Reflections on accountability

Tags
Effective Altruism
Writings
Productivity
Author
Samuel Nellessen
Published on
Oct 27, 2022
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Introduction

Previously, I wrote about accountability. Since this was a collab post with Konstantin Pilz for the Effective Altruism Forum, we wanted to make the article as informative as possible.
We cut out some reflections on accountability relationships that weren't relevant. Thus, I want to summarize those views in greater detail here. Still, this is a pretty short post.

A question that often comes up when talking about accountability relationships is: “How does this differ from a normal friendship?”. To answer that, we have to distinguish between different kinds of accountability relationships.
ARs fall on a 2-dimensional spectrum, that looks roughly like this:
This is based on my own personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt. Because of my lack of graphic design skills, I couldn’t figure out how to make the box’ edges dissolve. Imagine that they are dissolving and friends can vary on both axes. Accountability buddies as well.
This is based on my own personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt. Because of my lack of graphic design skills, I couldn’t figure out how to make the box’ edges dissolve. Imagine that they are dissolving and friends can vary on both axes. Accountability buddies as well.
Friends generally care more about your happiness and have a tendency in dilemma-situation to guide you towards the option that makes you more happy. At the same time, they generally have less control over your life and tend to coexist with you, but only “interfere” rarely.
Accountability Buddies care more about holding you accountable to be productive, while they also exert more control over your life (mostly because you are asking them to it, so you are probably more susceptible to adapt to their advice).
Now, to give an answer to the original question, “How does this differ from a normal friendship?”.
  • Friends can become accountability buddies. But they might be more suited for that role, relative to their position in the 2-D space.
  • You don’t always want them to be your accountability buddy. E.g., you might want to have an accountability buddy. And you opt in for an accountability relationship where your AB is exerting more control over your life, e.g. you’re not only looking for somebody to listen and ask questions sometimes (low-level of control), you’re looking for somebody that intervenes more strongly, if they see something they want to give feedback on, e.g. “You wanted to do this for the last two weeks, and you didn’t - do you really want to do this? What is holding you back?”. If that’s the case, you also want to be more careful in selecting an AB. You have to trust their outside view in tough cases, somebody who is more than roughly aligned with your values.
    • You might have a friend who is your friend because you regularly boulder together. They might have no idea what your other values are. They might have a totally different direction in life than you. Subsequently, they intervene at points that you don’t find relevant. The criterion is that you want to judge retrospectively, whether something was a good choice, because sometimes your current perspective is tainted by cognitive biases. You want to externalize your decision-making to somebody you trust, and reliably so. In hindsight, you want to have decided in a way that you would have wanted too.
  • Accountability buddies often become friends too, then covering the whole spectrum between caring about happiness vs. productivity. This can lead to conflicts where you have to weigh different factors based on which of the two is more important.
    • E.g. you might start out as accountability buddies, but quickly grow closer, as a consequence of the relationship. Now you are friends that are also ABs. Your AB falls in love with somebody, and it’s obvious that the situation is complicated. You’re both quite sure, that going after the newly found love interest would mean a) an increase in happiness and b) a decrease in productivity. As a friend, you would advise them to go after their amorous desires. As an AB, you would do the contrary. Naturally, the question comes up, whether you should optimize for a) or b).
  • On the other hand, it’s not bad if a friend becomes an accountability buddy. The way I see it, accountability relationships put a social price tag on not doing XYZ (similar to the argument made by Beeminder how they put a monetary price tag on not doing XYZ). Subsequently, you want to care about the other person. Otherwise, your telling them that you didn’t do XYZ is as meaningless as admitting that to yourself.

Conclusion

I think my most important point here is:
When approaching accountability relationships, put yourself and your needs on the spectrum mentioned above. The more you believe that they should exert control and pushiness, the more you should find somebody whose judgement you judge in times when you are biased towards something. This doesn’t have to be as top-down as it sounds like. You can always find somebody new, or change your mind. Low-level accountability definitely is also useful.
Also, think about this question. How should your potential accountability buddy decide in such situations? This might be important to communicate.