Make Failure Suck

The Silver Bullet of Accountability

Some stuff works, most doesn’t.

If you’ve dipped your toes into the self-development rabbit hole before, you know that the pursuit of productivity, personal goals, and improvement has baggage. Silly 30 day challenges, cold showers, blaring alarms at odd hours, fidgety meditations, and failed experiments dominate your existence.

For the past two years, I’ve been waist deep in that very hole — sampling all of the above and then some.

In that time, I’ve consumed a lot of the ‘literature’ surrounding habit formation, motivation, building systems, and achieving goals.

I’ve tried a lot of tactics.

I’ve downloaded a lot of apps.

I’ve read a bunch of books.

Some stuff works, most doesn’t.

What’s emerged as my most enduring and reliable tool?


In the context of goal setting, accountability is the practice of devising specific and meaningful consequences for NOT reaching your goals.

In brief: make failure suck.

It’s that simple.

Reaching goals shouldn’t be complicated.

We are often more motivated by avoiding loss than we are by chasing victory. Instead of being victims to our psychology, we can spin loss aversion as a silver bullet for conquering important goals.

Self-discipline is fantastic. Breaking through pain thresholds internally is extremely admirable, but in many circumstances, there is no reason to make things that hard.

Purposeful accountability paves an easier path.

When to Use Accountability — The Brink of Failure

Inflection points are specific moments when short term desires and long term goals collide.

Inflection points are the battleground where goals are either conquered or abandoned.

Inflection Point: Your alarm goes off an hour earlier than usual so you can meditate and cook a healthy breakfast. It’s fatigue versus commitment. Fatigue wins at 5 am.

Inflection Point: You want to hit the gym after work. It’s laziness versus motivation. Laziness wins at 5 pm.

Inflection points are present for every goal, and identifying them is the first step in stocking your arsenal against them.

For goals you try to do in the morning, for example, the first inflection point is almost always the act of waking up and getting out of bed.

Most days, if you make it this far, you are more than likely going to accomplish what you set out to do. On the other hand, an ‘innocent’ five to ten minute snooze can compress your schedule to the point of abandoning your goals.

When do you usually fail? At what point do you quit? What breaks you to the point of saying “I’ll do this later?” Find it. Use accountability to defeat it.

From the times you have overcome resistance, you know getting started is frequently the hardest part.

So why not focus your attention on removing the barriers to starting?

Why Accountability Works — An Obvious Trade-Off

Humans are largely emotional creatures, but we can occasionally display bouts of calculated, logical behavior.

When the cost of falling short of your goals, quite literally, outweighs the cost of success, you are incentivized to succeed.

Just like the concept of inflection points, an understanding of the above trade-off can bolster your armor against the resistance you face towards your goals.

The key is to use accountability to rewrite the equation in your favor.

If the only consequence for snoozing is having to get ready quickly, it is expected that you’d snooze. You have no incentive not to. The equation is stacked heavily in favor of failure.

The solution is to re-balance the scale.

If snoozing meant that you owe a friend $100 because you skipped your morning yoga, getting up won’t be nearly as difficult.

You have an incentive not to snooze, and if it’s strong enough, you won’t.

When wide awake and removed from the pain of the moment, you don’t think it is hard to get up early and get after it, but in the moment, self-discipline is unreliable.

Raise the cost of failure and stack the odds in your favor. Rewrite your equation.

How to Engineer Accountability — Pick a Goal and a Consequence

Perhaps the word “engineer” is a little overkill.

Working accountability into your goals is extremely straightforward.

Step 1. Pick a goal

Step 2. Identify the next INPUT BASED step for achieving that goal (writing for an hour, doing your workout, meditating for 20 mins, reading 25 pages).

Step 3. Set a deadline for doing it (today, tomorrow, this week).

Step 4. Identify a STRONG consequence for failure ($50, public humiliation, doing somebody else’s chores, letting somebody slap you and post it on Facebook)

Step 5. Have a friend agree to make you face the consequence from Step 4 if you fail to do Step 2 before the end of Step 3.

Step 6. Repeat

Of course, nuance can be added to the process. You can set recurring goals, have weekly check-ins, or devise another system as needed based on the nature of the tasks.

I’ve recently made a habit of texting an accountability partner each night with all of my important goals for the next day. I set a $25 prize on my wake up time, my scheduled workout, getting my writing in, and sometimes one to two non-urgent chores I just need a little extra kick to get done.

Think about your goals. Think about your inflection points. Insert accountability there.

Bet on your own success

You can think of accountability like making bets on yourself on a consistent basis. The beauty is that you control the outcome. Winning or losing is up to you.

Identify where you want to go next and what it will take to get there.

Use accountability to stack the odds in your favor. Manipulate psychology to your advantage.

Leverage external consequences to win internal battles.

Make failure suck, and you’ll fail less.

Published on Apr 11, 2020

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