get out of your accountability strategies?
Before turning to others for help with accountability, identify any existing obstacles. Assess your current goals. Consider what you are trying to achieve and consider how you might refine or adjust your goal before tweaking your accountability strategies. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What goals have I set for myself that I need additional accountability for? Can I break down long-term goals into smaller, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound) goals?
- How will I track my goals and my progress? Will I use a planner, goal tracker, or a project management application?
- Do I feel motivated to achieve my goals?
- Do I get distracted when working towards these goals?
- Do I avoid working towards this goal on purpose? Am I procrastinating?
- Is working towards this goal a part of my routine, or do I forget about it? Is this goal something that I would benefit from working on regularly? Would it help to build new habits in order to make progress towards my goal?
When you know your next steps, but you also know that you’re more likely to take the steps needed if you’re held accountable, this is when external accountability can really help.
What are the core elements of accountability?
There are a variety of successful strategies that you can use to stay accountable. Effective strategies typically incorporate one or more of the following elements:
Peers. Peers are a powerful tool to help you stay motivated and accountable. Working alongside your peers creates a feeling of solidarity that makes both you and your peers more likely to focus on your goals. These relationships are effective because you both benefit from the arrangement, which motivates you to continue the partnership. Choose a peer or join a group who you imagine will support you through success and challenges and who also seeks and stands to benefit from greater accountability.
Posting and tracking goals publicly. You are more likely to stay accountable to your goals if you know that someone else is monitoring your progress. This approach may seem daunting—you may fear embarrassment if you don’t meet your publicly shared goals. But that little fear may also serve as motivation in the tough moments. Remember your accountability partners are risking the same embarrassment, so commit to supporting one another through the process from the outset.
Inviting feedback. Getting feedback from your peers is a powerful motivator. Knowing that you will receive regular feedback can motivate you to put your best foot forward and meet earlier deadlines, and it can also help you develop a growth mindset.
Working regularly. A consistent schedule can help you build and establish a routine. Setting a standing date or time to work with a peer, whether synchronously or asynchronously, can keep you on track. Connecting such meetings with something pleasant may help—taking a mutual coffee break, sharing motivating humor, or awarding virtual badges can give you and your team something to look forward to during your check-ins.
Where can you create accountability?
Once you know the elements that go into accountability, you can create opportunities for accountability in your communities and online spaces. Some common approaches to creating accountability include study groups, working groups, and accountability partners.
Study groups can be a great way to stay accountable, especially when you are taking the same class or studying similar subject matter. Meeting regularly and setting goals as a group allows you to make incremental progress towards learning the material. Plus, when you complete practice problems or exercises, you get immediate feedback and can work together as a group to build mastery in your subject. For more tips on how to build an effective study group, check out the Learning Center’s Study Groups handout.
In some cases, you may be working independently on a longer project, a paper, or even an application. In these scenarios, you may start to feel overwhelmed by the work ahead of you or start to feel isolated while working on your own. Working groups can serve as a way to create regular opportunities for accountability and engagement with your project. Working groups are versatile and can be modified to fit your exact needs. One variation of the working group is the writing group, a space specifically devoted to working on writing projects. As you design your working group, answering the following questions will help you create a group that keeps you accountable:
Where will you meet? Do you prefer to meet in-person or online? Where is it easiest for you and your group members to connect? Is there any special equipment you need when you meet to make the space work for you?
Who will you work with? Do you prefer to work with someone who has similar expertise? Are you more likely to cancel if you’re working with a close friend? Are you more likely to consistently attend a small group or a large group?
How often and when will you meet? How frequently are your working group members available? Will you benefit from meeting first thing in the morning and getting the ball rolling? Or would you prefer to meet at the end of the day?
How long will your sessions last? How much time will you spend setting goals? How much time will you spend working? How much time will you spend following up on your goals and progress?
How will you keep track of your goals for your working group? Will you share them aloud or write them down before your group starts working? Will you share long-term and short-term goals? Will you help each other make sure your short-term goals are realistic?
What will you focus on during your working group? Will you discuss readings and build your knowledge base about a subject? Will you help each other brainstorm? Will you work independently on a task you’ve been avoiding? Will you solicit feedback? Will you do the same type of activity each session or will you rotate from session to session?
How will you adjust if your group loses track of its goal? If you’ve set out to support one another on moving individual work forward, how will you call out instances when you lose track and devolve into purely socializing? Will you set aside a certain amount of time to socialize at the beginning? Could you save socializing as a reward at the end? Would it help to appoint a rotating “minder” or “moderator” role for work sessions, so no one has to take on this role each time?
How will you follow up on your progress? Will you give a broad overview or a detailed description of what you accomplished during your working group? Will you update your group on your progress towards your big-picture goal? WIll you check in with each other before your next working group meeting?
It isn’t always possible to work in the same space or at the same time as your peers. If you have trouble staying accountable when you’re working alone, making a commitment to a friend to share goals and updates on your progress can help you overcome the temptation to procrastinate. Almost anyone can be an accountability partner, even a friend who lives far away. These partnerships can take many forms, as long as both of you can commit to checking in with each other. Once you’ve found an accountability partner, consider the following questions together:
How often and when will you check in with your accountability partner? Weekly? Daily? In the mornings and the evenings?
What will you help each other stay accountable to? Will you focus on staying accountable in one particular area (such as for a class or on a writing project) or will you hold each other accountable to multiple daily goals?
How will you share your goals? Will you text each other? Will you share your goals on a collaborative document?
How will you get extra support when you’re most likely to need it? Will you text each other at a certain time each day?
How will you update each other on your progress? Will you send updates via text message? Will you send updates via email at a certain time of day?
Will you share your work with each other? If so, how often will you share your work? Will you solicit feedback from each other?
Connecting with resources
There are many programs and resources on campus that can help you stay accountable, and regularly using these resources can be an opportunity to check in on your progress. Many of these programs also offer online services if you’re working remotely.
Meeting with a coach, librarian, or career counselor can help you build momentum when you’re just starting a project or when you’re feeling stuck. Making and keeping the appointment can be a bridge to your next steps. Scheduling appointments for the following services at UNC can be a useful starting place:
- Learning Center coaching
- Coaching groups or workshops
- Peer tutoring
- Writing Center coaching
- University Libraries research consultations
- University Career Services
There may be additional campus resources that relate to your project that can help provide accountability and structure. You may benefit from discussing accountability strategies with your mentors, advisors, or instructors as well. It can take time to develop the accountability strategies that work best for you, but finding the right accountability strategies can help you become a more successful student and learner.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Boice, Robert. 2000. Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. London: Pearson.
Carter, Andrew, and Adam Alexander. 2019. “A Qualitative Exploration of Women’s Experiences who Belong to a ‘Fitness Community.’” American Journal of Health Education 51 (1): 22-30. https://doi.org/10.1080/19325037.2019.1687365.
Cassese, Erin, and Mirya Holman. 2018. “Writing Groups as Models for Peer Mentorship Among Female Faculty in Political Science.” Political Science & Politics 51 (2): 401-405. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096517002049.
Skarupski, Kimberly, and Kharma Foucher. 2018. “Writing Accountability Groups (WAGs): A Tool to Help Junior Faculty Members Build Sustainable Writing Habits.” The Journal of Faculty Development, 32 (3): 47-54.
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