Dealing with the Project you Hate Part III: Bribery and Punishment

Hello Darlings! This week’s post is the last installment of Dealing with the Project you Hate. In prior weeks I blogged about owning your hate and coping with it. This week I’m bringing out the big guns: Bribery and Punishment.

I sometimes joke that bribery and punishment are my favorite parenting techniques. For example, “please stop pretending you are shooting your sister with your sandwich and I’ll tell you a silly joke. If you don’t, dinner’s over for you.” As adults, we don’t normally need to resort to bribery and punishment in order to finish work. When we’re lucky we are intrinsically motivated to finish projects.  At other times we have excellent extrinsic motivators: paychecks, CVs that need building, tenure review. Bribery and punishment are the big guns I call out when my id is in control and my superego is out to lunch.

For example, I recently had an annoying errand to run. I had been avoiding this stupid errand to the point that I was waking up in the morning feeling guilty about it. Not good. To force myself to complete the task, I set up a bribery and punishment scenario. I first made a list of potential rewards (Table 1). Then I emailed my best friend and asked him to call me later in the day to see if I had completed my errand. For me, knowing there is a fancy coffee waiting for me at the end of the rainbow will pretty much get me to do anything. Add in the fear of disappointing my bff, and consider the task done. Table 1.

Take a few moments to list out potential rewards that motivate you. Maybe petting kittens at the pet shelter? A chapter in a trashy book? Perusing the Lego aisle at the toy store? Easy peasy. Now pick a small concrete task that needs doing on your hated project. Not the whole project, mind you… just one concrete goal. Just make sure you actually follow through with the reward. None of this “well, the work wasn’t really that good, so…” No. You did the concrete task, now go look at Legos. Repeat.

Now let’s talk about punishment. First, let me say that punishment isn’t really that great a choice. It doesn’t help you become a more motivated worker in the long run, and should really only be used in dire circumstances. Also, we humans aren’t really good at doling out punishment to ourselves (back to the id). I can tell myself that if I don’t finish my task I’m not going to read my trashy book. But will I really follow through? Hell no. What do you think I was doing when I should have been doing the task? Here is a nice, easy, concrete way to dole out punishment in those dire circumstances (e.g., grad students who are about to run out of time to finish theses and dissertations):

  1. Go to the bank and get $20 in ones.
  2. Put $1 in an envelope with the address of a charity of your choice.
  3. For every day that you don’t complete your concrete goal, increase your donation (i.e., $1 on Monday plus $2 more on Tuesday, etc.). If you run out of one-dollar bills, go back for more.
  4. If you really want to get evil, make it a charity that you dislike such as a different political party.

In closing, I want to emphasize that success on stalled-out projects really just comes back to setting small concrete goals. Hope these last few posts have helped kick-start your motivation. Just a warning…. Next week is going to be super mushy lovey dovey.