Children are shameless, natural mercenaries. They’re always for sale, and it doesn’t embarrass them that you know it. Children do lots of things they aren’t attracted to, without complaint or hesitation, in order to get what they want.
Finish your homework and you can watch TV.
Get straight A’s and you’ll get a new bike.
Drive your sister to school and you can borrow the car tonight.
Their follow-through in these arrangements can be impressive. Knowing what they want and what needs to be done, a child is all pragmatism. They aren’t put off by an explicit tie between obligation and reward. In this way, children are curiously more adult than adults.
In my experience adults tend to feel guilty, even childish, about bribing themselves to get what they want. They’ve convinced themselves that work should be motivated by the many dull flavors of what we call “self-discipline”. I shouldn’t need any special incentive to do what I’m supposed to do anyway. I should just do it.
If that’s so, then why don’t we motivate children that way? Why don’t you get them to do their homework by extolling the virtues of knowledge and the value of a job well done? Because they won’t understand? Bullshit. Of course they understand. They’re just not motivated by those rewards.
Parents bribe children with things they really want because it gets the best results. And that’s not something you grow out of. Would you go to work every day if you weren’t getting paid? Would your ‘work ethic’ or the reward of a job well done carry you to the office for free? I didn’t think so.
Parents use it with children, bosses use it with employees, and you should use it with yourself. When something important needs to get done, bribe yourself. Tie the obligation to something you really want. If you’re put off by the term ‘bribe’, call it a ‘self-gift’.
Here’s how it works:
- Pick an important project. Something you’ve been neglecting, something that nobody will ever force you to get done but really needs to get done.
- Pick something you really want. Preferably something very cool and totally unnecessary–an obvious indulgence. One caveat: make sure the goal is more valuable than the reward–if the project is worth $500, pick a $50 self-gift. We’re not trying to spoil ourselves here.
- Buy the self-gift. Take your time, shop for the perfect version of your thing, buy it, and have it shipped to somebody else’s house.
- Have it held hostage. Give instructions not to release the self-gift until you’ve shown proof of completion on your project.
Trust me, you’ll be eager to get your stuff, and I bet you’ll be quick about it too, to avoid being shamed by your friend. I once bribed myself this way to get an acoustic guitar and finish an important piece of writing. It was shameless and it was very, very good.