Accountability Group

As many of my readers know, and for that matter, anyone who talks to me knows, I am an avid consumer of productivity tips, from blog posts to books. As the mother of four boys ages 5 to 15, married to a full-time employed co-parent, I am super busy all the time. And, I also love to not work and have fun with my family and friends. So, when I am at work, I need to get things done. This can be a problem because I also love to waste time reading news websites, online shopping, engaging on social media, etcetera. I use a ton of productivity strategies (see this post for some of them) to try to create accountability around getting the things done that will advance my career. For me, that is getting my grants and publications written, revised, and submitted.

Stream in the woods

The view on a walk during my 2016 InkWell writing retreat.

One of my favorite tips for productivity came from Michelle Boyd of InkWell writing retreats. I went on one of Michelle’s amazing retreats in 2016 (cannot recommend her enough), and one of the best parts of retreating was my half hour I spent with Michelle each day. We talked about my writing struggles, and she mentioned that one strategy that really helped her get her writing done was her accountability group. I started an accountability group in the Fall of 2016 with three fellow faculty members, two assistant professors and another associate professor like myself. We are in three different departments in three different colleges at Ohio State. We meet for one hour, strict, every week (one member is a “timekeeper”). This group has helped me become more productive, and has given me peer mentoring and support through some of the most trying times of my career. I cannot recommend forming your own accountability group enough.

At the first meeting of the semester, we discuss some overarching goals we have for the semester and set goals for the next week. Then, each week, we meet and discuss whether we met our goals or not. One member is a “secretary”, and they will remind you what your goals were. If you met your goal, you get a gold star (one member is a “goalkeeper”). If you almost met it, you get a silver star. If you do not meet your goal, you get a blue star. After three blues, we might have an intervention and brainstorm ways to get back on track, or provide social support, or encourage you to be gentle with yourself because you are going through a lot and you have unrealistic expectations, whatever seems right for the moment. One of my fellow accountability group members mentioned that she met a colleague who has her own accountability group at a conference. Their group throws in $5 every time they do not meet their goal, and then they use the money to share a meal at the end of the semester. I think this is a great idea! My group might try this next year. I find that I really want to get a gold star, and I try hard to meet my goals. Thus, I prioritize those things that I set goals for, and I would say that most weeks, I get silver or gold. What I love about the group is that my accountability group creates something to bug me to get my most important work done. My students will email me, journal editors will email me for reviews, but NIH doesn’t email me to find out when I am submitting my grant. My accountability group will ask me though, and keep me answerable to my goals.

Just as with any kind of group work, I have a few tips for success. First, I like having a diverse group of individuals in the group so that it does not delve into a complaining fest about a particular department, college, or program. Second, using a timer is handy, so that everyone gets 15 minutes and the meeting ends on time each week, making it more likely that everyone will want to come back. Third, finding people you trust and can be vulnerable with is also helpful. During my fifteen minutes, after I go over my goals, I might brainstorm with my fellow group members about a problem I am having with a student or colleague, a sticky issue I am having while grant writing, etcetera. I trust my group completely and I know they will give me good advice, and will not judge me or disclose anything I share. In fact, they have become some of my closest friends. My friend and fellow productivity guru Tasleem Padamsee, who is in my group, suggested the following, which I wholeheartedly agree with:

“In my experience, accountability groups work best when all their members are committed to mutual help and support over the mid- or long-term, when they are process (instead of product) oriented, when they are confidential and candid, and when all the members feel invested in providing the most helpful possible feedback to others – regardless of whether the feedback needed on a given day is supportive, critical, or both.”

In case you think that my group is an anomaly, in December 2017 I gave an 8 hour workshop on productivity, writing, and work-life balance (if you think your university would be interested in hosting a workshop, let me know). At the workshop, one of the strategies I recommended was accountability group. A group of attendees formed their own group. One of the members, Cäzilia Loibl, said the following about their group.

“The accountability group is a great way to set specific goals for the week. We break our goals into small steps, make a list of the steps, and discuss challenges related to papers and grants. It is three of us and we meet every week in person or via Zoom to keep track of our progress. We count our achievements, like paper and proposal submissions, reviews completed, and grants awarded. It is very helpful and extremely motivating!”

Another member, Drew Hanks, said:

“For me, the value in the accountability group is just that – being held accountable for the goals I set.  I also enjoy the interaction with my group members.  We encourage each other, provide advice on many topics, and celebrate achievements.  I hope we can keep this up indefinitely.”

So, go out there, find some fellow friends or colleagues who want to get things done, and start your own group! I might also mention that a friend of mine who is a realtor has a group like this as well. Accountability groups can work for anyone who wants some accountability around getting the most important things done.

Here are some details I wrote up based on Michelle’s description for how a group can run.

Group Structure

The group will include 4 members. Each member will serve one of four roles.

  1. Convener: The Convener a) convenes the group, b) sends emails to invite members, c) establishes a common meeting time, d) defines, establishes, and documents group rules (i.e. confidentiality; active participation), e) sets up an overall calendar that includes who will be at each meeting each week, f) at the end of the semester, helps group review the semester, including asking members what worked, what didn’t work, and what could we do to improve, and g) at the end of the semester, confirms that members want to continue. The convener leads the first and last meeting each semester.
  2. Secretary: The Secretary writes down each member’s goal each week, and reminds each member of their previous week’s goal.
  3. Timekeeper: The Timekeeper times each meeting, allowing each member only 15 minutes to discuss their goals and get help and feedback.
  4. Goalkeeper: The Goalkeeper creates a board to track members goals each week, and then tracks goal achievement each week as follows: a member receives a gold star if they meet their goal, a silver star if they almost meet their goal, a blue star if they did not meet their goal, a red star if they do not meet their goal two weeks in a row, and an “intervention” if they do not meet their goal three weeks in a row. If a goal is not met, that member will throw $5 in a pot which will be used for a shared meal at the end of the semester.

Meeting Structure

Initial meeting of the semester:  The initial meeting of the semester is convened by the Convener. The Convener establishes a calendar for the semester, and documents who will, and will not, be at each meeting. The Convener covers ground rules, including confidentiality and active participation. Members discuss the ground rules, make modifications as needed, and agree to them. Members decide on who will play the remaining three roles.  Members take turns leading meetings; a calendar is created whereby each member takes a turn running a meeting. The Timekeeper establishes the order that members will present their progress each week. In that order, each member establishes 1) an overarching semester goal, and 2) a goal for the following week. These are documented by the Secretary. The meeting lasts one hour.

Weekly meeting: At each weekly meeting, the member who is leading that meeting calls the meeting to order. Each member presents their progress in the pre-established order; the Secretary can remind the member what their goal was if they have forgotten. The Goalkeeper tracks whether or not the member met their goal, and the Secretary documents the member’s goal for the following week. The Timekeeper times each member’s update and stops the discussion after 15 minutes; the leader then shifts the discussion to the next member. The meeting is strictly over after one hour.

Final meeting of the semester: The Convener leads the final meeting. Again, each member presents their progress, this time reflecting on the previous week and their semester goal that was documented by the Secretary. The Timekeeper times each member’s update and stops the discussion after 15 minutes; the Convener then shifts the discussion to the next member. At the end of the member updates, the Convener leads a discussion on a) what worked this semester, b) what did not work this semester, c) what should change for the following semester, and d) establishes who wants to continue in the group, and who does not.

Member Expectations

Members commit to the accountability group for the entire semester, but only a single semester. Each member is expected to be an active participant, showing up for the weekly meeting even if goals were not met. Each member is expected to play one of the four roles; the role can rotate from semester to semester, but not from week to week. Each member is expected to weigh in and brainstorm with fellow members on their writing issues, problems, and ideas. The group is a peer coaching group; no one member is the main “coach” or goal “enforcer”. Each member takes their turn leading the meeting.

Initial Guidelines

The accountability group is a space where members can be open and honest with one another without fear of judgement or disclosure to other individuals. All details shared are confidential.

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