Your Personal Accountability System

A difficult challenge in achieving goals is simply remaining aware of them and staying on track. How many times have you set a goal, started working on it with the best of intentions, and then at some future time, you realize it somehow slipped through the cracks?

External influences exert forces to knock us off track. And if you have a busy life, these influences can come many times each day. Phone calls. Emails. Postal mail. A new memo. A drop-in visitor. New items to add to your to do list. New things to think about. But most are just distractions from what’s really important.

We therefore must exert a countering force to get back on track, pointing ourselves back towards our goals again and again. Reviewing your goals once a month or once a week is just too infrequent. I find I must review my major goals every single day, and if the day is filled with a lot of fire-fighting, then I must do it several times a day. Otherwise I start getting too far off course, lured into working on what’s merely important instead of what’s wildly important. It’s a process of constantly re-checking the compass and figuring out the correct next step.

For 2005 I have 14 written goals. They’re divided into 3 primary goals and 11 secondary goals. All of them are important. But the primary goals are those which will make an absolutely huge difference. Achieving any one of those 3 primary goals is more important than achieving all 11 secondary goals.

But those secondary goals are so tempting to work on first. They’re easier. They yield an immediate sense of accomplishment. Some will take care of themselves just from continuing existing habits. Most of the others can be knocked off with about 20-40 hours of work on each one. But the primary goals are not automatic, not certain of being achieved, and each one requires hundreds of hours of work. So if I don’t do anything special to keep taking myself back to the primary goals, the most likely outcome would be that I’d finish all the secondary goals and make a dent in each primary goal but not complete any of them this year. And that just isn’t good enough.

So how I do to stay focused on my primary goals, despite so many pressures to work on other things? I maintain a Personal Accountability System (call it PAS if you like acronyms). This is a regular 3-ring binder with a 1/2″ spine. It contains my 1-sentence purpose and 2005 goals (1 page), my Q1 2005 goals (1 page), my projects list (1 page), and my next actions list (1 page). I have other planning documents I maintain on my PC, but these are the ones I keep in this binder.

First, this helps me because I always keep this binder on my desk, and I open it and look through it every day, usually many times per day. This is automatic because it contains my next actions list. So I read my goals frequently, and I’m always noticing which three are the most important. It’s a process of constantly rechecking that I’m still on course and making adjustments as needed.

Secondly, I break my projects list and my next actions list into two parts: primary and secondary. The primary projects and next actions are those that lead directly to the achievement of the primary goals. The secondary projects and next actions either lead to secondary goals, or they aren’t linked to goals at all (like doing my taxes, something I must do but that’s not a major goal).

You can probably begin to see the benefit in this approach. Whenever I look at my next actions or projects lists, the primaries are at the top of the page. So this makes it very clear which next actions are the most important. I still sort each group by context (office, errands, waiting for, etc), but this doesn’t complicate things much because my primary goals involve mostly office work.

It’s very difficult sometimes, and I don’t always manage to achieve it, but I aim to spend at least 50% of each day working on my primary goals. Knowing which set of next actions are linked to those goals is very helpful. I can just go straight to my next actions list and start working on the primary actions.

At the end of the day, I can see whether I’ve crossed off a lot of actions from the primary list or whether most were from the secondary list. I immediately know whether I focused on the wildly important or got off course. If I don’t cross off actions from the primary list, I know with certainty I’m off course. There’s no way to rationalize it or justify it as being on track when it isn’t. This is one way of keeping score every day and always knowing where I stand.

The glue that holds everything together is the PAS. This keeps accountability in my consciousness, since I actively use it every day. Whenever I have doubt about a next action, I can turn the page to see the project it links to, and turn the page again to see the goal behind it. And with only 3 primary goals, each in a different area of my life, it’s always very clear which goal I should be working on.

Systems trump intentions.

Without some systematized method of daily accountability, the natural result will be to stray off course. Then at the end of the year, you look back and say, “If only…” In order to prevent that yearly “if only,” you have to squeeze that annual accountability down into each and every day. When you look back on your day and see you goofed, you can immediately regroup and recommit to doing a better job the next day. Better to do this every single day instead of “going dark” and then being painfully surprised at the end of the year. Purposeful transformation is better than tragic realization.

The best of intentions will be dominated by whatever system you have in place. If you have no system, then either old habits or just plain chaos will dominate in the long run, regardless of your intentions and motivation. The PAS is just one tool for staying on track — it’s my current favorite because it takes goals and links them all the way down to the level of actions in the moment. So accountability exists at all levels. But the real key is that it’s an integral part of every day. Without daily (sometimes even hourly) refocusing on the wildly important goals, it’s just too easy to lose sight of your goals and get sidetracked. So even though it requires a bit of effort to put together a PAS, it’s worth it.