Want to get things done? Don’t just set goals.

You know, I don’t really care for new-year resolutions.

I might have general themes I can follow during the year (“live an emotionally rich life by spending more time with people who love me and people I love”).

But I don’t have any specific end goals for the year. If someone asks, I come up with vague thoughts that sound nice…

Sure, broad goals will provide me general direction. But they are seated far in the back of my head.

In reality, I focus on doing small X, Y, Z things as they arise and keep track of what’s happened so far, not push them off to an arbitrary time of the year.

Also, I’m not sure if I like the word “resolution” either because motivation and inspiration and resolve don’t just fall from the sky.

I think the best thing you can do to actually see results is to actually try the thing you want to do — now. And then, if you want, ensure that you continue doing it as opposed to planning and thinking you’ll do it in tomorrow, next week, next year, etc.

Don’t let the season be an excuse either! Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean you gotta wait until January 1.

But is your goal really going to happen? How often did you succeed in the past?

And here’s where I find out the magic of setting stakes.

Stakes are consequences, whether they be a social contract or a financial promise. Do something that makes you commit.

And I hate it because of how well it works. Here’s what I did and how it turned out:

I took on an experimental challenge, holding myself publicly and privately accountable by putting $100 at stake. Not nearly enough to destroy me but enough to feel the regret if I lost it.

Result: I finished the draft (including revisions) within the allotted time.

Turns out we are generally wired (predisposed) to act in certain ways. We’re mostly predictable even if you don’t want to think so (“advertising doesn’t work on me!”).

But this is a good thing because then we can deliberately program ourselves to do what we want to do, rather than relying on our future selves to solve our problems. Attitude follows behavior.

Whatever it is you want to do, if you truly want to make it happen, make it more uncomfortable NOT to do it than to do it. If things are too comfortable, we just don’t care. Create urgency and bring the consequences closer to the present by setting stakes. Add the potential for pain.

Some examples. It doesn’t have to involve money. You can get as creative as you want!

  • You must check in with an accountability buddy at 7:30 AM every day to get your exercise in, or else you must pay that person $20 for each missed day (financial promise)
  • You must write 300 words each day toward your book or project (proven by taking a screenshot of your word count and what you wrote and sending it to a friend), or else your friend publicly announces that you missed a day of writing and makes fun of you (social contract)
  • You must stick to not eating any sugar for 6 consecutive days (before a cheat day), or else you have to do all the chores for your spouse that day (social contract)

You can increase compliance by making consequences automatic:

  • Give a buddy $300 ahead of time to be used as a “trust account.” Have them withdraw amounts if needed and give you back what’s left over at the end
  • Enlist a neutral arbiter on www.stickk.com who will donate to a charity you oppose if you don’t do the task you want to do
  • Some stakes may have compliance built in if your “deliverable” is social in nature (e.g., where you must post something every day)
  • Have a trusted person act as an arbiter and motivator who won’t let you back out. This person can enforce the consequences for you
  • Ask someone you need to keep up appearances in front of, such as a spouse. You wouldn’t want to disappoint that person now, would you?

Be careful not to set stakes based on a RESULT. For example, don’t say that you’ll give someone $500 unless you pass the exam, lose X inches or Y pounds by end of the month, or have your article be accepted at a publication.

No, hold yourself accountable for the process and effort you put in (doing the work and showing up), or a small goal (finishing an article). That’s the part you can control, not the results. Otherwise, it’s just betting on horses and hoping for the best. You’re not getting away from doing the work that easily!

In addition, I wouldn’t recommend setting more than one target-stake pair at once, at least when you’re starting to try this out.

In sum, accountability gives you a significant increase in likelihood that you achieve your goals. We no longer have an external source of accountability, such as a teacher or parent, to force us to do it.

But we can program ourselves using aversion. Vocalize your intent to a trusted friend, in a public forum (social media), etc. Social expectations force you to be consistent with your word and consistent in how often you do what you publicly committed.

Negative reinforcement is painful. You will likely be putting on more pressure on yourself to follow through. I don’t “like” it, but it works.

Why It Works

Here’s why I found setting stakes so effective at programming myself:

1. LOSS AVERSION

You’ve probably heard of this concept already: We prefer to avoid losses than to gain something, even if they are equal amounts. In other words, the pain of losing $100 is greater and longer lasting than a reward of $100 is tempting.

It’s not only with money. It could be anything of value that you don’t want to lose. I saw someone vowing to lose 50 lbs by the end of 2017 or else he’ll be banned at a website that requires a hard-to-acquire invite. I sure wouldn’t want to lose that.

The higher the stakes, the more driven you will be to accomplish what you promise to do. Note that you should ideally be held accountable by someone else you trust to execute the punishment. It’s a social contract with another person and yourself…

2. A PROMISE TO YOURSELF

I don’t know about you, but I hate to admit that I was wrong. I would rather be right, you know?

If I promise to do something to someone else, then I’m going to want to fulfill that promise. It’s a pre-commitment that is set up for likely success.

For me, it was also telling what not following through would say about myself. The other person may or may not let it go, but I will never be able to let it go. I will think of myself as a person lacking trustworthiness and integrity.

If I don’t do what I said I would (either by not meeting the set target or not paying), I will have been wrong about myself.

And if I were to break this contract between the other party and myself “just this one time,” it will be all too easy to break it again in the future.

3. AN ARTIFICIAL DEADLINE

Parkinson’s law: Work fills the time you give it.

On the other hand, if you set a reasonable deadline for a reasonable target, you’re going to feel some pressure instead of letting this task float in the void.

We like to see the impact of our actions immediately. Without immediate stakes, there’s not really a noticeable sense of urgency. That’s why we procrastinate on assignments or chores until the last moment. That’s why we cram for exams. That’s why we don’t save, let alone invest, for retirement until we let the consequences simmer in us for years or decades.

For my email subscribers, I planned out my weekly emailing schedule for the next couple months and needed one new article to send them at some point between January 7 and February 4. I wasn’t sure when I’d send it, so I figured I had until January 7 to write something, or in the worst case, February 4.

Rather than this vague unknown plan, I created an artificial deadline of end of 2016.

Now I had a reason for doing this. It became a priority.

In fact, this can even give other people a reason why you’re doing your “activity X”:

If your family or friends ever wonder why you’re being so urgent with something that’s not “really” urgent, you could tell them that you have money at stake. They’ll have no objections to that because that’s proof it’s important to you…

OBJECTION!

But WAIT! You might have objections to doing this in the first place.

I understand. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t actually meet my goal that it took me hours to decide that I should try this. Nothing like good ol’ primal fear to light a fire under your ass.

Here are some objections based on real ones from a stubborn friend. Hope you won’t be as stubborn.

Objection: “Just don’t pay if you don’t make it.”

It’s a social contract that holds you accountable. If you do this with me and you back out, I will shame the shit out of you (hey, it’s modern politics). You wouldn’t want that, right?

Objection: “The whole point is to force responsibility, not to ‘just do it.’”

Right, that’s how this works. Pre-commit to pay (or prepay) me some painful amount. As long as you meet your goal, you don’t have to pay me.

Objection: “It’s impossible to be held accountable by close people/friends. I won’t pay them or would ask for it back and strain the relationship. I need a stranger or a machine.”

Yes, you could technically back out, but you’ll lose hard-earned trust with that person. Perhaps even more important, you’ll lose trust in yourself.

If you want a friend to hold you accountable but then not want to strain the relationship, it’s now on you to make sure you do what you said you would do.

If you insist on a transaction with a stranger, you could use Stickk (I haven’t tried this).

Objection: “Bro, it’s impossible, too many psychological issues.”

Dude, I’m doing it right now!

Objection: “Reality says people will whine. The only way to motivate is to slowly do it.”

Don’t do it if you know you’re going to whine and make things difficult.

I’m not forcing anyone to do this. It’s for those who want an extra productivity boost. I personally found it effective.

If you truly want to get something done, don’t just set goals; set stakes. Stakes make it more uncomfortable NOT to do it than to do it. Stakes create urgency and pressure to drive you to meet a reasonable target within a reasonable deadline.

Do you have a target you want to achieve? I’d love to hear how you’re going to keep yourself accountable.