Find a Virtual Accountability Partner to Keep You Honest — and Focused

I went from being a top performer to almost getting fired because of procrastination. I climbed my way back to the top using accountability.

This post is an official reader tactic for Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky’s new book Make Time. See other tactics and learn more at maketimebook.com!

I was living in Mumbai, India, in 2011, when I first started working remotely. My commute was brutally hot and exhausting, and I begged my boss to let me stay home a few days a week.

Mumbai public transit makes a New York rush hour train feel like a spa day.

She agreed, somewhat begrudgingly — and rightfully so, because what happened next was a disaster.

In short, my productivity fell apart.

What happened, exactly? I’m still not sure. I spent my days in a kind of fugue state, mindlessly responding to emails, putting out small fires, and tackling little projects around the apartment. (I have to admit, my homemade yogurt was on point.)

My real job — I was meant to be writing grant applications, the kind of work that requires focused blocks of time — saw little daylight.

A few months went by, and soon I found myself having another conversation with my boss — this time about my performance.

Without explicitly firing me, she helped me find my way to the door.

The problem: Working alone is hard

More and more of us are faced with the challenging reality of independent work. If you’re a remote worker, freelancer, entrepreneur, student, side hustler — you know this from experience.

I’ve been working from home for seven years now, and let’s just say it’s been a long and winding journey.

Working from home can be liberating and empowering. It saves time you can invest in more valuable ways than a soul-sucking commute. It gives you the autonomy to structure your day, and your work environment, exactly the way you like it, replete with a naps, midday strolls, stress-free doctor’s visits, and gym time to refresh your mind and body.

But working independently is also a minefield.

Among my personal demons were these questions…

“How can I avoid being busy instead of productive?”
“How can I show up to work when I don’t have to or don’t feel like it?”
“How can I stay on task when what I’m doing is hard?”

As exciting as it was for me to master the art of homemade yogurt, I’d rather be productive on my core professional goals.

When we zoom out and look at the big picture, what really feels good is rolling up our sleeves and doing work that creates value in the world, and meaning in our lives.

The solution: Virtual coworking with an accountability partner

Productivity magic.

The big change for me happened when I started using a virtual accountability partner to ensure I showed up, chose the right thing to work on, and stayed on task.

The concept first emerged out of my work as an executive coach. One of my clients, Jake, was behind on his preparation for an investor presentation. I knew that he didn’t need coaching; he just needed to sit his butt in a chair and write the darn presentation.

Meanwhile, I had been procrastinating on writing a blog article, something I can easily put off for months.

I suggested we get on a video call for a few hours, and keep each other company while working on our respective tasks.

What ensued was two hours of insane productivity — neither of us had experienced anything like it.

We began working like that every day. Two of us became ten, and then a hundred. Today, we have a community of over 1,500 virtual coworkers, people interested in being held accountable for finishing their most important work.

Why are accountability partners so effective?

As an executive coach and former procrastinator, I’m intimately familiar with many excellent productivity strategies.

Unfortunately, in my experience, they’re rarely enough to guarantee that we actually show up and do our work.

Which raises one very important question:

Why does accountability work when nothing else will?

The answer lies in harnessing our tribal psychology.

Unlike common productivity techniques that rely on our fragile rationality and willpower, accountability embraces our powerful tribal nature.

We evolved in tribes, and as a result, we’re hardwired to respond to social triggers in ways that are almost impossible to resist.

When we use accountability, we’re using this social nature for our advantage.

How to put accountability to work for you

After two years of experimentation with several hundred partners, I know more than most about how to make accountability work — and what pitfalls to avoid.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Find the right partners. Choosing the right people is critical. You need partners who are reliable and committed, and willing to be held accountable. You may be tempted to choose “safe” partners who will let you get away with less than your best. Don’t be tempted. Recruit partners who bring out your best.
  2. Do the work side-by-side. The big gap in many partnerships is that it’s easy to screw around between touch points. Even talking daily is rarely enough to keep the elephant on the path. Instead, get on a video call or meet up and do your work, separately but together.
  3. Keep socializing out of it. When you meet with your partner, it’s okay to take a few minutes to chit-chat, but keep it brief. You’re there to work, and that’s OK. Embrace it.
  4. Share each task with your partner right before you do it. To tame your monkey mind, specify the next task you’ll work on, share it with your partner, and then immediately do that task. While it feels good to create an extensive plan, it’s much easier to follow through when that plan involves one thing and when that thing is happening now.
  5. Set a timer. Creativity flows best in a low pressure environment. Setting a timer is a great way to add some urgency without stress. For simple tasks, try checking in as often as every 10 minutes. If you’re doing something more creative, you might go with 30, 60, or 90 minutes.
  6. Create actual accountability. This is often the trickiest part of accountability partnerships. If your partner becomes fickle, ditch them. While you’re working, consider sharing your screen. Show your work periodically. Put some money on the line. Whatever it takes.

Easier said than done

Working with an accountability partner was so powerful for me, and I wanted to help other people try it. But making all these pieces work together is not easy. When I looked for existing solutions to facilitate this, there was nothing. That’s why I decided to create Focusmate.

The Focusmate homepage.

We’re a community of virtual accountability partners. We embrace the idea that we’re stronger together than we are alone, and have agreed to be held accountable for finishing our most important work.

If that appeals to you, I invite you to join us at Focusmate. It’s free—and it’s better than homemade yogurt.


P.S. Focusmate is crowdfunding on Republic! Let’s help millions achieve their goals. Invest as little as $100. Limited time offer. Visit our crowdfunding page.