How to Blackmail Yourself

This last month, I had a big paper to write for one of my classes. The syllabus required us to write a 12-page paper on the “Affirmation of Life: A Philosophy of Existence.” It took me seven different drafts to finally arrive at a paper that I actually felt I could turn in.

As the deadline grew closer, my motivation waned rapidly. I was sick and tired of discarding hours of work each time I realized a draft wasn’t going anywhere. Each day I lost more and more motivation, and I feared I would not finish the paper.

The solution? Blackmail.

I went across the dorm hallway to a friend and told him, “Hey, it’s Friday now, and I really want to have a draft by Sunday.” (This would give me a whole week to revise the new draft.) “If I am not finished by Sunday at 11:00 P.M., I will give you $10.”

It wasn’t a lot of money, but I didn’t want to lose it. That Saturday night, I procrastinated on a personal project. I worked on my paper a little more on Sunday morning, but again found myself unmotivated after lunch. By about 5:00, I realized that if I didn’t get to work on the paper, I would lose the $10 in six hours.

I have never worked harder on something that I didn’t want to do so much in my life. The strategy was effective, and I finished the draft in time.

I got the idea to blackmail myself on a blog by Joel Runyon. He suggests larger monetary amounts, like a month’s rent. The more it hurts, the more the motivation. I agree that would be effective, but I found that even $10 works for me.

Not only does $10 work for me, I’ve seen it work for others. The RA’s and the Deans at the dorm where I work use “Hamilton’s” as a motivator. If someone forgets to submit a form on time, $10. If somebody is late for a meeting, $10. And when the Hamilton fund has grown to a sufficient size, we throw a pizza party, and give a round of applause to all the “sponsors” who funded the party.

It works. We haven’t had a pizza party yet.

This is the principle that powers an online app called “Beeminder.” Any goal whose progress can be quantified is plotted, and if you fall outside the grace zone at any time, Beeminder charges $5 to your credit card. No questions. No excuses. Just Abraham Lincoln. It hurts the first few times, but eventually you learn how to stick true to a habit, because somebody else is blackmailing you.

So if you have something you can’t motivate yourself to do, whether a personal goal or a project you want to make progress in before a due date, give this method a try. Worst case scenario, you’ll make somebody else’s day brighter because they’ll get a free lunch.

If you want to read Joel’s original post on this subject, here’s the link: http://impossiblehq.com/blackmail-yourself. You can see a video summary of Beeminder here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvRcuFq6ItI

2 thoughts on “How to Blackmail Yourself”

  1. I think it’s great that you found this was a powerful motivator.
    Was it just losing the money or was there more to it? The fact that someone else was now aware (and involved) with your blackmail?

    Do you think this is something that could work long term for yourself (and others)?

    Very curious about your thoughts on this.

    1. Part of it I think is that putting money down puts skin in the game. If there are no consequences for procrastinating, then I find myself procrastinating more.

      I think another part of it is a feeling of shame if I fail to meet this goal. I don’t want to admit that I fell short, and now have to show that I fell short by giving up money.

      I can definitely see this working long term for myself. This semester I plan to use it with an Advanced Lab course.

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