How to Use External Accountability to Achieve Your Creative Goals in 2019

If one of your goals (for the New Year or in general) is to dedicate more time to a creative passion, here’s how to do it: find a system for external accountability.

To close the gap between the ideal self and the actual self, most of us have hobbies we would like to take more seriously or spend more time on. I imagine my ideal self as a bilingual, well-read yoga teacher who has written a novel or two. Maybe your ideal self can play the guitar, works as a professional photographer, or performs stand-up comedy. Whatever your passion, it can be hard to fit these kinds of activities into our daily lives.

How many times have we set a goal and failed to stick to it? Goals like “I’m going to write more” don’t work if they lack a concrete plan for action. Even when you make a concrete plan (“I’m going to spend 20 minutes writing every day”), it can be hard to prioritize time spent promoting your personal joy and satisfaction. The demands of work, chores, family, and friends always supersede. How can you “hold yourself accountable?”

For me, the trick is to not hold myself accountable, but rather find someone or something else to do it for me. If I want to spend more time writing, I have to have some kind of external system in place to reward or punish my behavior. This external system must consist of the following:

1) Deadlines

2) Rewards for meeting the deadlines, or consequences for failing to meet them.

So, where do you find these deadlines and rewards/consequences? Again, the key is that they have to be external. Promising yourself you will post new photos to your photography blog every week by Friday at 7 pm establishes a specific, measurable goal with a deadline. But without an external reward or consequence, that kind of goal probably won’t last. Here are three ways to set up an external system that will help you achieve your goals:

Take a class

One of the most effective ways to develop a creative passion is to take a class. You can usually find one at a local college or university, trade school, community college, or even online. Google “photography classes in Cleveland,” for example, and you’ll find a whole list of options. The class environment works because your teacher and your fellow students are holding you accountable. The structure provides deadlines for assignments, with the consequence of a lower or failing grade if you don’t meet them. There’s also social pressure here—you want to impress your teacher and keep up with your classmates—which will help you put forth a consistent effort. Classes are great because they turn your creative passion into a part of your daily or weekly routine. If you have a cooking class on Wednesdays at 8 pm, cooking will automatically become a bigger part of your life.

Look for consistent, recurring deadlines attached to concrete rewards or consequences, and watch yourself grow

Turn your passion into a job

If you can’t afford to pay for a class, maybe you can get paid for your creative work instead. While quitting the job that pays the bills to pursue your creative passion may not be possible right away, you can try to find a side gig that will pay you for your creativity. If you’re a writer, try to find an online magazine that you can contribute to or a local business that needs help with content writing. If you’re a photographer, start charging for professional headshots for your friends, or help small businesses with promotional photo shoots. Depending on your level, you likely won’t be able to charge the same for your services as a full-time professional. But if you’re completing work for someone else, you’ll have deadlines with a monetary reward for meeting them.

Find your people

If your hobby is tricky to get paid for, try to find a group of people who are pursuing the same passion. Look for a workshop group, club, or critique group for people developing the same skills as you are. Facebook and Meetup.com are excellent resources for finding these kinds of organizations. They’re usually free, but these groups may lack the deadline + consequence structure that’s necessary for sustained, long-term improvement. Try to implement this yourself, either individually or by suggesting this kind of structure to the other group members. If the group meets Sunday afternoons at 2 pm, set a standard for bringing fresh work every week. The consequence for not meeting that deadline would be not having anything to share with your group members (again, using social pressure to your advantage).

Whether you’re making New Year’s resolutions or just looking to narrow the gap between your ideal and actual selves, finding an external system of accountability can help you get there. Look for consistent, recurring deadlines attached to concrete rewards or consequences, and watch yourself grow.

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Shaune Marx

Shaune is a writer living and teaching English in Madrid. She is interested in the idea of living as many different lives as possible, through literature, writing, and frequent change. Past lives so far include working as a museum curator, magazine writer, and market research analyst. Shaune studied Professional Writing and Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University, and she enjoys traveling, yoga, and reading in her free time.