3 Ways Accountability Partners Can Help Prevent Burnout

[I recently wrote a two-part series on accountability - the act of sharing your goals and intentions with others so that they can hold you to them. Part One introduced the concept of accountability and who can benefit from it. Part Two offered strategies for creating accountability, and tips on what makes for a great accountability partner, group, or coach. Part Three (below) was inspired by a conversation with friends about Part Two, and offers a perhaps counter-intuitive benefit of accountability: preventing burnout.]

One of my favorite aspects of writing this blog are the conversations that spur when a topic really resonates with people.  A few weeks ago, a Facebook Messenger conversation thread with several friends from the retreat I attended last November turned to accountability. This quote from Sharon, an avid runner, inspired me to write today's blog:

"I have an accountability partner now with running in a different way than ever. Before, I’ve had running partners and coaches and training plans that were all focused on longer, faster, better. This friend is also just getting back to running after an injury, and for the first time in my life, I am adding some walking into my runs without feeling like I'm failing. And I’m actually feeling stronger when I do my all running days....It’s almost like she’s my 'don’t go overboard' accountability."

Sharon got me thinking about the potential dark side to having accountability -- the more one accomplishes their goals, the easier it becomes to get wrapped up in aiming higher, pushing harder, and doing more. As an ambitious person who is always up for a challenge, I constantly find myself lost in the pursuit of more.

When Dani, my accountability partner, and I first started emailing each other our goals on a weekly basis, all seemed reasonable for both of us. Yet as the weeks went on, our lists got longer, the categories of goals we were tackling (e.g., health, financial, professional development, social) more varied.  We were both burning out. It took us several weeks after that to really recognize it. One of the first signs for me was that I stopped accomplishing as many things on my weekly list.  Part of me felt guilty for failing to do what I said I'd do, and part of me felt guilty that I didn't really care that I was failing. At some point, one of us (I'm pretty sure it was Dani) said "I think we are burning out." Our solution at the time was to cut way back on goals for a few weeks to recalibrate towards a more reasonable set of ambitions.

Since then, I have learned several ways that Dani, my weekly mastermind group, and my coach hold me accountable for not "overdoing it." Sometimes they keep me from getting too wrapped up in the first place, and at other times they help me recognize when I am already edging on burnout.  Here are three ways they have helped me:

1. Encouraging a holistic perspective of what is happening in all areas of my life before committing to goals.
It's easy to think of each goal in isolation from all the others, and therefore not think about how the time and effort required for one goal might affect whether there is time and energy left to accomplish another. This can be especially true when goals span multiple categories. For example, a goal to complete 10 hours of an online course during a week may mean that there is not time to also run 20 miles.

It's equally easy to think about goals outside of the context of regular commitments like work, family, and social events. Completing 10 hours of an online course may not be realistic on a week that work is especially intense, or that are there are a lot of family or social commitments. Running 20 miles may not be possible while family is in town, or when traveling for a business conference.

My accountability partners help me keep a holistic perspective by simply asking me what is happening in my week. What is work like right now? Am I in meetings all week? If so, I probably don't want to do a lot of goals related to interacting with people (my inner introvert needs to recharge). What are the commitments on my plate that might prevent me from getting things done? Sometimes these questions help me see on my own that my aspirations are unreasonable. But sometimes, I still am overly ambitious and need some encouragement that it's okay to accomplish less on particularly busy weeks.

2. Shifting my perspective from the here and the now to a longer-term view of what I have been striving for and at what intensity.
One of the downsides of setting regular goals (e.g., weekly or monthly) is that it becomes easy to only focus on small time increments. Given my two main forms of accountability -- Dani and my mastermind group -- are weekly, that means I am typically only focused on what I accomplished the previous week and what I want to do in the upcoming week. As a result, I forget how intensely I have been working over a longer period of time.  In fact, not accounting for how hard I had been working for a couple months was likely a huge contributor to my first burnout experience with Dani.

My accountability partners can often detect when I'm edging on burnout after a several week stint of intense accomplishment. They encourage me to consider cutting back, or in some cases, taking an entire week off from goals at all. Not only do those resets recalibrate me to a more reasonable list of goals, they also give me a much needed rest that I might not have otherwise known to take.

3. Reminding me that self-care and play are nonnegotiable.
Often forgotten amongst ambitious people is the need to incorporate regular self-care and play amongst all the other demands of life. When I first started setting goals, I did have health and wellness on my list, but I wouldn't necessarily call what I was striving for as "self-care." Heading to the gym a few times a week felt great, but it wasn't the rest and recharge that I needed to prevent burnout.  In addition to not truly having self care goals, I also was not making any deliberate attempts to "play." When I say play, I mean any activity that is solely for enjoyment or recreation. It could be something as big as a sport or as little as dancing in the living room for a few minutes. Both self-care and play have become regular goals that I have asked people to hold me to.

When my mastermind group first formed, we focused mostly on professional goals, as one of us is a full-time entrepreneur and the other three have entrepreneurial aspirations. Over time, we began incorporating personal goals into our weeks, and even more recently, we have begun to ask each other about what we are doing for self-care that week.  It would not fly with the rest of the group if any of us said, "Nothing" or "I'm too busy this week." If there is no time for self-care, I imagine that we would challenge each other to drop something else from the list in favor of some self-care time.

On the play side of things, my coach called me out just this week about a commitment I have repeatedly made to play but have had trouble following-through on.  Yesterday afternoon, I had a moment of thinking that I *should* be writing this blog, but then had a few voices in my head reminding me to play. After all, I'm currently on vacation in Michigan with a giant lake in my backyard! Instead of writing, I sent my coach (and the others in the writing accountability group we are part of) a picture of the lake stating, "At risk of not having a blog this week, I'm going to frolic in this big ass lake. Worth it! #rememberingtoplay." Given that I still struggle with adding play to my life, I am considering who in my accountability circle I can ask to text me at random to ask, "What have you done to play today?"

And with that, I am going to sign off for this week and get back to playing. As a reminder, I posted last week that I'm interested in knowing what my readers would like me to write about. I'd love feedback on what people are curious about, any topics people wish I could go deeper on, or even topics that people are sick of hearing about (maybe accountability at this point!). Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments or message me personally if you'd prefer to remain anonymous.

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