Get Motivated: Pay Yourself

Tis’ the season for resolutions. Perhaps you’ve already been through a cycle of resolving to change, trying, failing and giving up.

I’ve been reading a ton about how people can achieve their goals, especially fitness-related goals. Real change is hard, witness the industries that are vying for your attention and money – TV shows, books, gyms, diets, new phones, fitness bands and apps.

I have a simple system that will help you succeed with your fitness goals, change your behavior for the long term, and the price is a one-time fee of whatever you want.

Before I tell you how to meet your goals, a little about me. I’m a fitness success story. I took up triathlon at age 40 after being relatively sedentary in my 20’s and 30’s. I’ve competed in at least one race or long-distance endurance event every year since. At age 50, I completed the half-Ironman in under 6 hours. I’ve been bike commuting year-round since 2008, my longest daily commute was 27 miles each way. And I still work out 5 or more hours a week, every week.

I’m also a student of human behavior, having been a marketer at Microsoft for 20 years. I’ve studied how customers respond to pricing, messaging, incentives, coupons, free offers, etc.

So I think I’m pretty well qualified to suggest a system for behavior change. My system is based on my experience and the latest research.

The key insight that experts have observed is that behavioral change is nothing more than establishing a new habit. In general, it takes people just a few weeks or months of successful performance to establish a habit. Once the habit is established, it’s very hard to change. Meaning, if you do this successfully, you may be able to sustain your goal for years to come.

The next insight is that financial rewards work. A cash prize of $10 per visit is enough to convince most people to go to the gym. Cash penalties of equal magnitude for non-performance increase the success rate.

Finally, people perform best when goals are clear and attainable, and they are externally observed. This last bit is important. Have you ever noticed when you’re running or biking and you approach or pass someone, your form improves and you speed up? That’s because we all like to be observed doing well.

Here’s my method:

  1. Set an attainable goal, for example: “I will ride my bike or go to the gym 3 times per week, 60 minutes each time, for 5 weeks. I will start this Saturday.”
  2. Write your goal and post it in a spot you see every morning. (Morning works well because you have time to make plans. If you have to go home to get your gear after work, chances are better you’ll fail that day.)
  3. Put 3 glass jars near the goal placard. Put your chosen sum of cash in the middle jar. I recommend $100 in this case, 5 weeks x $20 for each week. You decide exactly what amount works for you.
  4. The right-hand jar is for successful performance. Move $20 one jar to the right each Saturday if you made your goal of 3 gym visits. Congrats!
  5. The left-hand jar is for non-performance. Move $20 one jar to the left if you missed.
  6. You can cut yourself some slack. If it’s Saturday, and you only went twice, count today’s workout toward the previous week and start your next week on Sunday (tomorrow).
  7. When all the money is in the right-hand jar, congrats, you have attained your goal and probably established a healthy habit. Spend the money on something nice – an evening out with your S.O., new gear – something you wouldn’t normally buy. But do not take a break, keep going! If you feel any hesitation, cough up another $100.
  8. If all the money ends up in the left-hand jar, get ready to do something really distasteful, like giving the money to the NRA or some cause you personally detest. You will have selected this organization at the beginning so you will be working throughout to avoid it.

By the way, there are apps that use this methodology, I prefer the low-tech approach, but feel free to use one if you like.

Leave me a comment and tell me about your biggest fitness challenge and whether my idea works for you!

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