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Which is better, a stick or the carrot? If you need to change your behaviour but struggle with motivation, behavioural science suggests that enforcing a penalty is more likely to get results than offering a reward. This blog article is from one of the activities included in the Lighten Up Spring program.

Finding motivation is hard, particularly in lockdown. Regardless of all the benefits, the effort to do something we know we “should” do. often eludes us. So how can we smash through that wall of apathy and commit to action?

Behavioural studies show if you want to commit to something, a penalty or threat is far more likely to propel you into action than a reward promised at the end. The stick is more effective than the carrot.

Here’s a true story about a man who went to see his doctor.

You’re overweight,” says the doc

Tell me something I don’t know” replies the man

You’re unfit,” says the doc

Tell me something I don’t know” replies the man

If you don’t do something about this you will die

It was the doctor’s trump card, the stick that cracked the man into action. Several months later, the man bumped into a friend he hadn’t seen in a while who commented on how much weight the man had lost and how well he looked. In the man’s case, the stake (of dying) was so high he had no choice but to change his lifestyle, cut our beer and meat pies, eat more veggies, and get out and exercise.

Most of you reading this will not be in such an extreme situation, but perhaps with lockdown, Covid, and life over the past 18 months, you’re eating more sugar than normal, drinking more alcohol, or snacking more than you would like.

If that is the case and you’d like to find the motivation to do something about it, then consider making a commitment contract using a goal-setting platform that uses data-driven techniques to empower behavioural change.

Let’s say for example you want to allow yourself a sweet treat once a week instead of every day. Using the stick model, you set the commitment with a penalty of something which, if you break it, is psychologically far worse than the effort involved in maintaining the commitment.

I for one would crawl out of bed half dying to exercise if I’d made a commitment to donate to the National Rifle Association each week I did not exercise.

I have a client who has reduced her nightly alcohol intake to twice a week, otherwise, she’s committed to paying her ex-husband $50 each time she breaks her pledge.

If we understand that by taking care of our own health, we are more useful to others, and we are struggling to do it, then this simple, rather radical, and fun technique may be useful.

If you’d like to challenge yourself further you will find more activities like these combined with 5:2 intermittent fasting, and healthy challenges for your body and mind in our 42-day program LightenUp Spring.

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