An illustrator friend was telling me over dinner recently how she was struggling to put together her portfolio. As anyone who’s ever had to create one knows, it’s a big, complicated effort. There’s lots of strategizing about the story you’re trying to tell, lots of visual design to create new samples, and a lot of revising old projects to bring them up to your current standards. So it wasn’t surprising that she was running into trouble motivating herself, day after day, to keep working on what can seem like an endless uphill climb.
A few weeks before that dinner I had seen Dean Karlan, professor and development economist at Yale, speak at a conference called PopTech. Amongst other things, he spoke about using economic incentives to change patterns of motivation - decreasing the cost of virtue and increasing the cost of vice. His personal example: making an agreement with a friend to hand over $100 if he ordered dessert, thus increasing the price of dessert to $108 from $8.
So while we were at dinner, that talk was still floating around my brain, and I decided to see if we could make something concrete out of it. I asked if she’d be up to put money on the table. She said a friend had offered to make a contract already - if she didn’t finish a portion of the portfolio in the allotted time she had to hand over cash. According to her, it didn’t work in practice. The friend didn’t force her to give up the money when it came down to it, and the whole thing felt awkward.
We decided to try a different, more direct approach:
- she paypal’ed me $100 immediately
- if she finished in five days, I’d paypal her back $125 (I figured $25 was worth an interesting experiment for a friend)
- if within a week I’d return $110
- for every five days after the week was up she’d lose $10
- On the sixth late day, it would all be forfeit (any money that she didn’t get back was supposed to go to charity).
The results, in her words:
A few things [happened] — I really accepted the deadline as a real thing and not something I could violate (like a weak agreement with myself). Once I believed I would certainly be getting a finished piece at the end, it made me excited to get started.
A few times I hit a wall or got discouraged that it wasn’t looking good, which is what always happens, and that’s where I usually give up and start over or start a new project or just go watch tv. But since I really wanted to get it done by Friday, I forced myself to push through those blocks. I didn’t have time to start over so I needed to be more decisive and resourceful. So that was different this time.
Another interesting result was that even though I had less time to finish the work (less than with no official deadline), I mixed in lots of skill building activities like plein air painting, watching art tutorials and learning new tools. I’ve been meaning to do more of that, but since it was less important than portfolio work, I put it off. This week I felt more free to do those things.
Large, unstructured, intimidating, deadline-free tasks can be the enemy of forward progress. And as we procrastinate, as we watch ourselves fail to get things down both large and small, it can be hard to get out of the negative spiral. I think what mattered most here wasn’t the money, but the fact that there was a structure and a social commitment, that I was more deeply invested in her success or failure, that she owed something to not just herself, but someone else, and that there was a clear metric of what we both set as the goal.
And just in case it wasn’t already clear, she finished the three pieces we agreed to in just five days.