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Two chickens. The first one says: You've got a problem with avoiding personal accountability. The second one replies: Ya, and whose fault is that?

Malcolm Ocean has been on both sides of the accountability relationship. Among the many roles he’s played is professional accountability provider: initially as Beeminder’s beekeeper, and now also independently with people who use his app, Complice, and want 1-on-1 help. He also has experience making himself accountable to friends, like through project partnerships. Before turning it over to Malcolm, let me just plug Complice’s coworking rooms and mention that, thanks to beeminding progress, the Beeminder/Complice integration keeps getting better and better! PS: Jump to the end for a timely announcement.  

There are two kinds of accountability. Beeminder embodies hard accountability: committing to doing something (often with consequences if you don’t). My app, Complice, embodies soft accountability: committing to assessing and reporting on whether you’ve done something. So when you miss a deadline, you’ve failed at the hard accountability. But it’s not too late to succeed at the soft accountability component! And in cases where you’re accountable to another person, this means being proactive about getting in touch with them. This tends to be hard and scary, and also very important in the long-term for your work itself and for your working relationship with your accountability-holder.

An article on shifting from blame to accountability defines accountability as “the process of assigning responsibilities for a situation in advance” and notes:

“Accountability comes from clear contracting, ongoing conversations, and an organizational commitment to support accountability rather than blame.”

If you’ve used Beeminder, you know the importance of clear contracting. (And for more on transcending blame, check out that article.) What I’m talking about today is the “ongoing conversations” piece, from the perspective of the person being held accountable.

The key is this: hard-commit to regularly giving status updates to your accountability partner.

Commit to regularly giving status updates to your accountability partner — even if you don’t like the status of things

When you’re on top of things, this is easy: “Hey friend, remember that thing I said I’d do? Well, here it is!” So I don’t need to convince you to do that.

When you slip behind, though, it can start to feel embarrassing, or even shameful. So not only will you not really feel like messaging them yourself, you’ll be tempted to not… reply… to their messages… just yet… but in a little bit… maybe once you catch up…

But ideally you have an accountability buddy who is sufficiently on top of things that they will notice whatever it was you didn’t do. (Otherwise your accountability system won’t be that reliable in the first place.) And so you can build trust and self-trust by communicating clearly, even when you’re behind.

“What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.” —Eugene Gendlin

If you’ve missed the deadline (or it’s 2 days before the deadline and you know you won’t hit it) then that’s what’s real. And it’s real whether you keep an open line of communication with your accountability keeper or not. So while it’s tempting to think if I don’t look at it, maybe it’ll go away, that’s not actually what will happen. What will go away is your sense of connection and trust with the other person — especially if they reach out to you and don’t hear back. And you’ll also find it a lot harder to redouble your efforts to ensure the thing that you committed to, which presumably was important to you, actually happens.

When I’ve written before about hard & soft commitments, I’ve portrayed them as relatively separate. I say that Beeminder is based on hard accountability and Complice on soft accountability, but they also go together when doing interpersonal accountability.

So when you reach the deadline and you haven’t done the thing, then what is true is that you haven’t done the thing. Too late to change that — you’ve failed at the hard accountability component of your obligation. But by being proactive about getting in touch with the other person, you can still succeed at the soft accountability component. It’s also a necessary component for figuring out how to proceed in light of what happened.

A positive example

I’ll give an example of this principle being followed and it going really well. I was working on a project with a partner and they agreed to complete their part within a week. Six days later, I got a reply:

Unfortunately, this is the busiest week/window of all the weeks/windows since you’ve known me [this seemed pretty reasonable given I knew they were starting a new job]. If you feel like delaying an extra three or four days, I can all but guarantee that I can give this the attention it deserves. But if you want to stick to your original schedule, I must shamefully admit to social unreliability. I’ve got deadlines in three directions, and I’m running low on cycles.

I really enjoyed receiving this email. My deadline wasn’t a super strict one. My friend postponing did mean I needed to find something else to publish to satisfy my Beeminder blog-post-publishing goal. But it was fine. Now let’s consider what might have happened if they’d been less on top of things.

On day seven or eight, I would have sent my friend an email checking in. Me having to do this isn’t a big deal; I have a good system for managing this kind of thing without wasting too much attention. If I got a prompt, clear reply to my check-in email, that’d be almost as good as them having contacted me proactively. But if I don’t…

…do I send them another email a day or two later? If the context is a purely accountability-oriented one (rather than a project with a friend), then I probably do, because that’s the whole point of my role: to hold them accountable. But in this sort of situation, I would have been left confused. Do I finish the project on my own? Do I wait a bit longer? This choice is much easier to make if I had even a sentence or two from the other person, like this friend gave me in this instance: “If you can delay 3-4 days, I can make it happen; if not, then I flake”. That makes it really clear. Your situation may not always be this clear, but however clear it is, you can always communicate whatever you’ve got!

A negative example

Here’s an example where lack of communication led to a total breakdown in collaboration. Mid-2014, I had a pact partnership with a new friend, where we’d both committed to writing a thousand words daily. Any day we didn’t write those thousand words, we had to pay the other person $100. This worked really well for about a month, and I wrote much more than I ever had before.

What happened about a month in? Well, I got behind a couple of days, and I was kind of freaking out, hoping my friend wouldn’t notice. I would catch up for yesterday, but not do enough to cover today as well, so I spent several days being potentially on the hook for $100 if my friend had noticed. But in the meantime… he hadn’t updated our shared spreadsheet in several days himself. Finally I just sent him an email with the subject: “According to the information I have, I owe you $100, and you owe me $700” (though we had as part of the agreement that mutual payments went elsewhere rather than canceling each other out). He took two days to get back to that and said something like

yeah… writing doesn’t seem that high priority to me right now… I have some other time-sensitive opportunities. It wasn’t laziness but a change of tactic. How about on my end we switch to a system whereby I state 3 big tasks each day and then I follow up on those?

Sure, I would’ve been open to that… 9 days earlier, when he stopped writing. As it was, his absenteeism had made me trust the system less, because a bunch of my motivation had come from the idea that he might catch me missing the date. Although of course, I hadn’t lately been perfect myself, which didn’t exactly aid my trust in the system either.

I tried writing a bit more on my own, and this worked for a few days but then I flagged. I sent him another email saying “look, let’s start fresh”, and he just didn’t reply.

And my daily writing habit silently died while I was waiting for a response.

Of course, there are a bunch of points where I could have behaved better in this instance too. I chose this example not because it highlights one clear failure that could have been addressed, but rather because it was a total mess. A bunch of money was on the line that never got paid. My habit broke, because I was relying on this external system which ultimately wasn’t functional. And, well, I still think this guy is competent in general, but I’d be more wary of working with him. I definitely wouldn’t do another pact with him.

This pact was an opportunity for the two of us to “eat salt together”: Sebastian Marshall’s take on an old Aristotle quote about friendship, that points at the special kind of rapport that comes from working together under stress. So if we’d been a bit more proactive, we could have not just written way more blog posts apiece but also developed a high-trust relationship we could leverage in future projects.

That would have been totally worth it even if we’d each lost a few hundred dollars.

Communicate to build accountability and trust in your relationships

If we combine Umeshisms with Parkinson’s Law, we get the maxim: “If you’ve never missed a deadline, you’re spending too much time waiting for deadlines to approach.”

It’s not reasonable to expect to never miss a single deadline ever. It’s a thing to aim for, of course. And possibly to aim for really intently — but not so intently that you go into denial if it happens.

Because it will happen, and once it happens, what matters is recognizing the situation, communicating really clearly and figuring out what it makes sense to do next. And it’s in that acknowledgement that you’re behind, stuck, or unsure that you keep them in the loop as your accountability partner, build their trust in you, yours in yourself, and meet the requirements for that critically important soft accountability.


If you’re thinking you’d love to have a partner for some sort of pact, I and the rest of the Complice team are running a series of online New Year’s goal-setting workshops January 5th, 6th, and 12th, and one of the components of that is matching you up with potential accountability partners. We also have a ton of great presentations, exercises, and live direct coaching, so come check it out.


Image credit: Savage Chickens