Cheating the (Honor) System: When Holding Yourself Accountable is Hard

This past summer, I found myself unexpectedly (temporarily) unemployed; I work as a teacher’s aide, a job which, despite its more abstract fulfilling aspects, financially necessitates I work through the summer. The program I normally work during the summer break, however, was seeing a year of record low enrollments, which meant, by the time June rolled around, I wasn’t needed.

After a moment (or, like, a day… or two) or freaking out, my husband finally managed to reassure me that we’d make it through the summer without my usual income and I began to resign myself to – and finally, even enjoy – the prospect of a summer off. By June, I was into the second semester of my first pregnancy, and after my financial worries were laid to rest, I started to think of what this could mean for me. I still felt like it was too early to really start baby prep – decorating the nursery, for example – so I considered all the creative projects that I’d been putting on the backburner because of work, and all the projects I would soon be holding off on because of child-rearing (and, again, work).

This could be my last summer of freedom, I thought. I should use it to write!

As I may have mentioned before, self-motivation is not exactly my strong suit. I’d been working on a short book for poetry on and off for a few years, and had made excuse after excuse to put off completing it, even though it was a project I felt strongly about and was, overall, quite proud of. Without work, I knew I’d have one less excuse not to get it done, but still no real impetus to actually sit down and do it. Something had to be on the line.

My husband suggested a reward system; I would set aside a block of time for writing, and if I utilized that time well, then I could treat myself to something.  Being pregnant, junk food was, at the time, one of my more motivating forces.

“So, what,” I said, “Like, I write for an hour, and I get to eat potato chips? Or like, a chocolate bar?”

“Sure,” he said. “You can earn a little treat, why not. I mean, if it’ll help.”

Well, I was on board – being productive and having the guilt-free go-ahead to eat junk food seemed like an awesome way to spend a summer at home.

If I was in any way, shape, or form a person who is good at organization and goal-setting, I would, of course, have seen the flaws in this plan right away.

In terms of goal-setting, my goal as outlined above, is a scattered mess – “good” goals are (or so I am told) supposed to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. My goal was achievable and realistic, I suppose, but fell short in basically every other area. My plan was vague at best, with a lot of room for self-sabotaging procrastination and interpretation.

But even beyond that – worse than that – was my problem with self-motivation.
Self-motivation is, apparently, linked fairly closely to both self-control and accountability, because an exchange like one this would happen, hmm, basically everyday:
My husband comes in the living room to check on my progress, and stops dead in his tracks.

“Are those my chips?”

I look down, like I’ve only just been made aware that I’m actually consuming anything.

“Maybe?”

“Where did you get those?”

“They were in your desk drawer.”

“Uh-huh. Did you write today?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Did you get any writing done today?”

“Pfft, not remotely, but I’m hungry and I want chips.”

“This isn’t how a reward system works.”

“I’M PREGNANT AND I WANT CHIPS, LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Basically, the biggest failing with the reward system was the fact that I was in charge of it, and when it came right down to it, what was stopping me from going and getting the candy bar, regardless of whether or not I’d hit my goal for the day? Who was going to stop me? My husband? Pffft, only if he caught me going for it, and even then, the pregnancy was a pretty potent trump card early on. I was the only person holding myself accountable in any way, and I’ve gotta say, I’m a real softy when it comes to me, and I’m good at calling my own bullshit. I can tell myself over and over that I can’t have those chips until I’ve written a thousand words, but that drawer slides out ever-so-easily and that bag pops open, and pretty soon I’m licking sour cream and onion powder off my fingers, because really, who’s stopping me?

No. I need to outsource my accountability to someone. And I need a reward that feels like a reward when I achieve it, not like a deprivation if I don’t.

I would wager there are a few others like me out there, so here’s my advice:
People tell you, be ready to put your social life on hold for NaNoWriMo. Apologize to friends, family, partners, etc. Let them know you’ll see them in December, after all this craziness if done, after you’ve gone the distance and hopefully achieved your goal.

No.

Rope your loved ones into this. Make them a part of it. Reward yourself with time spent with them. A candy bar can’t tell me not to eat it, but my husband can tell me we aren’t going on a date night until I hit word count. My sister can tell me she won’t meet me for coffee if I haven’t put in a solid hour of writing before hand. My best friend can tell me she’ll see the movie without me if I haven’t hit my goal by showtime. It sounds mean, but remember, this is something I want. I do, as strange and counter-intuitive as it seems, I want to be held accountable, I just suck at doing it myself.

So for those out there like me, those who are painfully bad at holding themselves to a goal and insanely good at self-sabotage, don’t make your goal something you obtain, because you can convince yourself so easily of the million reasons why you deserve this thing, with or without hitting your goal.

Reward yourself with good company, with people who care enough about you to say no to you in a loving way, in a way that will actually mean something to you, in a way that let’s you know there is something on the line, that someone is holding out for you to do something they know you are capable of.

That chocolate bar isn’t going to shame you for not reaching goal, but it’s not going to be proud of you, either.

Your friends will be. Don’t disappoint them.