Dead Simple Accountability Solutions for the Easily Distracted

Modern life is full of distractions, from Tweets and GChats to AIMs and Yahoos, not to mention just regular email. To cut through the weeds of distraction, what you need is a method to keep yourself on task. Here’s three.

If you’re a Primer man, then you’re here to better yourself. But in the 21st century, we face a formidable new foe: distraction. If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself setting goals on Monday and then…wait, what was I talking about?

I won’t make any conjectures about whether this is a good or bad thing overall (I’ll leave that argument up to Steven Johnson and Nicholas Carr). But I do have a theory about why we’re so diligent about getting the timewasters done. It’s because we have a nagging addiction to distraction in a completely unmetaphorical sense. Our system trays and iPhones are lined with sentinel icons that constantly remind us that there’s something else we could be looking at:

“You’ve got mail!”

“You’ve got @ mentions!”

“You’ve got comments!”

And that tiny little bit of pleasure you get from indulging in distraction—be it a reprieve from low-level boredom or a laugh from a  five second gag—encourages you to click again and again. It’s a two-part system of reminders and rewards that keeps us mired in unproductive habits.

But here’s the thing: the same type of system that distracts you can actually help you stay on track with your goals.

Here’s what I mean:

Gmail Notifier is perhaps one of the most compelling programs running on your computer right now. And all it does is pop up every five minutes to say, “Hey, maybe you should check your email.” And 9 out of 10 times, we say, “Okay!”

What you need is a killer app that will pop up every week or every day or every hour and say, “Hey, maybe you should drop and give me 20,” or “Hey, maybe you should practice your violin,” or “Hey, maybe you should work on your screenplay.” Chances are, if someone or something said that to you on a regular basis, you’d probably say, “Okay!”

So, here’s what I think you should do for the next 30 days:

Set yourself a daily goal. Let’s say, “write 500 words for your novel a day” or “exercise for 20 minutes a day” or “smoke less than three cigarettes a day.” Now, use one of the accountability systems below to remind and reward yourself:

Low Tech Solution: Don’t Break the Chain

The Don’t Break the Chain method was made famous by Jerry Seinfeld. Here’s how it works:

  • Step One: Buy yourself a big ol’ calendar. As big as your desk = good. As big as an entire wall = even better. Conspicuousness is the key.
  • Step Two: Buy yourself a big ol’ black Sharpie.
  • Step Three: For every day you achieve your daily goal, give yourself a big ol’ X on the calendar.
  • Step Four: Repeat. Don’t break the chain.

If that sounds overly simple it’s because it is—and that’s the beauty of the Don’t Break the Chain method. The longer that chain of X’s gets, the more satisfying and reaffirming it is. Soon enough, lengthening your chain will become an addiction that is stronger than any fleeting bout of laziness.

(There’s a handy website called dontbreakthechain.com that gives you an online calendar, but a physical calendar works best—especially when you put it some place where you can’t ignore it.)

High Tech Solution: RescueTime

RescueTime is a higher tech accountability solution and it has a lot more room for complexity. The core functionality of this unobtrusive little system tray application is that it keeps track of how much time you spend using certain programs or browsing certain websites. This may be a good solution for you if you find that a significant chunk of your day is getting eaten up by online distractions. You can configure RescueTime to categorize the “productiveness” of each website and/or send you custom alerts once you reach a certain threshold (i.e. more than 2 hours on Facebook per day). But RescueTime is effective enough at drumming up self-induced shame simply by compiling your online activity into a bar graph. Oftentimes, discovering that you spend 20 hours a week trying to solve notpron is all the wakeup call you need.

I would recommend RescueTime over Don’t Break the Chain if you are looking for a true “set it and forget it” accountability method. I know dragging a marker across a piece of paper isn’t particularly arduous, but having RescueTime load automatically whenever you boot up your computer is even less work.

Literal Solution: Accountability Partner

The main weakness of all the above solutions is that ultimately, it’s still up to you. If you have a tendency to fudge the numbers or allow yourself to cheat, then self-regulation may not be for you. Instead, you’ll get more mileage by having a real live person bust your chops for being lazy.

If you Google “accountability partner” you’ll get a lot of jive about Christianity and moral commitment, but it doesn’t have to be that intensive. Instead, you can just have your buddy call you up every Tuesday at 9:30AM and say, “Hey man, did you go to the gym yesterday?” This works best if you set a goal together, since it adds a subtle element of competition.

I’ll leave it up to you to find out where to find an accountability partner. It can be a friend or family member (though spouses and significant others make bad accountability partners, since we’re so accustomed to tuning out their nagging already) or it can be some creeper from Craigslist. Or you can hire a virtual assistant. All that’s required is that they contact you regularly.

Conclusion

No matter what system you use, the strongest recommendation I can make is to keep it simple. Your accountability solution should be something that takes little to no time or effort and can be started immediately. Because the more complex a system is, the easier it is to get burned out on it. For example, I failed right out of the gate with the Getting Things Done system—I couldn’t even lick the first thing that needed to get done (read a 267 page book).

Find a solution that you can start right now.

I mean it.

If you’ve read through all the way to the bottom of this article, then you’ve already wasted too much time.

Get out of here and start working toward your goals!

Jack Busch is a Pittsburgh resident, freelance writer and a crummy dancer. You can find him on Twitter and at JackBusch.com.