When I was first getting into the business of selling educational programs, a famous zero-down real estate guru asked me, "Do you know the thing people who take my courses want most?"
I had a sneaking suspicion I was about to get it wrong, but I gamely answered, "To be successful real estate investors?"
He laughed. "You've got a lot to learn, my friend."
I took the bait. "So what do your customers want?"
"They want to avoid taking action."
I told him I wasn't sure I understood. He was kind enough to clarify. "Most of the people who take my courses and who will be buying your programs want to feel like they are on the road to success. But they don't want that road to end. They like the journey. They fear the destination."
"And why would that be?" I asked.
"To tell you the truth," he said. "I don't know. But I can tell you this. After our real estate students have gotten the knowledge they need to succeed, few of them get out there and get to work. Most of them just buy more programs. If they don't buy them from us, they will buy them from someone else. So we sell them extra programs."
"That's sort of depressing," I said.
"If you give one of my customers – someone who has completed his real estate education and is fully prepared to start investing profitably – a choice between actually getting to work and buying another course to learn more, he will buy the course."
"Are they afraid of failing?"
"Could be that," he said. "Could be they're afraid of success. As I said, I don't know."
Since then I've thought a lot about this failure-to-get-started problem. I've read dozens of books and talked to many of my colleagues and posed the question to hundreds of my customers. The theories as to why people don't take action are many and varied. The three that make most sense to me are:
- Lack of Confidence: People who haven't yet been successful in life don't believe they can be, even if they are fully prepared to succeed.
- Fear of Pain: Some people see taking action as work and work as a form of pain. These are usually people who have never experienced the pleasure of working on something they value.
- Laziness: Besides the fear of work, human beings are programmed to be lazy. Being lazy means trying to get what you want with the least amount of effort. Some people don't take action because they want to find an easier way.
There's no mystery to that. Behavioral scientists know that the way to change a person's behavior is by motivating them through positive reinforcement. This is what B.F. Skinner had to say about it in A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior:
"It has long been known that behavior is affected by its consequences. We reward and punish people, for example, so that they will behave in different ways. ...
Operant reinforcement not only shapes the topography of behavior, it maintains it in strength long after an operant has been formed. Schedules of reinforcement are important in maintaining behavior.
If a response has been reinforced for some time only once every five minutes, for example, the rat soon stops responding immediately after reinforcement but responds more and more rapidly as the time for the next reinforcement approaches. ...
Reinforcers may be positive or negative. A positive reinforcer reinforces when it is presented; a negative reinforcer reinforces when it is withdrawn. Negative reinforcement is not punishment. Reinforcers always strengthen behavior; that is what ‘reinforced' means."
Positive reinforcement is a big part of my life. I reward myself constantly and for almost any sort of accomplishment, big and small. By attaching rewards to my desired behavior, I increase the likelihood that I will repeat that behavior in the future.
When I "master planned" my life for the first time, I had to spend some time thinking about how to reward myself. I gave myself all sorts of incentives for all sorts of objectives. Some of them worked. Some of them didn't.
Some success coaches suggest big rewards for big accomplishments. You might, for example, reward yourself with a sports car when you make your first million dollars. Big goals like that never worked for me, because they were too far off in the future. What motivates me are short-term goals. And I have a feeling that short-term goals will be better for you, too.
Over the years, I developed a reward system that works very well for me. Here it is:
- As I mentioned earlier, when I complete a task on my daily task list, I cross it out (or change its color on my screen) to "signal" that I have accomplished it. This little gesture is like a tiny shot of adrenaline. It picks me up and gives me energy to attack my next objective.
- While working at the office, when my egg timer goes off, I get up from my chair, walk outside, and spend a minute or two stretching out my back. I've found that 30 to 60 minutes flies by – especially when I'm writing – and so these half-hour or hour-long periods seem very short.
- After I sprint in the morning, I reward myself with 10 to 15 minutes of yoga. Doing yoga might seem like more exercise to some, but to me it feels like a reward since it is so much more relaxing than sprinting.
- After training in Jiu Jitsu at noon, I treat myself with a tasty protein shake.
- At 6:30, I take my laptop to the cigar bar down the street, and work on my writing there for another hour or so. When I walk in, they have an espresso and water waiting for me. I look forward to this. I'm still doing work, but it's a reward because I'm doing it in a new place.
- After an hour of writing at the cigar bar, I reward myself by going home, breaking open a good bottle of wine, and having dinner with K.
- If I do any work in the evening, I reward myself afterward by reading a good book or watching a movie.
- I reward myself every evening by climbing into a great bed with silky sheets and a pillow that fits my head perfectly.
It would be easy for me to consider these little things – the stretching, the protein shake, reading a good book – as simply an ordinary part of my ordinary day. But by looking at them differently, by seeing them as pleasurable rewards for specific, desired behavior, they motivate me.
I think that is the key – identifying little pleasures you already have in your life and using them as behavior-changing rewards. It's very easy to do once you recognize that these little pleasures are blessed gifts. Truly speaking, you are lucky to be able to enjoy them. Be happy about that. Use them pragmatically.
P.S. [Note from the original Editor: This essay is an excerpt from Michael Masterson's new book, The Pledge: Your Master Plan for an Abundant Life. The book, to be published by John Wiley and Sons, won't be released until November. But you can get an early look. And sign up to get first chance at buying The Pledge. Just go here, give us your e-mail address (so we can give you exclusive book updates and a special deal when the book is officially released), and you'll download an excerpt from The Pledge instantly.]