A blog by runners. For runners.

Use the “high stakes” strategy to accomplish your goals

Set the stakes high and accomplish your running goalsNo matter how much we love our sport, it can still be a challenge for us to consistently stick to the behaviors we know will bring us closer to accomplishing our goals. Some of us struggle with hitting the gym for strength-training sessions; others procrastinate on hills training; many of us know the feeling of burying deeper under the covers instead of getting up for that early-morning run.

If this is something you’ve faced, you’ve undoubtedly tried lots of different techniques to get yourself out the door. But so often the immediate payoff is so much more tempting than the longer-term benefit, and against our better wishes we end up succumbing to our own desire for instant gratification.

But here’s a technique that can help you beat this tendency: setting high stakes.

Setting high stakes simply means setting yourself up for success by making sure that the consequences of not doing something in the short-term are bad enough to make you do it, no matter how tempted you are not to. All it requires is figuring out what kind of consequences you, yourself find most unpleasant.

Here are a few examples of such motivating consequences:

  • Monetary: Agree with your partner, roommate, friend, or coworker that if you do not perform the desired behavior, you will pay them some sum of money. The amount is up to you, but it has to be something large enough to be non-trivial. For example, agree you will run in the morning 3 times a week or you will pay your friend $30 for every missed day that week. Another way to impose monetary consequences is by putting a price on an outcome, or lack thereof. For example, if you have a weight-loss goal, the website DietBet.com allows you to buy into a competition, with either friends or strangers, to lose some amount of weight (usually a percentage of your bodyweight) in a given amount of time. The “winners” share the pot.
  • Personal. A great way to motivate yourself is to employ the technique above, but with someone you really don’t want to give money, or admit defeat to. Think that slightly annoying co-worker or a friend who you know will gloat when you pay up.
  • Social. A related, highly-effective, technique is to make giving up personally embarrassing for yourself. For example, you could tell a friend to publish a really embarrassing photo of you if you don’t accomplish the desired behavior. Or set up Hootsuite to publish a personal and embarrassing Facebook post every morning that you want to go for a run. Having to get out of bed to turn it off will probably wake you up enough that you’ll be ready to go for that run.
  • Moral. A classic technique is to write a large check to an organization you despise, and tell a friend to send it off if you don’t achieve your goal. This works best with longer-term, one-time goals like weight loss or completing an event, but it definitely works!
  • Scary. Personal fear of failure can also be a powerful motivator. Try setting yourself a big, audacious goal you’re not sure you can achieve, and committing to it. That means dropping $80 to sign up for that marathon mud run today, and then thinking about how close its getting every time you want to skip a training session.  

There are really only a couple of rules to remember when using this deceptively simple technique.

First, it’s important to make sure that the stakes are truly high. Paying $5 for every missed training session is not painful enough. Upwards of $25 starts to get more interesting. It shouldn’t be enough to ruin you financially, but it should be something that makes you uncomfortable. Be honest with yourself about what it will really take.

Second, make sure that if you are enlisting the help of a friend, that they will really enforce the behavior. This goes both ways, of course – you are responsible for owning up to your (mis)behavior, and they are responsible for following through on the consequences. Choose your allies carefully and you’ll be well on your way to success.

Written by Varia Makagonova.