I teach a college study skills class, and my students and I spend a lot of time talking about procrastination. Two whole class days, in fact.
There are dozens of useful strategies for fighting procrastination, but one strategy is king.
It’s quick to set up.
It’s highly dependable. In fact, it works virtually every time.
I call it raising the stakes, and it can change your life.
Before we dive in, let’s define raising the stakes: making the pain of not doing something greater than the pain of doing it.
At the end of this article, you’ll be ready (and if I do my job, willing) to try it out.
My First Encounter with Raising the Stakes
In 2010, I was in graduate school for trumpet performance. I was also starting to get work as a freelance musician, and life was good.
Everything ground to a halt around midnight on May 7th. Toward the end of a long gig, I felt something pop in my top lip. I’d later find out that I’d suffered a severe lip injury, one that would lead to surgery to repair a torn lip muscle.
But I didn’t know any of this yet. I just knew my lip felt weird and didn’t work right.
The next morning, coffee in hand, I scoured the web for information on lip injuries in trumpet players. There was precious little information available, and finding it took much Googling, many emails, and several phone calls. It was a difficult process that took several weeks.
My recovery was long, but by late 2012, things had improved. I’d finished my degree, had successful lip surgery, and was playing the trumpet again. And I had this idea that I couldn’t shake:
“It’s crazy that it took me weeks to piece together what was wrong with my lip. There really should be a website about lip injuries in brass players. Maybe I should start one.”
I’d actually gotten started a couple of times. I’d even bought a domain name: lipripblues.com.
But the site had no content. Every time I sat down to write, to share my story and the information I’d collected, I got frustrated and quit.
Part of me knew I had a responsibility to share my story and help other injured musicians, but another part of me didn’t really want to dredge up the most difficult experience of my life. Can’t imagine why.
So I was stuck. For months, I did nothing.
One day, I came across an episode of Radiolab entitled You vs. You. The episode dealt with the same problem I was having:
What do you do when part of you wants to do something, but another part of you doesn’t?
The episode told the story of Zelda Gamson, a civil rights activist who quit a decades-long smoking habit by telling her best friend, “If I ever smoke again, I’m going to give $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan.”
She quit cold turkey and hadn’t smoked in years.
I was intrigued.
Soon after, I read Tim Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Chef, which referenced a similar idea: creating stakes, or artificial consequences, to ensure follow-through on goals.
I was ready to give it a try, so I called up my best friend.
“Ryan,” I said, “I need your help with something.”
“I just mailed you a check for $500. By this Saturday at noon Central time, there will be an article posted on my website, lipripblues.com. Please go to that url at noon on Saturday and check. If the article is there, please mail the check back.”
“If not, please cash the check and give if to a charity of your choice. Catastrophic exceptions only. If I get cancer or get hit by a bus, the deal’s off.”
“Okay,” he said.
I had been hemming and hawing for months. I wrote the article in two days.
This Sounds Crazy. Does It Really Work?
Yes. I raise the stakes all the time, for tasks large and small.
But you do have to set it up correctly. Here are the three parameters:
- Pick a painful but not catastrophic consequence.
- Pick someone you trust to hold you accountable.
- Set clear and realistic conditions.
Let’s break this down.
Pick a painful but not catastrophic consequence.
Money works well here, because we all have to interact with it.
For me, at that point in my life, $500 was a perfect amount. If I had put up $50, it wouldn’t have been a painful enough consequence. $5,000 would have been catastrophic (actually, the check would have bounced).
Too easy of a consequence, and you won’t follow through. Too severe, and either you won’t follow through or the person holding you accountable just won’t.
Pick someone you trust to hold you accountable.
Ryan and I have been best friends since 1999, and as I wrote that first article, I knew he would cash that check if I didn’t get it done.
Siblings and family members are great choices, too. Spouses and partners aren’t, because they have to deal with the fallout if you don’t follow through. Also avoid new friends or people who will feel uncomfortable with the task. It’s got to be someone with whom you’ve got a strong bond, someone who will hold your feet to the fire as you howl in protest.
Set Clear and Realistic Conditions.
There can be no ambiguity. Did you notice the conditions I set?
“By this Saturday at noon Central time, there will be an article posted on my website, lipripblues.com.”
Those are clear conditions, right? Black and white. The article is there or it isn’t.
There was no room for technical difficulties. No room for “But I had it done by 12:05!” No room for “I had a really busy week.”
The conditions were also realistic. I gave myself several days, and I didn’t stipulate that the article had to be 1500 words or even, well, good. It just had to get done.
Why Does This Work?
Two words: choice reduction.
In the months before I tried raising the stakes, as I struggled to write that first article, I had many choices of what to do in any given moment:
- read a book
- read Reddit
- make a cup of coffee
- have a beer
- go for a run
- hang out with Sarah
- write an article about the worst experience of my life
You can see why it didn’t get done.
After raising the stakes, I had only two choices:
- write an article about the worst experience of my life
- lose $500
It was a pretty easy choice.
Try raising the stakes in the next week. Start by thinking of an important but unpleasant task you’ve been putting off.
You don’t have to put up $500, by the way. Just pick a consequence that’s truly painful, one you would do almost anything to avoid.
To streamline the process, check out stickk.com, a website that helps you set up your commitment and even acts as your accountability partner. I use Stickk regularly.
Raising the stakes is a powerful tool, and it’s now at your disposal.