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Not Making Progress? Raise The Stakes

If you were sufficiently motivated, you could become a multi-millionaire. So could I.

So why aren’t either of us rich? The small, intermediate steps involved in getting there are so far removed from the grand prize, that they need to stand up on their own merit to be motivating.

The visit to the gym needs to stand on its own – its connection to a future where I am super healthy and super sexy is too weak.

Last week, you were introduced to mental contrasting, a technique which helps motivation flow backwards, from the ultimate reward to the mundane crap along the way. Unfortunately, it’s only partially effective.

What to do?

Raise the stakes.

Think of one sub-goal that you’ve been putting off for a while. It could be going to the gym, writing a blog post, going to the dentist – anything.

Now imagine that you’ve made a bet with an all-knowing, all-powerful, impartial observer – someone who is omniscient, omnipotent, and incorruptible. If you don’t complete that sub-goal you’ve been putting off within the next week, this impartial observer will burn your entire life savings – all the money you have in the bank, your house, your car – anything, anywhere of value will burn.

What do you think? Would that motivate you?

It would motivate me.

Of course, setting up a situation like that is a bad idea. Talk about stress. And what if something unexpected happened and you failed?

But that’s the basic idea. Raise the stakes. 

I’ve found two effective methods for doing so – social accountability, and commitment contracts.

Social Accountability

I’d been putting off creating my first for-profit product for months. Then I made a public declaration that I’d have a sale-ready version within a week.

What I’d been putting off for almost a year I got done in five days. Social accountability worked.

I’ve never seen a supportive accountability partnership reduce motivation. Usually I see the opposite – rapid progress replacing what use to be slow stagnation.

We are social creatures. The reason culture is so powerful – the reason it can transform a baby of almost any ethnic origin, any color, any gender, almost any intelligence and almost any personality into a functional citizen and success is because of just how much we care about what other people think about us.

If we didn’t, we’d go off and follow our primal desires – we’d become hobos, sex addicts, and druggies. But we don’t, because we’ve internalized the values of our culture.

You care what other people think about you. So pretending otherwise would be ignoring a potentially large source of motivation. Tell someone that you want to do something – and do it, you’ll receive their approval. Don’t do it, and you’ll look bad. It’s a double whammy of motivation – we want to appear consistent with our word.

So get an accountability partner. Ask a friend or family member you trust to check in with you a few times a month. It’s best to have someone who needs accountability themselves – that way you can help each other, rather than having a nagging partner who’ll just grate on your nerves.

When you meet, discuss progress. If there’s been no progress, discuss roadblocks and potential countermeasures. Ask for suggestions. Discuss your intentions for the upcoming days or weeks ahead of time – that way you’re forming a concrete goal which you have to complete in order to appear consistent.

I’ve been able to perform herculean acts of effort due to accountability. I’ve seen the same happen for other people. If you care what other people think, you’ll be able to do so as well.

A life coach once told me that the most valuable service she provides is accountability. You can spend hundreds of dollars getting accountability from a coach, or get it for free from a friend or family member. It may take you some time to find a partnership that works. But it’ll be worth it!

Seriously! Don’t just read this and think, “oh that’s a good idea.”

Do it! Get accountable! If that’s still not enough, raise the stakes one more time.

Commitment Contracts

Right now, the part of you that is logical is in control. Naturally, you assume that in the future, that part of you will also be in control. But that’s not how the brain works – the part of you that wants to eat healthy gets shut out the moment your brain sniffs desert; the part of you that wants to work on your business gets shut out the moment you get home from work tired and mentally depleted.

That’s where commitment contracts come in.

Despite having no intrinsic value, money is one of the most motivating forces in the world. So if you want to raise the stakes, put your money on the line.

Tell a friend or family member what your goal is, and then tell them what you’re putting on the line. This is just like having an accountability partner, except this time there’s money on the line. You’ll want an impartial observer – someone who’ll ask you for proof of completion and won’t buy any of your excuses.

I use StickK.com. Give it your credit card information, and it’ll take your money if your referee says you didn’t complete your goal. Even better, if you want, if you fail to complete your goal StickK will donate your money to an anti-charity, an organization whose cause you actively reject and oppose. I use that option.

Talk about stakes! Not only will failure cause me to lose money, a cause I identify as evil will be getting it instead!

The higher the stakes the better – the more you’ll care, and paradoxically, the less likely you’ll lose money. I routinely create contracts worth hundreds of dollars.

You can bet they motivate me!

If you’re not willing to put money on the line, maybe this goal isn’t as important to you as you thought it was.

Can you think of someone who’d be willing to help keep you accountable? If so, reach out to them. Do you think it’ll be enough? If not, create a commitment contract.

Inspiration Box


Return to top.


That’s it for this series on goal setting! All the posts, in order:

1. The World’s Best (free) Guide to Goal Setting
2. Now, Not Later
3. Difficult, Not Easy
4. The Myth of Inspiration
5. Performance or Mastery?
6. Approach or Avoidance?
7. Raise The Stakes

I hope it helped!


Approach or Avoidance?

Usually, working hard in order to avoid looking like a fool is more motivating than working hard in order to do well.

That’s why, no surprise, many goals are formulated as a means to avoid.

I want to… lose weight to avoid being made fun of. I want to… make more money to avoid being in debt. I want to… stop procrastinating to avoid missing deadlines.

Avoidance goals work – the prospect of loss is more motivating than the prospect of gain. But they’re also stressful and sometimes less effective than goals formulated as a means to approach.

Approach or Avoidance ?
“I will try to get a good grade” or “I will try to avoid getting a bad grade” ?
“I will try to look good” or “I will try to avoid looking fat” ?
“I will try to get a good performance review” or “I will try to avoid getting negative feedback” ?

Each goal type is a simple reflection of the other.

One focuses on the positive, the other on the negative.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional focus on the negative.

For most of high-school, it was avoidance that drove me to work hard – I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. So I studied, a lot. Much more than I would have if I had tried focusing on the positive.

So, which should you use – approach or avoidance? Here are two guidelines to help you decide.

Approach Goals Are Pleasurable; Avoidance Goals Are Stressful

With three hours left to go before the deadline, you can bet I’m motivated.

But motivated isn’t the same thing as excited. Someone being bullied can be highly motivated to learn how to fight. But I’m willing to bet that they also feel miserable. They’re anxious to learn as much as possible. Anxiety is motivating, but it’s also unpleasant.

“I want to lose weight in order to look sexy.” If you have an approach goal and think about it, it will leave you excited and feeling good.

“I want to lose weight in order to stop looking fat and ugly.” If you have an avoidance goal and think about it, it will leave you anxious and feeling bad.

Sometimes anxiety is worth the cost. After all, I feel happy after completing my goals, whether they were motivated by excitement or anxiety. But most people are over-stressed. Adding even more stress may not be worth it.

Avoidance Goals Are A Double-Edged Sword

Anxiety isn’t just motivating – it’s also risky. Sometimes, avoidance goals are too emotionally charged – producing so much negative emotion that rather than shocking you into action, they shock you comatose.

Psychologists almost universally recommend approach over avoidance goals. That’s the reason.

In one series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal were significantly more likely to procrastinate than those encouraged to write an approach goal.1 In another series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal performed worse – getting lower grades, completing fewer tasks, and running shorter distances.5

However, keep in mind that those in the avoidance group did worse, but only as an average. Most did worse, but some did better. If you’re able to handle stress and don’t flinch away from anxiety, avoidance goals will work for you.

The workplace is full of avoidance goals, “I will avoid upsetting my boss, I will avoid getting noticed, I will avoid being later, I will avoid missing the deadline.”

These types of goals are stressful. For many people, those goals could become more effective and less stressful by being rewritten as approach goals, “I will please my boss, I will stand out and shine, I will be on-time, I will finish ahead of the deadline.”

Avoidance Goals Help Smokers Quit

In one long-term study of smokers wanting to quit cold-turkey, those in the avoidance group were able to keep away longer than those in the approach group.3 One study does not make science, but it’s suggestive that in some areas of life, fear of death and disease can be useful.

On the other hand, not all of those in the avoidance group did better. For some, the fear was so overwhelming that it created anxiety. Guess how they relieved that anxiety? By smoking.

Approach or Avoidance?

So, which goal type do you think better suits your goal?

Approach – focusing on the positive, or avoidance – focusing on the negative?

Rewrite your subgoal in terms of the goal type you think is a better fit!

Inspiration Box


Return to top.


Previous Post: Performance or Mastery?

Next Post: Not Making Progress? Raise The Stakes


1. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal
2. The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation
3. Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation


Performance or Mastery?

Performance or mastery? A simple change in perspective can be the difference between success and failure.

Do you think of your goal in terms of doing better than others, or in terms of learning?

The thought of doing better than others can be exciting and motivating. But the thought of doing worse can be unsettling. Distracting, even.

The thought of improving and learning can be also be exciting and motivating. So which is better? Improve compared to yourself or do better than others?

“I will get the best reviews out of anyone on my team,” or “I will learn to get my work done faster and better?”

The stakes are larger than a simple re-phrasing would suggest. In one study, those in one group procrastinated 50% less than those in the other.1

One group was guided through writing down a performance goal, the other through writing a mastery goal. Which is the one that did better?

Performance or Mastery?

Performance Mastery
“I will score the highest in my class” or “I will score higher than on the last test” ?
“I will look sexy by loosing 5 pounds” or “I will exercise three times a week” ?
“I will become the happiest person on the planet” or “I will become 10% happier” ?

In this particular study, it was the group with the mastery goal that procrastinated less. Other studies have found similar results. In general, performance goals tend get over-used. However, each goal type has its own advantages.

How can you know when to use which? Follow these guidelines:

1. If You’re Confident and Have a Competitive Spirit, Go For Performance

I’ve been reading a lot of pop psychology books on motivation recently. A disturbing trend I noticed is a growing tendency to bash competition – to suggest that it saps intrinsic motivation, hurts the development of pro-social behavior, and is generally less effective than other strategies,

People with performance goals tend to use defensive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including withdrawing effort, making excuses, and avoiding challenging tasks. People with learning goals tend to use constructive strategies for dealing with failure or rejection, including increasing effort, persisting on difficult tasks, seeking help, and remaining open to information about their mistakes.2

The key word, which I bolded, is tend. Sometimes performance goals reduce performance, but not always.

Some of my most positive transformations were driven by competition – by the energizing drive that comes from pushing yourself against the best efforts of others. Without competition, I would know less, have poorer skills, and probably not have made a few of the friendships I did.

It seems like an obvious finding in hindsight, but the truth is that competition can be as energizing as it is draining.

For those with a strong drive to achieve and the confidence to pit their skills against others, competition and performance goals are motivating. The thought of messing up and looking bad is hardly given any consideration – most effort is focused on how to do better.

However, for many, performance goals provoke anxiety and encourage avoidance behavior.

There are other considerations to keep in mind, but this one is the most important. Does thinking of going head-on against your peers or friends to lose weight or snag more sales excite you, or does it worry you? If it excites you, don’t waste this potential source of motivation.

If it worries you, a mastery orientation may be better suited towards helping you achieve your goal.

In two studies, those who were told to create a performance goal but disliked competition ended up performing more poorly than those who disliked competition but were told to create a mastery goal. They experienced more worry and anxiety, which translated into procrastination.3

Your preference makes all the difference.

 2. If You’ve Failed Before, Focus On Learning

There are two aspects to this. First, if you’ve failed before, you’ll probably pursue the goal with less enthusiasm. After all, you’ve already failed once.

I get amazed every time my mom talks about how she wants to lose weight. After every failure, she seems to find new sources of motivation. But her excitement isn’t as large as it once was. The failures are taking their toll.

Like a reset button, a change in perspective can help. Instead of focusing on trying to lose those 5 pounds again, something with which she may or may not succeed, she set a mastery goal –  something which, hopefully, will provoke more excitement and less anxiety. Specifically, she set a goal to build the physical endurance to be able to go running three times a week.

But there’s a second, more important reason that if you’ve failed before, a performance goal may not be the best idea. Repeated failure indicates a lack of preparation – that some critical skill or combination of skills are missing. Focus on building up those skills, and performance will take care of itself.

3. If You’re Anxious, Take Things One at a Time

I’m naturally competitive, but the thought of my first ballroom dancing competition struck me cold. I was going to look like a frikken fool.

Did that desire to avoid looking like a fool motivate me? Sure.

But once I stopped thinking about the competition and the dozens of people who would be laughing at me, and started focusing on mastering certain individual skills, the anxiety faded and an even stronger source of motivation arose. I wanted to be able to make those movement, gracefully. As I made progress, I felt pride in my growing ability.

Once I got better and gained a little confidence, I switched back, from mastery to performance, from focusing on simply improving to winning. In this case, on getting 3rd place or higher.

The thought of being on the dance floor no longer terrified me – in fact, it did the opposite, it energizing and motivated.

But I had to take things one step at a time.

Performance or Mastery?

So, which goal type do you think better suits your goal?

Performance – focusing on demonstrating competence, or mastery – focusing on improving your skill level?

Rewrite your subgoal in terms of the goal type you think is a better fit!

Inspiration Box


Return to top.


Previous Post: The Myth of Inspiration

Next Post: Approach or Avoidance?


1. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal
2. Performance and Learning Goals for Emotion Regulation
3. Achievement Motives and Emotional Processes in Children During Problem-Solving: Two Experimental Studies of Their Relation to Performance in Different Achievement Goal Conditions


The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough

You’re excited. You feel that this time will be different.

I want it bad enough. I can do this.

You start making plans. Maybe, you take the first step.

But then its gone. After a few hours or a few days, you’re back to normal. Feeling mundane, doing the mundane.


Two reasons.

Problem 1. Inspiration escapes as quickly as it enters.

Hunger is natural. When we ignore it, it gets stronger and stronger until all we can think about is food.

Inspiration is unnatural. With the passage of time, it leaks out of our body, as if it doesn’t belong.

No surprise – it doesn’t.

Hunger comes, whether we want it to or not. Inspiration doesn’t.

That’s why we read inspirational books and videos, again and again and again and again. But watching inspirational videos and reading uplifting stories takes time and has an inconsistent effect, sometimes getting us excited, other times leaving us bored.

That’s why personal coaches and motivational speakers are so fond of positive visualization. Of imagining your desires having already come true. That’s inspiring.

Unfortunately, inspiration isn’t enough.

Problem 2. Inspiration unconverted to motivation feels good but doesn’t lead to action.

How often have you felt excited and then done nothing to show for it?

There isn’t some sort of excitement threshold, past which you actually start getting your goals done. Excitement is like salt water – by itself, completely useless. It takes a purifier to change it into something useful.

Goal setting isn’t primarily effective because it’s inspiring, but because it converts transient desire into long-term focus and commitment. It’s a purifier.

But often, it’s not enough.

Continue reading


Positive Psychology Resources

What is Positive Psychology?

Wikipedia positive psychology page.

[ted id=312]  
What (and Why) is Positive Psychology, an overview paper by psychologists Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt.

Positive Psychology Books

1. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – The book which introduced me to positive psychology.


Book summary.

2. Stumbling on Happiness – What are cognitive biases and what is their relevance to happiness and well-being?

[ted id=97]

Wikipedia book summary.

3. The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does – Debunks a number of happiness myths.

Video introduction.

A summary of hedonic adaptation.

4. Flourish – Written by field founder Martin Seligman, introduces recent research as well as the new PERMA model of well-being.


New York Times piece introducing PERMA.

Related Books

The Time Paradox – The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life – The subtitle is a bit of an exaggeration, but the book provides an entertaining and informative overview of a different approach to happiness.

The First 20 Minutes – An overview of recent exercise science. Why is this on the list? Because exercise is one of the most effective methods of increasing well-being.

Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind – Best book on self-compassion, another effective method of increasing well-being.

Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier – The best book on gratitude, perhaps the most effective method of increasing well-being.

The Happiness Project – An inspiring story of someone actually implementing positive psychology advice.

Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength – What good is advice if you don’t implement it?

Search Inside Yourself – Not the most accurate or scientific introduction to meditation, but certainly the most inspiring.

A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – I recommend this book for its section on negative visualization, perhaps the most powerful gratitude exercise. Also describes an alternative approach to happiness.


The Psychology of Well-Being
Positive Psychology News Daily
Motivational Memo
The Happiness Project
The Positivity Blog
Marc and Angel Hack Life
Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life

Reference Books

The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology

Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology

Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward


Cognitive Biases – Thinking Fast and Slow, the best book on the subject. LessWrong, a deeper look at rationality.
Gratitude – Research studies here, research studies and overviews here.
Grit – Research studies here, research summary here.
Sel-Compassion – Research here, research summary here.
Self-Regulation – Research here and here.
Social Anxiety & Character Strengths – Research here, VIA Institute on Character here.
Time Perspective –
Losada Ratio – Research and summary here.

Contact me if you need help getting research papers.