How Carrots and Sticks Help Achieve Goals

By Mark Reijman

WE ALL have goals. This can be losing weight, exercising, studying, quitting smoking or anything else really.

However, achieving these goals seems difficult. When we are tired, lazy or busy, then working towards these goals always seems to be the first things we give up on. Is there a way to fix that?

There are a few reasons why we give up so easily on these types of goals.

First, they are not easy to achieve. It requires hard work and we have a healthy distaste for hard and difficult work.

Second, these goals typically do not have a clear deadline. It does not really matter if you have lost your 10kg by November or December.

Third, there is no real penalty when you fail: it does not cost you anything (except perhaps your self-esteem).

In his book “Carrots and Sticks”, the lawyer and economist Ian Ayres shows how you can overcome these reasons for failure.

Ayres proposes to create a “commitment contract”. The contract sets a specific time horizon and a positive or negative incentive. You also must to make the acceptance of the “commitment contract” publicly known, for example by telling all your friends about it.

How does our basic human nature help us achieve goals through “commitment contracts’”? Once a hard deadline is set, human accountability and responsibility kick in and you will take your goals much more seriously.

The promised incentive will appeal to your aversion of loss – either losing a future benefit or losing money – and make you work toward your goal harder.

Finally, peer pressure and your dislike of losing face by not achieving your publicly known targets will also give you extra motivation.

The incentive can be positive, for achieving your goals, or negative, for failing to achieve your goals. For example, a diving trip when you succeed in losing weight or a sizeable charitable donation if you fail to quit smoking.

To make the penalty bigger without raising the amount, Ayres suggest to donate to a charity you don’t like, a so-called anti-charity! You can also enter into a contract with a friend, promising to pay each other a sizeable sum if you don’t succeed.

Of course, the key to success is to actually follow up with your incentive: only then does the carrot or stick become “real” and will you work towards your goal.

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