By MARY LAURA PHILPOTT
July 14, 2017
Nashville — I stood in the middle of a forest and whisper-screamed a word that cannot be printed in this newspaper.
For the second time in one morning, I was on a wooded park trail. The first time, I’d decided to cram in a minihike before doing an hour of writing and then heading to a meeting for my job. Then I got home, checked my pockets and found that my driver’s license had gone missing. So back I went, hiking the same route a second time, eyes scanning the ground for my lost card. An hour later, there I was under the trees, still no license, my precious hour of writing time gone. This is what I get for trying to exercise, I thought. Later I ate a packet of gummy fruit snacks in my car on the way to my meeting.
I reported this episode to my various accountability groups — sets of friends who check in on a daily or weekly basis to hold one another’s feet to the fire of various goals. There’s the fitness group; I’m supposed to check in with those friends weekly about how many days I’ve worked out. There’s the healthy eating group, in which we keep a text thread circulating to log accomplishments such as “Drank green juice instead of Diet Coke.” Then there’s the writing group, five nonfiction writers who also have day jobs. We meet weekly before work and use a private Facebook page to hold one another to our pledge not to let our creative endeavors get pushed aside.
Accountability is all the rage, and not just in our own lives. Whenever something bad happens, people insist on finding someone to hold accountable — as if that will undo anything. It’s a buzzword in the business and political worlds, code for “responsibility” and “the buck stops here.” Being accountable means you reply promptly to emails at work. It means you submit your actions to checks and balances, especially if you’re president. It means being watched as you spend money. It means every move you make counts toward something.
Personally, I’m glad I’m not an elected official or chief executive, because I can’t take any more accountability. I’ve brought it on myself, of course. But the more people and forces I have to answer to, the more “held accountable” starts to feel like “held underwater.” Some days I want to spend an afternoon online looking at pictures of dogs with eyebrows, and I don’t want to have to report it to anyone. Some nights I want to spend $9.99 to buy a movie on demand even though I could wait a week and rent it for $2.99, and I want to revel in that foolish splurge by myself.
As it is, I find I can clear the bar for only one accountability group at a time. As an approval-seeking person, I always want a gold star. But to achieve one thing generally means letting go of another. I can write, but only — as they say — by putting my butt in the chair. If my butt is in the chair, my butt is not outside walking. I skip checking in with my hiking buddies on those days, but not because I want to hide from them. It’s just that I’m already a little downtrodden from having to report to my healthy eating group: “Unwrapped seven slices of American cheese for lunch.”
So I play a shell game of approval. Today my writing group won’t be proud of me, but my healthy living group will. Tomorrow I will admit to eating a bowl of my kids’ sugary cereal for breakfast, but I will also gloat over having pushed the bowl aside when I finished and stayed in that seat, building and demolishing and rebuilding paragraphs for three hours.
Speaking of my kids, I am not in any accountability groups for parenting. Children hold you accountable on their own. They keep a tally, and they remind you. Hey, Mom, this is the third day we’ve had sandwiches for dinner. Hey, Mom, we were late for car pool yesterday and the day before. And this one, always leveled half-accusingly, half-compassionately: Hey, Mom, your eyes are red. Did you cry? There’s no dodging these little accountability officers.
As if kids and accountability groups weren’t oversight enough, there are always Facebook and Instagram to help you feel the duty to measure up. Everything online is quantified, tallied up in hearts and upturned thumbs. If a woman posts a picture of the sparkling sunrise over her morning yoga session, she’s publicly delivering on her commitment to meditative stretching. When a pair of doting dads posts a photo of their twins on their shoulders at the farmers’ market, they’re proving they’ve achieved optimum levels of family fun. Meanwhile, over at my house, the kids sat on the sofa with headphones on for over an hour this afternoon because I was on the phone trying to finish an interview and I needed quiet. I will not post that. I don’t want it to count.
Sometimes I feel ill-equipped to do all this accounting. There are days, even weeks, that I don’t check in with my groups, even though, of course, I have voluntarily joined them. I pull back when I feel the tail is wagging the dog, that I’m putting more energy into my anxiety over reporting what I’ve done than I would have put into simply doing it.
Ultimately, accountability is optional. I could leave my groups and cut myself loose from the commitment to document how I use my time, but I’m self-aware enough to realize I need that sense of obligation.
Knowing someone’s going to ask whether I met my goals has often made me get up and do what I might otherwise have blown off, and I have better health, more pages written and — yes — greater happiness to show for it. The encouragement helps, too. When I lost my writing time (but doubled my exercise!) that morning in the park, my friends offered commiseration and congratulations.
That’s another reason I won’t quit: I feel too keenly the need to use my minutes wisely. They’re going by much too fast.