Do you have a goal that you have tried countless times to achieve? Or an addiction you have tried countless times to break? Maybe it is time to try again, but with a different approach.
First off, approach it like a scientist. Treat everything you try as an experiment. If it fails, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, just the method you used. This should help free you up from taking the failure into yourself as part of your identity.
Second, consider whatever you are trying to do as a habit. If it is an addiction, that is basically just a negative habit. Check out my summary of Power of Habit or – better yet – read the book. Consider what the triggers are for your habit, the behavior you want to change, and the reward you get from the habit loop. This will give you a better starting point for your experiment.
Lastly, the subject of this post. Raise the stakes. Sometimes the stakes get raised for you externally. Let’s say you are addicted to alcohol. A DUI might raise the stakes for you to quit. But what if your alcohol use doesn’t really seem to be affecting much? You don’t drink and drive, you don’t damage your relationships, it’s just a fun thing you do. How do you motivate yourself to quit?
What about a positive goal? For me, I want to have published a book by the end of the year. Right now, the stakes are pretty low for that. But what if I got laid off from my main job? Stakes might not be so low then.
What about smoking? Smoking carries with it inherent risks like lung cancer. Problem is, that is a long time and a lot of cigarettes from when you first start. Let’s take a few scenarios. A young man who has been smoking for a few years decides he wants to quit. He doesn’t succeed, because not much was driving him other than the knowledge that he might get lung cancer someday. What about when he wants to start dating a girl who doesn’t like the smell? Maybe he gets married and has a kid and has heard it is bad for the baby. Seems to me like the percentages might go up a bit on quitting. But now, years later, he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and he wants to be around for his grandkids. Think he will quit now? Still not certain. But probably more likely than when he was young.
Maybe you want to lose weight or get in shape. There are statistical risks to obesity. But what if that isn’t the main problem. What if you just want to be healthier? Or maybe you want to have a nice beach bod for the summer. If your stakes are just that you want to be skinnier for the summer, you might have a hard time. What if you already have a trip planned to go to a beach resort in July. Does that help?
Maybe you are addicted to sex or porn or drugs. If that doesn’t seem to be negatively affecting your life much, deciding to quit is going to be really hard. But what if your partner tells you he/she will leave you unless you figure it out? Are you guaranteed to quit this time? Of course not. But it might give you the boost you need.
So what is the problem? Is it that the stakes are low? Death is pretty serious stakes, so the problem isn’t that the stakes are low. I think the problem isn’t the actual stakes, but rather the perceived stakes. Lung cancer is a statistically guaranteed risk. It is just a long time from now. The perceived stakes of smoking are basically that nothing happens. You don’t smoke a cigarette and immediately get lung cancer. The actual stakes are an increase in the risk of cancer. But the actual stakes are almost impossible to quantify, so the perceived stakes win. Kick the can down the road today and there isn’t much consequence. But kick the can down the road too long and eventually you run out of road.
So is there a way to artificially induce perceived stakes? Can you change your perception of the consequences? What if you are a smoker and every time you want a cigarette you first sit down and imagine your entire future? You imagine your grandkids sitting around your hospital bed while you slowly suffocate and curse your younger self for not quitting sooner. Would that mental exercise give you a boost? What about for alcohol? You imagine sitting in a cell because you killed someone while you were driving drunk. Maybe for drugs, you imagine living in rehab, cut off from your family because of your choices. It might help. But is it enough?
What if you took it a step further and introduced new actual consequences? What if you decided it was going to cost you money? Let’s say by the end of this year, you want to break your addiction or achieve your goal. What if you decide that if you haven’t kicked it by the end of the year, you have to get professional help. If it is a positive goal, you have to go to a personal growth seminar or hire a life coach. For an addiction, you have to see a counselor or go to rehab. All of that is going to cost you a ton of money. Figure out how much it will cost to get help. Let’s say that is $10,000. Maybe you don’t even know how you could get that much money. That’s fine, just more motivation. Make that the new stakes.
Make sure you give specific numbers for your success. If your goal is to have quit smoking by the end of the year and you have a cigarette on December 30th, does that count? Your goal needs to be more clearly measurable. Something like, “I will have three months sober before December 31st.”
You can also motivate yourself with anti-charity. If you don’t meet your goal, you can have an amount of money donated to an organization that you despise. Like maybe the opposing political party. There are even websites and apps that can help you track this. Personally, I am using Habit Loop Tracker app at the moment, which does not track stakes. But there are other options that will even handle the money aspects for you. The two I’ve found that I would like to try out are https://www.stickk.com/ and https://www.beeminder.com/.
Lastly, if you decide to raise the stakes, you should tell someone. If you just decide it in your own mind, it is too easy to let slide. “Self-help” is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion. The ideas are tools in your toolbox. Maybe you are so amazing and have the right tools that you could move a giant king mattress by yourself. Good for you. But it is probably still easier with friends. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
So what is your goal? Do you want to achieve it bad enough to introduce consequences? Raise the stakes, and you are much more likely to succeed.