The Startup
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The Startup

Why I Write Contracts to Myself

Scores and scores of empty sheets. Coca-Cola cans and shiny junk food wrappers scattered on the pathway between the bed to the kitchen. New textbooks so devoid of human handprints they glimmered in lamplight. I realized all at once, in a moment of startling, unsettling clarity, I was nowhere near the goals I had set out for myself.

Perhaps you’re like me, and every once in a while, you’re tantalized, energized, and eagerly motivated by the prospect of self-improvement- on a Sunday night when you’ve had enough to sleep and the right things to eat and the time to exist, you jot down plans that stretch to the decades, and you wonder how you could ever feel not this ready to tackle the world. You set out to conquer all your areas of attack, whether that’s going for regular runs or studying for your exams a week in advance or reading that book accumulating dust on your bedside table. And eventually, who knows why, the allure of this momentous, do-better adventure fades, and here we are, all the way back at square one.

Human beings need rewards to keep going, a burst of dopamine for having done anything but lie in bed. I used to think I didn’t need to explicitly write them down, much less give myself something tangible in exchange for my efforts, because the whole reason I was doing them was because I knew they had underlying positives in and of themselves! Why else would I bother to do them? Yes, I know dropping a few pounds makes you healthier and eating right is going to prevent that 3pm slump I always get. But at the same time, at that primal split-second of decision-making choosing between a chocolate cake and oatmeal, I don’t seem to care about me 8 hours into the future.

That’s when something interesting was suggested to me.

Write contracts to yourself. Complete with an offer, consideration, and signatures, and stash them in a drawer. Hang them on the wall. Keep them on your phone. Give them a contract-creation date like any legal document, a provision of some service or promise, and upon performance, compensation, or upon failure, damages.

So, I did just that. For it to work, I had 3 main components:

  1. A deadline for a measurable goal. I would run 3 times a week until the end of the year. A contract didn’t care about the type of day I was having, or how shitty I felt, or the fact that I had an hour less of sleep last night, or that the bus came late, or that it was raining, dark at 8am, and bordering on subzero. A contract was binary, dichotomous, and absolute: I either did it or I didn’t, and it either gave me what I deserved or it didn’t. A contract meant I had no excuses, but also that I had something guaranteed on the other side.
  2. A thing I really wanted. Between paying for tuition, spending on social events, buying presents for friends, and purchasing over-priced textbooks (and the ocassional americano), there’s always a twinge of guilt at what I spend money on. For most of us, we spend spontaneously without thought and either experience buyers’ remorse or personal shame at yet another month of just breaking even. As for me, I desperately wanted $300 Bose headphones, but again, as a broke college student, money I spend is money I feel guilty about. This system not only meant I had an actual reason to buy something with no guilt involved but that it meant more to me (subsequent to weeks of anticipation). The headphones came two-fold: They were something I wanted for a long time and something I had worked towards, and the feeling of earning something is gratifying like nothing else.
  3. A thing I really wouldn’t want. Of course, on the reverse, I gave myself something to really fear, whether that was 2 weeks of exclusively cold showers or push-ups twenty times for a month or not being allowed to eat in bed (a huge thing for me), I attached a negative consequence to elevate the stakes.

I transformed a numbingly dry and dutiful goal, like meditating once a day or writing once a week or scoring an 80% average, into an actionable, rewarding, and tangible journey that involved soundproof headphones or a deep-tissue massage or a fancy dinner out on the town. I assigned a visceral want with something banal I “should” do. Because wouldn’t everything be easier if we wanted to do them? So everytime I thought about passing on the oatmeal and skipping yet another lecture, I thought about losing those things. Was it worth it then?

There was always nothing to lose before. I’d procrastinate because whether I decided to study or not, the result would be the same.

While doing this experiment, I realized a lot of the things I wanted to reward myself with were starkly contrasting to my goals. I derived joy from the things I wanted to deter myself from doing. Rewards usually looked like eating something, buying something, or not doing something, such as not attending class or not showing up to work or not going to the gym. I assume most of us are the same way- we procrastinate and love the feeling of cancelling plans. The human brain is wired to be this way; Our limbic system that controls mood and instinct is both addicted to pleasure and dominant over a weaker task-completing partner, the prefrontal cortex, which takes extra effort and focus to activate. As a result, I needed to come up with unique, self-centric rewards that didn’t set me back, things creatively catered to myself without destroying my progress, like throwing away old clothes (an eccentric desire of mine) or purchasing a new candle and lighting it for a bath (a more normal one).

I believe rewards have to be two-fold. They need to reward:

  • Your long-term self. You instinctively know doing something not immediately hedonistic and pleasurable in the moment helps yourself in the long-term. But you then have to take care of:
  • Your short-term self. Seeing in your mind’s eye what you want can act as a short-term reward, though it is received in the long-term. The same way online shopping sparks 2 points of dopamine-release (on purchase and on receival), the mere anticipation of a reward makes you happy.

Some people use online donation apps that have legally-binding monetary consequences, some people use nothing at all. This was the happy medium that worked for me. This was an agreement I made with myself, with nobody else watching. I was judge, jury, and executioner. And were I to break the contract, only I would know.

But that’s the fun part about all this- everything is all between me, myself, and I, and I either simulate a moment of congratulatory, Bose-worthy self-reward or one of disappointing defeat.

Either way, the moment I signed my contracts, the moment something happened. I agreed to this fair and square. I made a promise to myself in writing, and no matter how few people knew, I would.

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Michelle Lu

Michelle Lu

A young person trying to figure out life. A misadventurer, an explorer, a philosopher, a risk taker and a mistaker.

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