Will a hardline conservative stick to his diet if the punishment for eating pizza is a donation to the Democratic National Committee?
If you ask a behavioral psychologist like Daniel Kahneman or Dean Karlan, the answer is yes.
Every January, people across the world set out with grand visions to lose weight, make more money, and improve their lives. But the endless flood of temptations seems to make bridging the gap between goals and action more elusive than ever. By the end of February, some 80% of resolutions are abandoned while a mere 8% of people actually achieve their goals.
Such a dramatic inconsistency calls for a dramatic solution: blackmail — and it’s backed up by psychology.
In his book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman points out that the pain of loss is twice as potent as the pleasure of gains. For example: most of us would rather not lose $100 than find $100. In the same vein, Dean Karlan’s findings on goal setting show that the success rate of goal achievement with nothing at stake is a mere 33.5%. However, when someone puts money on the line, that success rate jumps to 72.8%.
“If you were to sum up the last 50 years of behavioral psychology in two words: it would be: ‘logic fails,’” says Tim Ferris. “No matter how good a plan is, how thorough a book is, or how sincere our intentions, humans are horrible at self-discipline. No one is immune. The smartest, richest, and most dedicated people abandon commitments with disgusting regularity.”
If you’re serious about getting shit done in 2019, you need to raise the stakes and put your skin in the game — and there’s no better way to do that than blackmailing yourself.
Here’s how it’s done:
1. Choose a challenge
Make it specific and give it a deadline.
Bad goal: “Run more”
Good goal: “Run 10 miles every week”
Bad goal: “Start a blog”
Good goal: “Write 300 words every day”
2. Find someone to blackmail you
Your blackmailer will hold you accountable throughout the duration of the challenge by checking in daily. That being said, don’t choose pushover who will tolerate your excuses. Your best option is someone who knows you but is rather indifferent: maybe a coworker or a neighbor.
3. Set the stakes
Now, you’ll decide the consequences if you slip up or fail. This should be fun for the blackmailer, but scary for you. If you’re placing a monetary bet, you should put up at least 1% of your annual pretax income. This means:
$30,000 pre-tax income → wager $300 or more
$50,000 pre-tax income → $500 or more
$75,000 pre-tax income → $750 or more
$100,000 pre-tax income → $1,000 or more
If you really want to put your back against the wall, take this a step further and commit to sending the money to a cause you hate. Are you liberal? Pledge your money to the NRA. Conservative? Pledge it to Planned Parenthood.
There’s no limit to how creative you can get here, as long as the punishment is costly enough to make you squirm.
4. Make a contract and cut the check
Write out your agreement and make sure you and your blackmailer both sign it. Here’s a template to follow:
If I don’t [insert task] by [specific date], I will [insert punishment].
Now, fork over the money to your blackmailer. It’s crucial that you exchange the money up front so you’re not tempted to call it quits halfway through the challenge.
Want your money back? Reach your goal.
Purpose facilitates action. It’s incredibly difficult to justify pain, discomfort, and sacrifice without anything at stake. Waking up early, working out, and making money sound great in theory, but if there are no tangible consequences for abandoning those commitments, it makes falling off the wagon seem like no big deal.
Sheer willpower isn’t enough to curb complacency. With the stakes raised, however, your energy will rise to the occasion.