Choosing your future #1

Posted on January 20, 2012


Science says you can choose at least part of your future.

Writer's Block

Case: Writer’s block. An author is having trouble completing a manuscript – he promises to meet deadlines but keeps failing to do so until … on New Years Eve  he signs a contract with a friend. He agrees to e-mail him at least ten pages (at least 250 words per page)  by midnight every Friday night. If he fails he gives  his friend a $100 bottle of french wine within one week. With a few mutually agreed adjustments to the contract it worked. Actually over time our author usually delivered more than ten pages. Time will tell if it’s a best=-seller?

As we’ll see, this simple example includes the key elements in successfully expanding your  future: 1.  Specific goals; 2. Specific costs. 3. Pain avoidance pressure;  4. Capitalizing on cultural forces.

1. Specific goals: The future course remains unclear  unless the goals are specific  –  (e.g., 10 pages, at least 250 words a page).  If the contract is fuzzy you will engage in messy arguments and failure. Avoid vague goals or futues such as: lose wieght, cut back on drinking, get more sleep, work harder, spend more time with the kids, etc.

French Wine

2. Specific costs or penalties: Again unless the costs or ‘self-punishments’ are specific messy arguments result.  For instance you don’t just say “a bottle of wine”, but instead “a $100 dollar of French wine delivered within a week.”

3. Pain avoidance pressure: This is the key to achieving the desired future. We’re hard-wired to avoid pain. So wisely must design your contract so the pain of failure will be greater than the discomfort of performing to task  of  writing the series of ten pages per week. So selecting a significant cost of failing to keeping the contract must hurt enough to keep you at the task. In brief to avoid failure you rely on avoiding pain – a genetically wired reflex.

4. Relying on supportive cultural forces. As well as recruiting a pain-avoidance reflex to youre cause also rely on supportive cultural forces, such as signing a formal contract – we’ve been taught to honour formal contracts. Also rely on supportive group or peer pressure by publicly announcing your goal and plan to family, friends and colleagues.

So???? So you design your resolution, or planned change,  so that it’s more painful to break your resolution than to keep it. For instance, while the iron is hot – while your still hurting from the results of some dumb habit like pigging out, boozing, sinking into debt, TV addiction, or in the case above failure to meet important deadlines –  you make an iron clad contract to pay a painful price for breaking your resolution. You lock yourself  in by contracting to pay through the nose when you break it.  For instance if you’re  a democrat and break your resolution you contract  to make a significant donation to the Republican party, or in Canada  if you’re staunch Conservative to make a painful donation to the NDP. It doesn’t have to be money – you can pay for failure to keep your resolution with an expensive bottle of wine,  a treasured possession – for instance the remote control of your TV, your car keys, your computer.

Or your iron clad contract doesn’t have to be money, it can involve  paying a high psychological price – as we discuss in the next post.


Posted in: Sciencing