Motivation Hack: How to Blackmail Yourself to Accomplish Anything

Blackmail MotivationSo you want to accomplish something meaningful? A challenge? A goal, perhaps? A mid-year resolution?

Cool. I like you already.

But, before we begin dissecting today’s motivation hack, let me share a quick story with you.

A few months ago, a good friend of mine from work was really struggling to stay consistent with his training. He had trouble getting motivated, as many do. Some weeks he would be really into it, training like a mad man. Other weeks he was nowhere to be seen – a ghost of sorts.

Not an uncommon storyline, I’m sure.

After admitting he had an issue, he asked me what he could do about it. I dug deep into my not-so-deep mental folder of resources and dug out what I considered to be the most effective antidote to cure his inconsistent levels of motivation.

Give me $100, now!” I said.

Silence. Confusion.

Huh?” he responded. I can safely say I have never seen anyone more baffled in all my years of breathing. Ever.

So I broke it down for him…

Listen, buddy. Write me a cheque for $100. If you stick to your training three times per week for an entire month, I’ll give you your cheque back. If you miss even one single session over the next 30 days, the cheque will be deposited into my account and you will never see it again.

It took some convincing, but he finally gave in and wrote the cheque. I stashed it somewhere safe and the countdown got underway.

So what happened, you must be wondering? Well, only everything.

Two months (and counting), he has yet to miss a single training session.

Yes. That’s how powerful this stuff is. And today I want to break down this motivation hack for you so you can use it to accomplish and conquer absolutely anything you set your mind (and money/dignity) to.

Let’s get started.

What’s at Stake?

Not too long ago, I was deeply immersed into Tim Ferriss’s new book 4 Hour Chef.

This was not just because I wanted to learn how to cook like a boss, but because I wanted to learn how to learn things both more effectively and efficiently. I highly recommend this read.

Anyway, here’s something interesting that he wrote:

“If you were to sum up the last 50 years of behavioral psychology in two words: it would be: “logic fails.” No matter how good a plan is, how thorough a book is, or how sincere our intentions, humans are horrible at self-discipline. No one is immune. The smartest, richest, and most dedicated people abandon commitments with disgusting regularity.”

Damn. If the smart and rich are struggling with getting things done, what chance do the rest of us have?

Fortunately, there is a little motivation hack that you can use to conquer this lack of self-discipline that’s ingrained somewhere deep inside of us.

We need to set the stakes.

And no, not the steaks you pull off your grill on a Sunday afternoon, but rather the consequences you agree to in the case you don’t achieve your goal. It’s called putting skin in the game. But, we’ll get into all of that in a second. First, let’s discuss the psychological principles behind this method.

It starts with a principle known as loss aversion.

loss aversionIn his post about the psychology of loss, Neal Cole describes loss aversion in the following way:

“Loss aversion is a human characteristic that describes how people are intrinsically afraid of losses. When compared against each other people dislike losing more than they like winning. Thus losses loom larger than gains even though the value in monetary terms may be identical.

Research studies into the psychological value of losses and gains have identified a loss aversion ratio of between 1.5 and 2.5. This means that a loss that is identical in money terms to a gain is valued up to 2.5 times more than the gain. This is an average of course as some people are more or less loss averse than others.”

You would think that a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, but the truth is that people will work much harder to prevent losing a dollar than they will to earn a dollar.

Crazy, but consistently true.

In a really fascinating podcast interview with psychology expert Derek Halpern and Jonah Lehrer (which you can listen to here or read here), I learned that “the prospect of getting one dollar from a bet doesn’t feel nearly as good as the prospect of losing a dollar feels bad. We’ve got this weird kink in our preferences where the possibility of a loss hurts an insane amount, while gains feel good but are fleeting. They don’t last long.”

The truth is that loss aversion drives a lot of human behavior.

“People will start doing all sorts of silly, reckless, and perhaps even foolish things, when you frame things in terms of losses, simply because they want to avoid losses.”

Interesting stuff.

But the questions is this: how is this relevant to you achieving your health, nutrition, and fitness goals? How can this help you get motivated to get things done?

It’s actually quite simple.

We can use the power of loss aversion to blackmail ourselves.

How to Blackmail Yourself

“A goal without real consequences is wishful thinking.” -Tim Ferriss

Research done by Yale economics professor Dean Karlan shows that incentives are one of the more powerful elements to achieving any goal. And what better way to incentivize a goal than to incorporate loss aversion.

We do this by blackmailing ourselves.

blackmail yourself

Joel Runyon from Impossible HQ wrote a really cool post on the idea of of blackmailing ourselves to accomplish absolutely any challenge. The structure he laid out is actually quite straightforward, but I have a slightly modified version. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pick a specific goal/challenge
  2. Find a blackmailer
  3. Set the stakes
  4. Put it on paper and make the transfer

Let’s go into each of these in a bit more detail.

Step 1: Pick a Specific Goal

Our first step is to set a goal we want to achieve.

Most people already know what it is that they want. But if you don’t have a goal in place, well, that’s your first step. Just make sure you do two things as you begin crafting your masterpiece:

  1. Make it as specific as you possibly can,
  2. Set a deadline.

I don’t want to delve deep into proper goal setting strategies here, but I’ll give you a couple of examples of good and bad goals.

Crappy goal: I want to lose weight.

This goal is not specific and it does not have a deadline. There is no way to truly measure whether you have achieved the goal or not.

Here’s how you would make it better:

Better goal: I will drop 5lbs of fat in the next 30 days.

It’s specific, there is a deadline, and you will know exactly whether you achieved your goal or not by the end of the 30 days. And notice the slight change in language. There is a huge psychological difference between saying “I want” and saying “I will”. I want = hoping/wishing. I will = confidence/belief.

Here are some other good examples of good goals:

“On August 17, I will complete the Toronto Tough Mudder in under 2.5 hours.”

“I will do 100 bodyweight squats in a row by September 15, 2014.”

“I will lose 2 inches off of my waste before my next birthday.”

You get the idea.

Once you have your goal in place, move on to step two.

Step 2: Find a Blackmailer

Our next step is to find a blackmailer.

The blackmailer bears great responsibility so finding a good one is a crucial step in the process. This is the person/group of people who will keep you accountable. This is the person who is going to make sure that, no matter what happens, you stick to your end of the deal. They are responsible for making the loss feel real.

This could be a family member, a friend, or a support group online. It should be someone you trust and who has your best interests in mind.

According to Joel, the blackmailer must do the following:

  1. They will check in on you daily/weekly,
  2. They will NOT succumb to your sweet talking rationalization,
  3. They would love to see you fail, but, more than that, they would love to see you succeed.

If you don’t have someone to help you out, then you can use a service like Stickk.

StickK is a neat platform developed by Yale University economists that is designed to help you achieve your goals by allowing you to create what are known as commitment contracts. A commitment contract binds you into achieving a personal goal with pre-set consequences. You can read more about StickK here.

Once you have found your blackmailer, it’s time to set the stakes.

Step 3: Set the Stakes…High

Our next step is the most crucial: we set the stakes. We decide what the consequences will be if we do not accomplish our goal.

Years of economic and behavioral research have shown that people who put stakes – either their money or their reputation – on the table are far more likely to actually achieve a goal they set for themselves.

Research by Profressor Karlan has shown that the success rate of goal achievement with no stakes is 33.5%. With stakes in place, the success rate skyrockets to 72.8%! [sourced from 4 Hour Chef]

That’s quite the boost.

So how exactly do we set all of this up?

It’s easy. You must reach your goal by the set deadline. If you do not, you will suffer a pre-determined monetary consequence.


Remember that, based on the loss aversion principle we discussed earlier, even the thought of losing something can be enough of a driver to get you to take action.

The trick here is to choose an amount that is painful to lose. For most people, losing $10 won’t be very painful. There is not much of an incentive there.

As Joel says, you need to bet something that hurts. You must put your skin in it.

“Bet something that hurts, give it teeth – Bet your monthly rent. Whatever it is: $500, $1,000, $2,000. Put it on the line.

But…but…but…” you might say, “I can’t afford to lose my rent!

Exactly.That’s the point. Make the amount large enough that you’re not willing (or can’t afford) to lose it. Make it hurt.

-Joel Runyon

If you’re still wondering how much to put on the line, Tim Ferriss recommends that you put up at least 1% of you annual pretax income. This means:

  • $30,000 pre-tax income >> wager $300 or more
  • $50,000 pre-tax income >> $500 or more
  • $75,000 pre-tax income >> $750 or more
  • $100,000 pre-tax income >>$1,000 or more

Here’s the thing…

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how much you wager if you are truly serious about accomplishing your goal.

There should be absolutely no doubt in your mind that you are getting this money back. But the greater the potential (and fear) for loss, the greater the motivation to take action will be.

With your stakes set, it’s time to finalize the deal.

Step 4: Put it on Paper

The deal does not become final until two things happen:

  1. The deal is written out on paper (and signed),
  2. The money has been transferred to the blackmailer.

Joel offers up a pretty useful template that you can use to write out the deal here, but I’ve taken my own approach to it. Use this template to write your goal out:

If I, _____________ (your full name), do not complete _________________ (specific goal/challenge) by ________________ (specific date), I give _________________ (blackmailer’s name) the right to keep __________________ (monetary consequence in $) as a reward for my utter and despicable failure. 

Once you have your deal written out, make sure both you and your blackmailer sign it.

The next step is absolutely crucial: give the blackmailer your money.

Immediately. Do not leave this for later.

This motivation hack will only work if the money has been given up front so make sure the financial component gets handled before the challenge begins.

Put the money and the signed deal together in a safe place and watch magic happen.

What happens after that is all up to you.

If you want your money back, then you will do what you have to do to reach your goal. Otherwise, you can say goodbye to your rent money. It’s that easy.

Quick Summary

If you are struggling to stay motivated or to get things done, then perhaps it’s time to take some drastic measures.

Blackmail yourself. Go ahead, do it. Give it a try and see what happens. I can promise you some great results.

Here’s a quick summary of the process:

  • Step 1: Set a specific goal. You probably already have this in place, but if you don’t then make sure your goal is specific and has a set deadline.
  • Step 2: Find a blackmailer. Find someone who will keep you accountable – someone who will actually take your money if you fail.
  • Step 3: Set the stakes. You must put your skin in the game. Make the amount painful enough that it will active loss aversion (recommended amount: your monthly rent)
  • Step 4: Put it on paper. Write out your agreement and make sure to have it signed by you and your blackmailer. Transfer over the money.

Sometimes to achieve great things in life, you must make bold moves.

Now it’s on you, my friend.

What do you want to accomplish?

What is your goal right now? What is it that you want to accomplish more than anything? Share it in the comments below and let’s get the party started.

(And yes, I can be your blackmailer 🙂 )

Image Sources: Header | Behavior Gap | CrapHound | Deadline

7 thoughts on “Motivation Hack: How to Blackmail Yourself to Accomplish Anything”

  1. That is truly excellent stuff! Sometimes when I’m doing planks or something I think what if I had to complete this for my family to survive…of course it’s fake so you might not take it seriously, so using the money blackmail is perfect. My only problem is setting specific goals; is setting a quota like training 5 times per week an effective goal?

    1. Eric, it’s cool if you can psych yourself up like that – you’d get a lot more done!

      As for goal setting, “training 5 times per week” is not, in my opinion, an effective goal. You have to delve a little bit deeper than that. What is the purpose of training 5 times per week? What are you trying to accomplish exactly by training 5 times per week? You need to think about how you can measure that as well – what constitutes a training day? You see what I’m getting at here? Lots to think about.

      Here’s how I would re-frame your goal:

      “I will _____________ (specific goal) by _____________ (specific date) and I will do it by training 5 times per week in the following manner: ______________(outline specifically what you are going to do)”

      Let me know if that makes sense.

  2. Wow Srdjan, this really sucks! But in a good way 🙂
    One side consequence of what you describe is that it would motivate you to put a laser focus on ONE goal. Its not like I would want to gamble my monthly mortgage payment on more than one goal at a time.

    1. Great point. You definitely don’t want to be focusing on too many things at once. Pick one goal, set your stakes, and focus on completing it before moving onto something new (that’s where deadlines help).

  3. This is a great idea to set up goals. I’m going to vary a little bit your methodology. Why? Let me give you a little bit of background: I’m experiencing for the first time the winter season, I used to live in central FL before so no snow or crazy below freezing temperatures over there. I’m a very outdoorsy girl, I love to run outside, hence indoor running on a treadmill is not my thing although I do it but , I still run but not with the same enthusiasm that I feel when running outdoors. The problem is that I’m a food lover (good quality food) and I’ve started to gain some weight because I’m eating the same amounts but jot burning calories as I used to. So I’ve been jumping rope in my apartment (good thing I live in the first floor) and mixing it with other workouts and I recently discovered your page and read about the cross jump ropes. Since the year started I’ve been eating healthier and focusing on eating the right amounts. So I really want to purchase the $150 crossjump set because jumping rope is a lot of fun and my current rope sucks. But before I buy the crossjump set I have to lose 10 lbs (to get back to my average weight) by March 10th. If I don’t accomplish it, then I have to give that $150 to my blackmailers (2 friends, $75 each).

    1. Hmm I like that approach Andrea. I’m rooting for you. I think you should have no problem achieving that goal.
      And I know what you mean about the cold – we have 6-8 months of that every year up here 🙂

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