Self-Trickery for Good

I’m writing this at 12:11am on a Tuesday night in Reckjavick, Iceland. In a little over eight hours I’ll be on an airplane taking off (if all goes well) headed for Berlin. I’ve finished packing, written a few last-minute postcards, said goodbye to my host (Thanks Luke!), and figured out the torturous path to the airport which requires me to be up in four hours.

And yet I am writing this. Why? I certainly don’t want to. Rather, it’s because three weeks ago I paid a friend four hundred dollars on the condition that he would “pay” me a hundred dollars for each blog post I write. They are due Thursdays at noon. We haven’t yet clarified which time zone this is, an ambiguity that I have already used to my advantage more than once. [His comment: Just keep trying to go East, my friend, your luck will run out eventually.]

This is crazy. But it’s what I want. Or rather, it’s what I wanted three weeks ago. From where I’m sitting now, it’s a pain in the rear and the only thing keeping me from blissfully slipping into the bed behind me. My internal engine calculates something like, “I was upset today when I overpaid by thirty bucks for gas in the rental car. So how can I just throw away a hundred dollars now over a blog post?” This is made even worse since losing the money would have nothing to do with being swindled or being stupid. I have no one to blame but myself, quite literally. And my better self at that. The fact of the matter is that I want to write more, and so I have constructed this psychological mechanism to compel me to write.

It is out of sheer laziness (and a dash of tiredness) (and a dash of loving anything self-referencing) that I am fulfilling my commitment by writing about my commitment.

There should be a word for that thing that happens so often in blogging; when you want to write a little something, and then a few searches reveal that you’ve barely scratched the surface of the idea. So it is now as I sit down to write about little self-motivational tricks.

It turns out that not only that they are more widely written about than I thought, but there is even a cool internet company build around them. So I’ll just outline my favorites, and link you to sources on for more.

Perhaps the most basic trick is to tell people what you’re going to do. The idea is that then there will be social pressure for you to do what you said. For example, you tell everyone that you’re going to run a marathon this year. You say this knowing that, come summer, people will ask you about the marathon you said you would run. However, some research points that this is a bad idea. Derek Sivers in this TED Talk points out that just saying that you’ll do something gives you a psychological reward. It turns out that often this little reward feels so good that you don’t even bother to do the thing that you were talking about. It’s the standard human tendency to under-value the future. To paraphrase Top Gun, “Your mouth is is writing checks that your future self can’t cash.”

A more promising self-trickery technique is the “anti-charity.” You give some amount of money to a trusted confidant, with instructions that if you fail to reach your goal, they are to donate this money to a charity that you dislike. So if you are a Republican, it could mean a donation to Obama’s re-election campaign. And if you are pro-choice, it could mean donating to a pro-life organization. (As done by Brad Feld did.) This technique is fascinating, but I knew that I would certainly fail on occasion, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of my money going to a charity I despise.

In this talk from the Quantified Self blog , a couple used an innovative self-contract to to lose weight and get in shape. They each put $2000 in a pot, and then auctioned off the “contract” to their friends. The friend with the winning bid (turned out to be $75) would win the $4000 if they were to break the conditions of their self-contract. That is, if the guy were to skip a day of doing pushups, the friend who bid $75 would then win the $4000. On the other hand, if they succeeded in meeting their goals, the friend gets nothing. This is an ingenious idea, but has the bad side effect of motivating the friend to make you fail–it was worth $4000 for their friend if they were to fail! I can see the friend now, anonymously delivering donuts to their work and giving them a free NetFlix subscription!

One approach that I have been talking with friends about is to have the money donated to a random charity which (most importantly) you will know nothing about. Ignorance is important because knowing that your money went to a specific good charity could make you feel better about missing your goal. And lets be honest, the point is for you to feel bad! But a little bit of searching got me to the website, which is dedicated to these self-motivational tricks. They offer this, along with anti-charities and other ways to keep yourself in check.

The most radical self-motivational approach was used by author Oliver Sacks when writing his first book back in the 1960’s. Frustrated at his inability to get started, he made a promise to himself: If he didn’t finish the book in a month, he would kill himself. Yikes! Thankfully for him, and for fans of his books like me, he managed finished it in time. And as he tells the story, after a few days he entered a state of complete joy in writing. (This story, and some others, was told on this episode of the RadioLab podcast.)

With this paragraph, I am have written more than double the number of words required of me each week. But it has been the same every time: I just need the motivational “push” to get started, but the words start to flow once I’m going. And now now it’s out in the open, and you too know my commitment. Now it’s time for bed, and dream about what to write next week.

3 thoughts on “Self-Trickery for Good”

  1. I love it! I’m the guy in the Quantified Self talk, by the way. We actually quit our day jobs since then and are turning this into a startup called Beeminder. You’d be perfect as a beta user, if you’re interested.

    Your hypothesized bad side effect of the $4k contract didn’t materialize, but I don’t think it would be so bad if it did. I think that would add to the fun. And they’re friends so they’re not going to do anything unscrupulous.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Beeminder looks cool. How long have you been on it? I love all the charts, perfect for a visual person like me. Please sign me up as a beta user, I’d love to try it.

    I can see that real friends wouldn’t want to intentionally make you miss your goal. And that way you wouldn’t feel too bad about the money. I would argue in that case that its best if you didn’t know *who* would get the money, so you can’t get a concrete scenario in your head, e.g. “If I slip up this week, at least Joe will get the money. I know he needs it.” Anything to make sure that you get no psychological boost at the thought of quitting. 🙂

Comments are closed.