December 1

How to motivate with consequences, not rewards

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How to motivate with consequences, not rewards

As a long time chronic procrastinator with a side order of lazy, I’ve spent years trying to discover ways to motivate myself to do more.

I failed. Miserably.

The approach that I took involved a combination of list writing and goal setting. Each evening I diligently followed the Ivy Lee method to sort out my list for the following day — hold on a minute Ivy Lee?

The Ivy Lee Method

The Ivy Lee Method to achieve maximum productivity is deceptively simple. 

Each evening, write out a list of the six most important tasks you need to complete the following day. 

Place these tasks in order of their importance.

The following morning begin work on the most important task and continue until it is completed.

Continue working through your list in the same way until the end of the day. 

Any tasks that remain, transfer them onto the list for the following day.

Simplicity itself, or it should be. I, however, in my normal dilatory fashion managed to find a way to cock up this system.

I always found a way to excuse myself from conscientiously committing to anything and I couldn’t understand why.

Goal setting

Perhaps I needed a target that would motivate me to perform. I needed to set myself goals.

Excellent. So I did.

Again my inner asshole kicked in and found ways of putting off starting, completing and doing anything in between. I couldn’t understand why.

I had written lists, established goals — reasons for working through my list — but still I resisted even if the ultimate goal was appealing. 

One goal I set myself was to earn enough money from freelancing to allow me to cover our outgoings for a month. Tough, but not completely unrealistic.

I made no progress, zero.

Then I read an article somewhere online, I can’t find the link anymore, that talked about treats and consequences or rewards versus punishments.


Essentially you commit to achieving a goal. Maybe, losing a set amount of weight, regular exercise, stopping drinking alcohol or in my case doing what I should be doing and not watching Netflix’s.

If you achieve your goal you reward yourself with a predetermined treat, something that you really like or want and this acts as the driving force towards the goal.

I liked this idea.

However, I found that I had to include external accountability in the form of my wife to ensure that I didn’t cheat myself or do a half-arsed job just to get the reward.

This has worked to an extent and has motivated me to set some longer term, larger goals to work towards with rewards that are substantially larger.

Though I like the carrot idea, and the thought of rewarding myself for achieving, fun and exciting. However, I have decided to try the other side of the coin, the stick, for comparison.  

The concept of losing something rather than gaining has been shown to be a more effective tool.


A university of Chicago economist, John List, performed a study on 150 public school teachers in Chicago.

The teachers were split into two groups and both groups were told that their bonuses would be linked to the test scores of their students. Teachers in the first group had to show improved test scores to receive their bonus.

Teachers in the second group were given $4000 at the beginning of term but were told that if their student scores didn’t improve they would have to repay the $4000.

The threat of losing money, loss aversion, worked. The teachers of the students in the second group performed seven percent higher than the scores of the first group.

If the stakes are unrealistic the effect can be the opposite causing ‘choking’ — a drastic fall in performance as a result of a high stress situation — where even seasoned professionals will mess things up.

Consequences offers a service to allow users to sign up, select a goal. It can literally be anything, appoint a referee and then pledge an amount of money they would relinquish if they failed to reach their goal. 

The money can be donated to a charity or if you really want to ramp up the consequences it can be donated to an anti-charity.

Hate guns, donate to the NRA or hate Theresa May, donate to the UK Conservative party.

The threat of losing something seems to be a stronger motivator than the prospect of a reward. This fear, as long as the stakes are not too high, works to persuade a person to perform or even out perform themselves. 

I’m going to sign up to and see if the prospect of a negative outcome for failing to do those things that I need to do is a bigger motivator than a reward.

If I fail, I’ll donate to my local hospice.

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