How I Used Anchoring to Have the Most Productive Six Months of My Life
For the past six months, I’ve been more consistently productive than ever in my life. I’ve exercised every day, I’ve written at least one post per day (sometimes more), and I’ve meditated every day for at least ten minutes.
I realise I’m supposed to claim that I’m not saying any of this to brag, but we both know that would be a lie. I’m totally bragging. I’m incredibly pleased with how much I’ve managed to get done over the past few months.
But to explain how I did it, I need to tell you a story about the dumbest business mistake I ever made.
How Not to Negotiate
It happened right at the beginning of my entrepreneurial career. I was working as a personal trainer and had somehow managed to persuade one of my clients, Paul, that I could run the in-house gym at his company.
It was a great opportunity. It was a huge company to land as my first corporate client with thousands of staff, I’d have a team of trainers and gym managers working for me, and best of all, I’d have a huge budget to build out the gym to whatever specifications I wanted.
Honestly? I was way out of my depth. I’d worked in gyms, but I’d never run one before. Fortunately, none of the executives who I met had any idea about gym management either. They looked at me and saw a young, fit guy who knew what a lat-pull down machine was. That was enough to get through the first few meetings.
Things got a little trickier as we approached the financial negotiations, even though this should have been the easiest part of the process. Paul and I had already verbally agreed on a rate of £50 an hour (I know, never get paid by the hour. I was young). The company could easily afford it, it was a reasonable rate for the work I’d be doing. All I had to do was stick to what we’d agreed, and everything would be fine.
Paul called me into his office and got straight to the point. “Steve, I’m getting some pushback from the other guys about your pay,” he said. “We can either give you £50, £45, or £40 per hour.” He sat back in his chair, and as all good negotiators should, he waited for me to counter.
I’m cringing as I read this now, but at the time I didn’t know what to say. All I could hear was Paul’s voice in my head saying, “£40 per hour”. I didn’t want to blow the deal, but I didn’t want to lower my expectations by £10 per hour at this late stage either. I decided to meet him halfway.
“Paul, I’m sorry,” I said after a few seconds. “I don’t think I could do it for less than £45 per hour.”
I realised that I’d messed up as soon as I saw Paul’s reaction. He leapt out of his seat, grabbed my hand, and shook it vigorously. He was barely able to hide his delight that he’d got me to lower my price by £5 per hour just by listing some prices.
“£45 it is. Thanks, Steve.”
Over the years that we worked together, that mistake cost me thousands. But it’s also how I learned about the midpoint rule.
The Midpoint Rule
The midpoint rule is based on a well-worn negotiation tactic known as anchoring. The purpose of anchoring is to make an option seem more or less desirable, by establishing a baseline which sets expectations about what is or isn’t reasonable.
For example, if I was trying to sell a product for £100, my first offer to the buyer might be £150. I’m not necessarily hoping to get this price (although it would be nice), the aim is simply to put this number in my customer’s mind. Once the idea that the item might be worth £150 is established, negotiations will typically centre around it, increasing the likelihood that I’ll hit my real target of £100.
The midpoint rule states that the final price will usually be at the midpoint between the anchor and the first counter offer. If it’s not a negotiation, the midpoint is the middle price among the available options (in the case of my stupid younger self, £45).
This tactic is employed everywhere. Every time you see a store whose items are permanently 70% off, or a product with a three-tier pricing model and the middle one has a gigantic “Best Value” sticker on it, the seller is trying to take advantage of anchoring or the midpoint rule to make the sale.
It’s not only when it comes to pricing that we’re susceptible to this trick. Studies have shown that anchoring affects our intuitions about anything, even questions as random as the number of African countries in the U.N. or how old Gandhi was when he died. We instinctively base our impressions on the first piece of information we’re given. We then veer towards the midpoint of that value and our original expectations.
Setting My Anchors
Anchoring can be used in the war against procrastination too. We typically procrastinate difficult, complicated tasks by doing smaller, less demanding tasks. So what if make sure that the secondary task is also something you want to get done?
In fact, why not treat the secondary task as the target price, and use the primary task as an anchor to make it seem more reasonable? Like shooting for the moon and ending up among the stars.
I decided to try this out in the three areas I most wanted to develop consistent habits; writing, running and meditation. I gave myself three tiers. One very ambitious but achievable task, one challenging but manageable task, and one task that was so easy, I couldn’t justify saying “no”. All I had to do was select a tier and do that each day.
My thinking was that even if I did the bare minimum every day, I’d still get something useful done. But it worked out even better than I hoped. Here’s what happened:
My writing tiers were as follows:
- Write a well-researched, 1500+ word article that was good enough to submit to a major publication.
- Write a shorter piece of around 800 words and submit it to a smaller publication or self publish.
- Write a few short posts that I could use for social media.
Thanks to the midpoint rule, more often than not, I’d write the 800-word article. But after a few days of settling for the middle option, I’d find myself more motivated to chip away the longer piece, even if just for an hour or two. After a few days, these short stints would add up, and the longer article would start to take shape. Once I got close to finishing, it was pretty easy to get it over the line.
On days when I felt hugely demotivated, I’d write the social media posts, and because I’d at least finished something that day, I wouldn’t feel like a total failure. Doing this brought two surprising benefits. Firstly, the quality of my social media posts improved as I was more inclined to make an effort if it was all I had to do that day.
Secondly, because it didn’t take me much time to finish, I’d usually at least tinker with a longer piece too. If I didn’t, no big deal.
My exercise routine followed a similar pattern. The goal was to go for a run every day, but what that run looked like could vary:
- Run as fast as I could for a mile.
- Run two miles in a maximum of 15 minutes. This isn’t easy for me, but it’s not super difficult either. As long as I put in a moderate effort I’d get this done.
- A nice, easy 30-minute jog. (I didn’t pay any attention to my pace here as long as I kept running for the full thirty minutes).
All of these options improved the others. The mile sprints improved my speed, the medium runs improved my speed endurance, and the long runs improved my cardiovascular fitness. 90% of my runs were one of the two less demanding options, but that’s fine. When I felt motivated, perhaps by seeing my times improve, I’d challenge myself. The rest of the time, I was still getting out there and running.
Actually, there’s one more layer to add here. On the days when I was feeling really demotivated or just needed a rest, I’d do fifty pushups throughout the day. That’s a pretty easy target for me, especially spaced out over a whole day, but it meant that even on my laziest days I’d achieve something. I hardly ever needed this option. And never for two days in a row.
It was a little trickier to apply this methodology to meditation. After all, there aren’t varying difficulty levels for sitting quietly with your eyes closed. My true goal was to meditate for at least ten minutes per day, so I just focused on anchoring that to a goal that was so easy it became impossible to say no.
That secondary goal was one minute of meditation. That’s right, sixty seconds. The renowned meditation teacher Mingyur Rinpoche says that even a couple of seconds of meditation has value. My minimum level is 30x that!
If I struggled to get into the right frame of mind for ten minutes of meditation, I’d tell myself that I could just do one minute. But the thought of meditating for one minute felt so ridiculous, especially as the lockdown was in full effect and I had extra time on my hands, that I’d always just do ten. The one-minute meditation acted as a great anchor for my expectations.
It’s easy to look at procrastination as if it’s a bad thing. It traps us between our guilt about feeling unproductive and our aversion to doing the difficult task. Being stuck between a rock and a hard place like this leads to paralysis.
The good news is that you can trick your brain into reframing a difficult task so that you can take the easy option and be productive. Giving yourself a variety of options which all achieve something useful, lowers the bar of entry to productivity, without leaving you wracked with guilt on the days when you don’t quite do everything perfectly.
After all, the key to being productive isn’t perfection, it’s consistency. It’s finding ways to ensure that you show up every day and do something. If it’s some Earth-shattering, superhuman effort, great. If it’s not, that’s okay too. No guilt, no aversion, just making sure that whether you choose the rock or the hard place, something worthwhile gets done.