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  • Post published:July 7, 2023

“What prompted you to seek coaching?” I ask Taylor, a prospective client. Taylor has multiple post-graduate degrees, but they’ve been struggling to find a job in their field. 

“I need to get a job as soon as possible so I can stop living off of my line of credit. I was recently diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and I need help managing my time and prioritizing tasks, as well as help with accountability for my goals.”

As a certified ADHD coach, I have many people ask me for help with productivity, especially in their personal lives, and many expect accountability to be the universal approach to achieving their goals.

However, used as a universal approach, accountability delivers inconsistent productivity at best. At worst, it can accelerate ADHD burnout by adding to your overall stress.1

Let’s talk about accountability and when it is—and isn’t—the best tool for the job so you can get stuff done without making yourself miserable.

“What do you mean by accountability?”

“How do you define accountability?” I ask.

“I want you to help me set deadlines and then hold me to them,” says Taylor. “When I’ve worked with other coaches, I found that sending them my to-do list at the start of the day, and then screenshots of my completed work by 5 p.m., keeps me on track.”

Taylor wants me to be their accountability partner, a common way to implement accountability.2 The idea behind accountability is that by telling you I’m going to do a task, it will become important enough that I do it.3

As someone with ADHD myself, I’m not a fan of using accountability as a productivity tool, and I’m not willing to act as an accountability partner.

“How can you be against accountability? It’s the only thing that works!” says Taylor.

“It’s not the best approach for most goals. How often would you say accountability works for you?”

“Um,” Taylor considers. “I mean it doesn’t always work. It works maybe, like, 80% of the time. But that’s 80% more than zero!”

Why doesn’t accountability always help me get things done?

Accountability doesn’t always work because it is a tool. Like with most tools, the effectiveness of accountability depends on how you use it.

Consider a hair trimmer. When used to cut hair, it is consistently effective. However, if you use a hair trimmer to cut grass, you’ll get nothing else done, and your back will be shot. When you use productivity in a situation it wasn’t designed for, accountability causes more pain than it’s worth.

Accountability relies on the pain of disappointing our social group.

Accountability draws on our innate social nature.4 Humans, like all primates, have survived through safety in numbers and thrived because of our social groups. Our evolutionary programming automatically assigns a higher value to actions that support our social group.

Those of us with ADHD often take this to an extreme. We are adored as team members because we give everything we have (literally—ADHD burnout anyone?). This desire to help comes from our big hearts and drive to fit in.

“And how do you feel the 20% of the time you don’t get your work done?” I ask Taylor.

“Bad. The whole time I know I should be working on something, and I don’t, I feel guilty. When I have to report to my accountability partner that I didn’t do it, I feel ashamed and embarrassed.”

Checking in with an accountability partner is a hollow attempt to replace the wholesome pleasure of helping someone in our social group who depends on us.5 Completing a task for an accountability partner is never as fulfilling because, almost by definition, the partner experiences no consequences for either our success or our failure.

Accountability only works when completing a task makes us feel better than we did before doing the task. What could be strong enough to replace our innate desire to help those in our social group? How might you feel if a teacher, parent, friend, or partner was disappointed because you didn’t do something you told them you would do? Perhaps shame. Guilt. Self-reproach. In other words, rejection. Accountability works because doing the task saves us from the pain of self-reproach and shame.

We are hardwired to avoid pain.

If you want to stop a behaviour, accountability is very effective. James Clear, the self-educated habit guru and bestselling author of Atomic Habits, explains the psychology of accountability and when it works in his book: “Just as we are more likely to repeat an experience when the ending is satisfying, we are also more likely to avoid an experience when the ending is painful”6 Since humans have evolved to avoid pain, using guilt and shame to start and sustain a practice for the long-term is futile. It is our evolutionary eagerness to avoid these painful feelings that gets us going enough to do the task. There’s an equal chance, though, that we’ll be tempted to lie about whether or not we completed it, especially when it’s difficult to prove we didn’t. (The most effective accountability partners demand screenshots!)

I speak from personal experience. My childhood efforts to avoid completing my Kumon worksheets remained undiscovered until my dad dismantled a sofa (he couldn’t fit it through the door in one piece) more than two decades later.

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The use of painful emotions as a source of motivation is called negative activation. When these emotions are strong enough, they activate the brain’s fight-or-flight survival mechanisms.7 Too much negative activation can lead to chronic stress and the health problems that come with it: mental, emotional, and physical burnout.8

When does accountability work?

“A lot of what you’re telling me makes sense,” Taylor says, “but accountability works for some things, doesn’t it?”

Accountability is effective for organizing group effort toward a common outcome, or, because of its association with emotional pain, for breaking a habit that isn’t serving you.

Accountability is for collaboration.

Remember that we evolved to survive as a part of a social group. Today, we participate in social groups or organizations around common interests such as an area of academics, a profession, or a mission. Instead of survival, the members of the organization work together toward a goal, on a project or deliverable, or to solve a problem. Our brains still use the same evolutionary programming that all primates have.9

In the context of an organization, accountability uses our evolutionary programming to support collaboration. Within a group, we use task assignments, deadlines and regular communication to coordinate our efforts. Without these practices, it would be next to impossible to deliver a cohesive project or deliverable on time. The accountability within a group provides a structure for those of us with ADHD to help others in our social group.

“Oh yeah. That makes sense,” Taylor says. “If someone didn’t deliver their part on time, their team members definitely wouldn’t be happy, and it might affect the whole organization. Like if they’re trying to get a product to market before their competitor, or something. But what about for just one person?”

Accountability is for stopping.

Although we generally think of accountability for starting or sustaining effort to achieve a goal, according to Clear, this is backwards. Adhering to “the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided,” he advocates only using accountability to break habits you don’t want.10

Clear states, “if you want to prevent bad habits and eliminate unhealthy behaviors, then adding an instant cost to the action is a great way to reduce their odds” of occurring.11 He offers two different ways to add an instant cost to an undesired behaviour: 1) an accountability partner or 2) what he calls a Habit Contract. A Habit Contract is “a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don’t follow through.”12 An accountability partner and a Habit Contract may be used separately or together for more intense emotional pain.

If you’re trying to kick a habit as an individual, accountability is productive and less toxic because it has a finish line. When the behaviour stops, the pain stops. It’s not FUN, but it is effective.

Using accountability to stop or reduce a behaviour also works in a group. The long-running success of groups such as Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous are great examples. It’s important to note that, in these examples, the group is acting as an accountability partner, rather than a social group you are contributing to.

What do I do when accountability isn’t the right tool?

“Okay, so how can I be productive when accountability isn’t an option?” Taylor asks.

“Positive activation,” I say. “The use of pleasurable emotions to get motivated.”

Taylor stares at me in horror. “What, like toxic positivity? Being over-the-top cheerful, no matter what?”

“The complete opposite, actually,” I reassure them. “Positive activation only works if it’s authentic and taps into your personal intrinsic motivation.”

Intrinsic motivation refers to the inherent satisfaction you experience from an activity itself, rather than external rewards like praise. Your sources for positive activation are unique to you because our intrinsic motivation is determined by our life experiences and personality, not by genetics or ADHD.

Like negative activation, positive activation is worthy of its own discussion in a separate article. However, to give you an idea of the concept, an example from my own experience is the approach I’ve been using to work out consistently for two years and counting. I discovered my ‘whys’ for working out had nothing to do with what I ‘should’ do or how I looked. I do Pilates to strengthen the small muscles that eliminate my chronic pain, and I run to relax my brain, neither for more than 30 minutes at a time.

This approach doesn’t mean I have an entrenched habit of working out; it’s not automatic. Some weeks I still struggle to do anything and have to negotiate with myself daily. I don’t get back on track quickly by thinking, “I should do this.” Instead, I consciously reconnect with my ‘whys’ and assess whether I’ve been doing the bare minimum to fulfill them.

It took me a year of exploration to develop an effective approach for working out. Here are some questions to help you start identifying and using your sources of positive activation to get your stuff done:

  • Which activities, tasks, or situations tend to energize me, leave me feeling positive or are easier for me?
  • Which characteristics made those moments energizing or easier?
  • How could I apply those characteristics to make other activities more energizing? (Or at least easier!)
  • Alternatively, if you’re struggling to do something specific, what’s YOUR ‘why’ for doing that thing? (Spoiler alert: If your answer is “because I have to” or “I should,” that’s someone else’s ‘why,’ not yours.)

“Okay. So basically, you’re saying that you won’t be my accountability partner because it’s bad for my mental, emotional, and physical health,” Taylor says, “And that you have this whole other method for ADHD productivity. I’m not completely sold on this positive activation, but you’ve got me curious. How would I get started?”

“This is exactly what we would figure out through our coaching partnership,” I say. “We would find specific sources of positive activation—your ‘whys’ for the things you want to accomplish—and figure out the ‘how’ that works for you in each situation. After we do that a couple of times, you’ll be able to experiment and find your own ‘whys’ and ‘hows’.”

Keep an eye out for upcoming articles discussing Negative Activation and Positive Activation. In the meantime, consider sharing your experience with accountability in the comments. What will you continue to use accountability for and what will you approach differently?

A photograph of a pink couch that is being taken apart. The cushions are missing, and the some of the upholstery has been torn open to remove the foam beneath it.
A photograph of a worksheet with ten math problems. The worksheet is creased and crumpled, as though it had been folded up very small, and it is stained yellow. Across the top, the heading reads Division: two digits divided by one digit. The copyright notice in the left margin reads 1996.10 by Kumon Institute of Education.

(Click the arrow after footnote #6 below to go back to the article.)


  1. Wheeler, R.B. Adult ADHD and Burnout. WebMD. Retrieved February 25 2023, from https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/adult-adhd-burnout
  2. Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones (pp. 209). Avery.
  3. Dixon, C. (2018, August 6). How to Boost Accountability and Get Stuff Done. Dixon Life Coaching. Retrieved February 25 2023, from https://www.dixonlifecoaching.com/post/2018/08/06/how-to-boost-accountability-and-get-stuff-done
  4. Clark, C. J., Liu, B.S., Winegard, B.M., & Ditto, P.H. (2019). Tribalism is human nature. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(6), 587–592. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419862289
  5. Fletcher, M. (2019, July 10). Accountability partners: What are they and how to I get some?. Medium. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://medium.com/@MaryLouWrites/accountability-partners-what-are-they-and-how-do-i-get-some-c5ebd1a828ef
  6. Clear, J. (2018). (pp. 204).
  7. Psychology Tools. (n.d.). Fight or flight response. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://www.psychologytools.com/resource/fight-or-flight-response/
  8. American Psychological Association. (2023, March 8). Stress effects on the body. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
  9. Dunbar, R. The Social Brain Hypothesis and Human Evolution. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-44.
  10. Clear, J. (2018). (pp. 185).
  11. Clear, J. (2018). (pp. 206).
  12. Clear, J. (n.d.). Template: Habit Contract. JamesClear.com. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://s3.amazonaws.com/jamesclear/Atomic+Habits/Habit+Contract.pdf

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Dorsey

    Great thought-provoking piece Tori!

  2. Julie

    I absolutely loved this article Tori! I’ve actually had really strong negative reactions to accountability when done the wrong way! It’s almost as though as soon as it takes on that kind of aggressive “get it done” tone, my brain just rebels. It makes me feel like the other person doesn’t believe I will do the thing. Or maybe that I believe I won’t be able to do the thing!

    On the other hand, when I’m given the chance to report back to someone about something and kind of brag, then that makes me happy and gives me a little motivation.

  3. Mark

    Great piece Tori! I saved it to my Evernote – that’s a pretty high compliment from me!

  4. Liv

    Wow, Brilliant! I see the beginnings of a book that will change the world

  5. Ande

    I really like this discussion and the approach explained in it. Thanks for sharing your hard work!

  6. Ricky Yean

    Love the call out that accountability works best as part of a group, especially when there’s a collective goal / shared meaning!

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