Rewards are fun — but the fear of pain is what keeps you focused
I have a freelance writing contract that requires me to deliver a newsletter of around 2,000 words to my client on the second Wednesday of every new calendar quarter. It’s a hard deadline; if I don’t deliver the newsletter, the company can’t bill their clients, which blows up their quarterly operations calendar and gets a lot of people pissed off. At me.
Some quarters, the work on this newsletter flows easily for me and I’m done well before the deadline. Other quarters, I struggle for ideas and direction; when that happens, I invariably procrastinate and wait until the last minute.
But there comes a point when I know I simply have no other choice — I have to put aside everything else, block out every distraction and bust my ass to get the newsletter finished on time. If I don’t, revenue will be lost, people will be mad, and I’ll lose my contract.
The interesting thing about this gig is how instructive it is to me on the importance of deadlines. In particular, deadlines we set ourselves for goals we want to attain.
Deadlines come naturally in a corporate setting. Our higher-ups assign us a project, and we have to deliver it by a specified date. If we fail to get it done on time, we’ll be called in to the boss’s office for a little heart-to-heart. If we do it repeatedly, we’ll be fired. Because someone else is in charge of the consequence, we muster a miraculous willpower to get that project done by the deadline.
But what about when we’re setting goals and deadlines for ourselves? That’s when it gets slippery, because in that scenario we are only accountable to…us.
Have you ever been frustrated because you just can’t seem to focus on an important project you want to finish? So you try an incentive — a reward. You say you’ll allow yourself to get that new pair of sunglasses if you attain your goal before the deadline you’ve set.
Armed with your “why’s,” you bolt out of the starting gate full of energy and motivation, consumed with your goal. But then you get derailed by something. Maybe you get sick and can’t stick to your timeline. Maybe you just don’t feel like staying on the path for a day or two and lose you momentum.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that when we’re in charge of the goal, the deadline and the consequence, fudging often follows. “Eh, I got 90% of it done,” we tell ourselves. “I’ll just go ahead and buy those sunglasses since I worked so hard. I’ll finish that project tomorrow.”
Once we do that, though, we lose all incentive. We’ve gotten the reward regardless of whether we achieved the goal. When we do this enough, we start to believe — deep down in our subconscious — that we’re just going to do this shit again so we might as well buy the stupid sunglasses and stop the charade.
This is why pain is often a much better motivator than pleasure. Behavioral psychologists have found that the avoidance of pain is much more motivating than the attainment of pleasure, and it’s not hard to see why. If we set a goal for ourselves and the reward is, say, a vacation we’ve been yearning for, it’s easy to rationalize if we fail to meet the goal. We tell ourselves we don’t really care about that vacation anyway, at least not now. We’re doing just fine, so what’s another few months of waiting?
But pain…ah, that’s different. If we’ve already paid for that vacation and know, without a doubt, we won’t be able take it if we don’t meet our goal — that’s real pain if we fail. And real motivation to succeed.
The key, then, is to set goals for something we truly want to attain, and set consequences we truly want to avoid if we don’t attain the goal. Sounds easy, but it’s not, because if we are in control of the whole show, we’ll often find a way to game the system. There must be some mechanism in place to ensure we know the consequence will come if we fail, and we will hate it if it does.
Here’s a personal example: I once recruited a friend to help me meet my weight-loss goal. I told him I wanted to get my weight to a certain number by a certain date. And then I gave him a post-dated check payable to the Georgia Tech Athletic Association for $500 and told him to mail it if I hadn’t met my weight goal on the specified date. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but I graduated from the University of Georgia, and Georgia Tech is our archrival. I’d rather flush $500 down the toilet than donate it to the dreaded Yellow Jackets. Really.
The most important part of my plan was that I gave it to a friend who I knew would absolutely mail that check if I didn’t prove I’d met my goal. In fact, I knew he’d delight in it, because that’s just the kind of friendship we have. I was in charge of the goal, but he was in charge of the consequence.
Guess what? I met that goal and got my check back (which I promptly shredded). All along the way, whenever I was tempted to blow off a workout or succumb to the pint of Ben and Jerry’s in my freezer, I thought of my devious friend in possession of that check and how painful it would be for me to watch him drop it in the mailbox. It kept me honest, and it kept me focused. And it worked.
If you aren’t from the South, you probably can’t relate to this story. College football in the South is almost a religion. (Unless you’re in Alabama, where it actually is a religion.) But we can strip out the core aspects of it to see what really worked for me and has worked for many others who have implemented similar goal/consequence strategies:
The goal must be attainable: If you’re overweight and don’t exercise, then don’t set a goal to run a marathon in three months. Instead, set a goal to run (or walk) a 5k race in three months. You don’t want to set yourself up for failure right out the gate with goals that are unrealistic for the time frame you’ve allowed. They should be stretch goals, but not impossible goals.
The consequence must be acutely painful: If you don’t dread the thought of experiencing that consequence, it’s not painful enough. It must be something you’d rather eat a bug than endure.
The consequence must not be in your control: If you have even the slightest ability to delay the consequence, alter it or just avoid it, you’ll find a way. We’re wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure; it’s not human nature to delay gratification and strive toward some larger goal that isn’t right in front of us. But it’s the latter that enables us to achieve great things. So give someone else the reigns and bask in the joy of knowing you’ve gone past the point of no return and have no choice but to do the damn thing you know you want to do anyway.
The time frame must be short: By short, I mean anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Once we get into years, our brains lose all sense of urgency no matter the consequence. Make sure the consequence is something you know you’ll experience sooner rather than later.
When it comes to setting goals for yourself, take the consequence out of your control and put it in the hands of someone else. You’ll be amazed at how focused you become — and how much you achieve.