Accomplish the Important Things in Life by Holding Yourself Accountable


I read two awesome posts this week on the subject of improving the success rate of long-term goals. One was from Mario over at Debt Blag and talked about the importance of setting short- and intermediate-term goals along the way. The other was from Jason at Hull Financial Planning and stressed the effectiveness of setting hard deadlines for yourself. They are excellent reads and I would highly encourage you to check them out for yourself.

Both of these posts resonated strongly with me because holding myself accountable is something I’ve long struggled with. I am naturally a procrastinator. If I have time to do something I typically make full use of that time. And by full use I mean I delay doing the task until I absolutely have to because the deadline is fast approaching.

Sometimes this works out fine, but there’s a particular experience I went through a couple of years ago that really hammered home the significance of the points Mario and Jason make in their posts above. I learned up close and personal that if you really want to accomplish important things in your life, you have to learn how to properly hold yourself accountable.

My personal procrast-awakening

Back in July of 2010, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in financial planning. I was still happy at my job (which is still my job and still makes me happy), but I loved the world of investing and personal finance and I wanted to use that love to help people. So I decided to begin a path towards CFP® certification.

The first step was completing their education requirement, which consisted of six college-level courses on the topics of general financial planning, insurance, investment, taxes, retirement and estate planning. Given that I was working full-time and would have trouble committing to any specific schedule, I decided to go through Boston University’s self-study online program. I had 18 months to complete the program and I was completely on my own. Each of the six courses consisted of somewhere between 12 and 18 lessons, and besides the 18-month deadline it was completely up to me how and on what timeline I completed them

This was my first experience with this kind of approach, and let’s just say that I didn’t start off handling it all that well. My original goal was to complete the program in time for the CFP® Exam in November 2011, which gave me about 16 months. With that as my only goal in mind, I started studying pretty much as it felt convenient to me. A little here, a little there, sometimes not at all. I was completely winging it without any kind of structure.

About four months in I had one of those days where I kind of freaked out. I had already used up 1/4 of my self-allotted 16 months and I wasn’t even done with the very first (and easiest) class. Not only that, but I had realized that if I really wanted to pass the exam I should take a review course beforehand, which would shift the deadline for my coursework up by two months. So now I had 10 months to complete 5+ classes. How the hell was I going to do that when I hadn’t even completed one in the four months so far?

One small tweak that doubled my productivity

It was a wake-up call for sure, but I eventually decided to do something I had never really done before: create an incredibly detailed calendar with deadlines for each and every mini-lesson along the way. I set a final deadline of 9/4/2011 and then I did the math to determine that I needed to complete one lesson every 2-3 days. This felt crazy fast and incredibly overwhelming, but the facts were what they were. So I went into my Google calendar and picked a specific date to complete each of my 70 or so remaining lessons.

The next 10 months were not easy. Most of my time out of the office was spent studying. There were times I wanted to give up, there were lessons I was a little late on, others that I finished early, but by and large I stuck to my schedule. I had set those deadlines and I was going to hit them.

Do you want to take a guess on how close to my 9/4 goal I ended up getting? I couldn’t remember exactly, so I took a look back at my spreadsheet and guess what? I finished my sixth and final class exactly on 9/4. Was that some crazy coincidence? Am I that good at figuring out how long things take that I just happened to nail the end date 10 months in advance?

Of course not. I finished on 9/4 for a very simple reason: I had set that as my end date and I had set dozens of mini-deadlines along the way that forced me to get there. It was really no different than all my other efforts at procrastination. I used all of the time available to me, finishing at the exact last minute. The only difference was that this was a self-imposed last minute that allowed me to accomplish my goals of taking a review course and eventually passing the exam in November 2011, right on my original schedule.

The lesson

Very few of us are responsible enough to accomplish our dreams by simply winging it. Success is a process, a sequence of many purposeful steps that accumulate to a larger outcome. It’s very hard to make all of those steps without a plan in place. In my example, I was given a map of the steps I needed to take (the syllabus) but in order to execute I had to set a deadline for each and every one of them. I used my tendency to procrastinate to the last minute in my favor, creating dozens of little “last-minutes” that tricked my brain into productivity.

To be totally honest, this is not something I’ve been successful at applying in all areas of my life. It still drives my wife crazy when I put something off seemingly endlessly, until something happens that absolutely requires me to take care of it. But at least now I have a framework for approaching these things effectively.

If you’re going to accomplish important things in life you need to learn how to hold yourself accountable. The absolute best method I’ve found for doing this is setting the end goal, setting mini-goals along the way, and creating deadlines for each. You may end up deviating from the plan, and that’s okay. But giving yourself a structure to start with will dramatically increase your chances for success.

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40 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • DC @ Young Adult Money August 30, 2013

    This is such a solid post, Matt! I agree with your view on accountability, and it actually reminded me that I committed to 5 pages of my Excel VBA book each day (it’s a huge book and daunting to get through). I should really start writing down each day how many pages I read/reviewed/studied and see on Friday how close I was to my 25 page goal. IT’s so important to track progress when you set goals and not just set them (like I did in that case).

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      I love having little goals like that. Tracking is definitely helpful, but sometimes unnecessary as long as you hit those little goals each day. Back in January I made it a goal to write every single day. No specific amount and no tracking words or anything. Just write something every day. That tiny little goal is the main thing that’s helped me keep going with this blog.

  • The Student Loan Sherpa August 30, 2013

    “Success is a process, a sequence of many purposeful steps that accumulate to a larger outcome.”

    I love this statement! This is the type of thing you write on the bathroom mirror and remind yourself about every day.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Thanks Michael! I wonder if there are any job openings for “wise quote generator”. Let me know if you hear of anything.

  • Holly Johnson August 30, 2013

    This is pretty much what we do…lots of mini-goals and some really big ones that will take a while to accomplish. Without goals, it would be easy for life to pass me by without getting what I really want out of it.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      I feel the same way, which is a big reason I’m trying to get better about setting little goals for myself. It’s always been a struggle for me but I’ve seen them be too effective to let it go.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer August 30, 2013

    Wow – great story, Matt! Like, you, I tend to procrastinate and even do better sometimes when I have a super-tight deadline because of that procrastination. I would like to use that tendency in more of a positive way though, and this seems like the way to go. I think I’m going to try it!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Yep, I pretty much need a deadline to get anything done. If I can trick myself into thinking there’s a deadline that isn’t there, at least I’m using it in a positive way. I have a long way to go to be really effective with it though.

  • Stuart Laing August 30, 2013

    Mini-goals are crucial to make sure you stay on target.

    If you have one big deadline away into the future, human nature dictates that we will drift and then try to complete 80% of the work in the last 20% of the time (reminds me of my student days before I pulled my act together).

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      The amount of time it takes to complete a task depends on the amount of time you have to complete it. It’s so easy to stretch something out until the last minute unless you consciously force yourself to do it sooner.

  • Mini goals are definitley where it’s at. That’s how all of my marathon training goes – mini goals 3 or 4 times per week. A fellow runner compared them I deposits in a savings account that you get to cash in for achievement on race day. =)

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup August 30, 2013

    Holding yourself accountable is really the only way to succeed in life. If you constantly hold others accountable, then you will get no where fast.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Agreed. You’ve got to look inward if you really want to achieve anything meaningful.

  • Jason Hull August 30, 2013

    Thanks for the kind words, Matt! Oftentimes, it’s tough to find internal, intrinsic motivation to do something (even train for a marathon!), but if you can create artificial external motivation – hitting a deadline – it’s all you need to get over the hump!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Any time Jason. Thanks for the inspiration. I think intrinsic motivation is one of those things that feels good as a concept but isn’t incredibly useful for many of the things we want to achieve in our lives. Figuring out a way to get things done even when you aren’t jazzed up about it in the moment is the real key.

  • Andrew August 30, 2013

    I can sometimes be disorganized and put things off. I definitely need to have more structure and set mini-goals with deadlines so I can accomplish more things

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      I’m still working at it too. I have a long way to go before I’ll really feel like I have it down.

  • Shannon Ryan August 30, 2013

    Great post, Matt! Accountability and goal-setting go hand-in-hand. I am pretty good at holding myself accountable but I sometimes take too much on. 🙂 I earned my CFP after I started working at a financial planning firm so I definitely remember those days of squeezing in the coursework. I think you’d make an incredible CFP. 🙂

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Thanks Shannon! I hope to get the full designation some day. Still a lot of work left to go.

  • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma August 30, 2013

    I simply can’t get anything done on a schedule when I’m the one holding myself accountable. Make me accountable to somebody else, and I get stuff done. I’m just too easy of a boss on myself.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      I’m not great at it either. I’m not sure what it is, but most of the things I’ve done in my life have been with someone else pushing me. Learning how to hold myself accountable is something that’s becoming increasingly important to me, especially as I try to progress with this site. No one really cares about the progress I make, or at least will hold to anything, except for me.

  • Done by Forty August 30, 2013

    I struggle with procrastination as well and I’m currently dealing with the exact same situation with a professional certification of my own. I’m going to go ahead and steal your technique, if that’s cool. 🙂

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Steal away! That’s really the whole reason I have this site, so people can steal helpful ideas. What professional certification are you working on?

      • Done by Forty August 31, 2013

        Thanks, Matt. I’m working on my CPSM (Certified Professional in Supply Management) and the material is painfully dry. I don’t expect it to really open up any doors re: promotion, but I do think I’ll improve my work performance if I can implement the best practices & concepts taught.

        • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 1, 2013

          Sounds like a good plan. It’s almost always a good idea to learn, even if there’s no direct reward. Good luck!

  • Lisa vs. the Loans August 30, 2013

    This is great! I hope to one day get my CFP and help people – personal finance is my passion! I’ll definitely keep your tips in mind!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Good luck! Let me know if you ever have any questions about the process. I’d be happy to help in whatever way I can.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules August 30, 2013

    “But giving yourself a structure to start with will dramatically increase your chances for success.” – This is so true! It can be easy to say that you want to do/accomplish something, but it’s that plan that really help it stick and exponentially increase your ability to succeed. I am a visionary by nature, but once I have the vision I step back and look at how/what I need to do in order to reach that vision. Excellent post Matt!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      Thanks John. It sounds like you’re much more on top of this than I typically am. I definitely think that giving yourself some kind of structure to start with is the way to go. You might deviate from it but at least you’re starting with a plan.

  • Savvy Scot August 30, 2013

    I’m all about planning 🙂 It’s thee only way you can manage a busy and exciting life

  • Alexandra @RealSimpleFinances August 30, 2013

    Awesome story. I love that you set yourself a goal and you made it on that day! When I have something I really want to do, I always try to break it down into manageable chunks with checkpoints.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      I think the fact that I finished on the exact day is such a good lesson, at least for me and how I work. It certainly wasn’t a coincidence. I took as much time as I gave myself.

  • Budget & the Beach August 30, 2013

    Good job Matt! I absolutely suck at planning at hate it, but I found myself to be 10X more productive without it. I kind of follow how Leo from Zen Habits leads his life. I just “do,” every single day. I know what my over arching goals are in life and found that more I planned, the less productive I actually was. Go figure! 🙂 We are all so different!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney August 30, 2013

      I’m definitely intrigued by Leo’s approach. I try to incorporate a little bit of each actually, though not really in this example. I like giving myself a broad structure and then letting the details happen as they will. His completely goal-less approach is pretty fascinating, but I don’t think I would do well if I really tried to go that far. Sounds like you’ve got it down though.

  • MoneySmartGuides September 2, 2013

    I’m all about making mini-deadlines to help me reach the final deadline. For me, if I just see that final deadline a few months from now, I slack off thinking I have plenty of time. Then I end up like you did when you realized how little time you had left. By making the intermediate deadlines, it helps to keep me on track.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 3, 2013

      Totally agree. I’m not always great about actually doing it, but when I do it makes a huge difference.

  • Adam Kamerer October 31, 2013

    Love this, Matt. I used to be a very disorganized person — I told myself I didn’t need to keep any sort of calendar or system to get all my goals done. I think I somehow thought it made me better if I could juggle everything without one. Of course, the end result was that I got nothing done at all — I’d get distracted, or not give important goals the time they needed.

    These days, I keep a to-do list and calendar that I mark deadlines and timelines on. It keeps me accountable, and I’ve found there’s a certain thrill in burning through six or seven items in a row — it feels a bit like hitting a high score in a video game. I get so much more done now, and it’s put me in a much better position to achieve my goals.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 1, 2013

      Sounds like you’ve got a good system. I’m not as consistent with it as I’d like to be, but I’ve definitely gotten better over the years. I’m always more productive when I make a plan and stick to it.

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