The Community You Have, The Community You Need: Building an Online Accountability Group

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(This is based on a presentation I gave to a working group on graduate student writing support at the university where I did my doctorate. Another blog post arising from the discussion was written by my friend Michael and is found here. I promise that the reasons why there was a beer-drinking baby goat at my post-defense party will become clear as you read.)

For the past two years, two of my graduate school colleagues and I have exchanged daily accountability emails. Sometimes the word “daily” gets a gasp, but yes: every day (weekends are optional). In the morning, one person starts an email conversation laying out our goals and commitments for the day, and the other two chime in as they start their own work. Over the course of the day, as necessary, someone might shoot out another message in the chain, whether a practical question (“do you guys know how that conference registration website works?”), a complaint (“WHY is this book not on the library shelf?”), an update (“Email advisor- DONE. Write paragraph- NEXT”) or a victory (“My article was accepted!”). At the end of the day—or the next morning— we each sum up our days. In effect, we’ve used our email to build a virtual office hallway, where we can poke our heads out our doors and express the frustrations, defeats, and triumphs of graduate study. It makes it all less lonely.

The success of our model might be shown by our productivity: we can boast two complete dissertations, and the third member of the group, who started a year later, is rapidly progressing on her own writing. A communal CV would also reveal two articles, one postdoc offer, a number of successful conference papers and sessions, and courses taught and TAed, as well as other assorted projects in our department and university. We’ve had one baby, one wedding, and one major surgery, and I think we can say that we suffer no worse mental health than your average graduate researcher. We even have social lives and take vacations to see our families or go on camping trips. We don’t have perfect working methods, and we all have different approaches to how and when we get our work done. The secret is the community.

Models

This was not the first accountability group we had tried. We had all participated in once-a-week accountability meetings for our respective doctoral year cohorts, but these had a tendency to fall apart in the face of scheduling and space challenges. Turning to email removed the valuable face-to-face socialization of the weekly coffee meetings, but allowed much more frequent communication. I don’t think any of us expected the group to be as durable as it has been, but since I was pregnant at the time we started, maximizing flexibility was one key to its success. In addition, the freedom of our accountability group’s format means that it can work in conjunction with other groups, whether arranged by an adviser or according to research interest.

Our group was born at the end of a rough day, when I had just had a difficult meeting with a committee member about how much work I had left to do. I bought a new notebook and pen to soothe my troubled soul, went home, and drew up an aspirational plan for maximum productivity. (I’m always drawing up aspirational plans for maximum productivity.) I then announced to my husband that I needed someone to keep me accountable to it.

“That’s an excellent idea,” he said, “and it shouldn’t be me.” So I emailed two friends, and found that they were in similar ruts with their own research.

Over the course of the evening, we discussed what form this group should take. I’d first envisioned a scheme something like that of Anthony Trollope, who paid one of his servants a guinea if he was not at his desk on time. However, my friends both wanted to benefit from the group, but—being sane—had no similar all-encompassing schemes for self-improvement. In the end we decided upon a simple goal-sharing mechanism, according to which “goals” could be defined however the sender liked. We considered using the chat window in gmail to set goals for individual work sessions, but our times of work productivity did not line up, sending us to a daily model and our email.

This was fortuitous, at least for me. I don’t think a work-session model could have survived either the European research trip on which I almost immediately set out, or the months of slow, intermittent postpartum work. Sometimes we do rely on chat to get through a particularly slow afternoon or draining project, and the immediate support is welcome. We have gotten better at knowing how much work it is reasonable to expect from ourselves in a single day (a foundational goal of the project), and our community is even stronger than it was before. Regular goal-setting, even without a community, helps you know how much you can achieve for the day and shows you steady progress towards completion; the benefit of the group may not be that it keeps you accountable to your specific plan, but that it keeps you accountable to the process of making a plan.

Setting Up Your Own Group: Considerations

The first question in setting up a group is, of course, choosing your team. I think three people is an ideal number, as it allows for diversity of opinion without being unwieldy (and there’s always a backup when someone is traveling). Our friendship is stronger, thanks to our goals group, but that might not be the case if we didn’t have compatible personalities and concerns. It is also important that you work with people with whom you can comfortably discuss problems when you aren’t getting what you need from the group (more on that below). If you think your most immediate colleagues will make you more anxious, or more competitive, then my advice would be to look more broadly.

You may also want to consider how wide you want the disciplinary spread of your group to be. My group has two literary scholars and me—a historian and manuscript specialist. Sometimes this is a little lonely, as my goals lists look so very different from the others. On the other hand, I never have to worry about feeling competitive about my work.

The next question when setting up such a group— once you have determined your members and your method of communication— is what constitutes a ‘goal’. We interpret it quite broadly: it includes everything from going to the gym (this is never on my list), to wedding planning, to getting the colicky baby to take a nap. This means that our daily achievements reflect the diversity of responsibilities and activities in our lives (always a motivation booster) and helps us keep our academic goals realistic and achievable.

Getting What You Need

It may take a few weeks or months before your working group is running smoothly. While the first messages will likely be full of enthusiasm, you will also need to work out the dynamics of the group and set the boundaries for how much help or advice is to be given. Some people really like to give advice; some people are prone to being pushed around by other peoples’ advice. It’s important to work with people to whom you can say, “I just want to show you my list for my own accountability, and don’t need any advice on it.” On the other hand, you may want to ask your peers to keep you more honest about the amount of work you can really achieve— particularly if you are prone to managing anxiety by developing unreasonable to-do lists. My group is limited primarily to cheerleading: we set goals, sometimes we offer very mild advice on those goals, and when goals are achieved, we celebrate.

I would recommend protecting this supportive community by explicitly stating an expectation of confidentiality, such that challenges discussed within the group stay within the group.

Goats (Rewards)

Each group has its own customs; ours comes from a misreading. One evening my husband was looking over my shoulder while I sent my evening e-mail, titled “Friday Goals,” and thought it read “Friday Goats.”

“Hrm,” he thought to himself, “they’re exchanging pictures of goats.” (Let’s take a moment to consider that he wouldn’t have found that surprising.)

As someone who is indeed fond of dairy goats, I recorded the conversation in my e-mail and sent along a picture of a baby Nubian. Now the “Friday Goat” has become our mascot, sent along in celebration when the week is done.

Checking Out

You should take time away, and although it may sound constraining at first, daily goal check-ins can help you do this. First, reasonable, achievable planning reduces anxiety: you know what you are doing today, and you know that there will be more goals tomorrow. Second, because your time is largely your own as a graduate student, many feel like they have to work all the time. When you know your goals for the day, you know when you are done.

This brings me to the final challenge of the online accountability group, and that is the difficulty of turning off. When you meet once a week for coffee, the meeting eventually comes to an end. Not needing to schedule meetings makes the group work with any schedule, but those schedules do not always line up. One member has tried to keep her weekends work-free, while I try not to work on Sundays. Really turning ‘off,’ however, can be hard when your e-mail is pinging. This is something to discuss with your group, and make sure they know that there will be times when you are not checking your e-mail. Then turn your phone off, and enjoy your time away.

Goals For All

There are three types of people who may balk at the suggestion of such a goals group: the first two might find the idea of accountability too constraining. These people are probably of a sort who like the freedom of working without a plan, or who worry about being embarrassed when they don’t achieve their goals. If you truly don’t want to set goals for your work, I don’t have much advice— except that you reread what I wrote above about knowing when to stop. For those who worry about failure, I remind you that a perfect score is not the end of the project: the purpose is community and learning how much you can reasonably achieve.

A third type of person may be so devoted to their own personal planning system that they feel they don’t need a group. I was one of these for quite some time (remember: aspirational plans for maximum productivity). I still recommend you try a group. (Try to form a group with people who do not want your advice.) Things will happen, and your plans will fail. It’s better to have encouragement when they do than to try to be self-sufficient. My accountability group offered unfailing support when postpartum depression and infant colic kept me from working through what I wanted to get done. I rarely draw up aspirational and ultimately unachievable plans for productivity anymore, which means that paradoxically, having a goals group has actually made me much more flexible, as well as more productive.

Our email solution may not work for you, but no matter your work style, I encourage you to think of creative ways to build the community you need. What do you have to lose?

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