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Selfication

How to Beat Procrastination by Creating a ‘Token Economy’

in Motivation

In his book, The Now Habit (1), psychologist Neil Fiore writes about how he and his fellow psychology students back in school used to agonize for days over papers that would eventually take less than two hours to write:

All of these bright, doctoral-level students of human behavior were struggling as if they knew nothing about directing their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. That seemed odd to me.

The theories we studied about personality and abnormal behavior weren’t of much help. They didn’t work very well for normal problems like procrastinating, sticking to New Year’s resolutions, getting the laundry done, getting started on a twenty-page paper, or being on time to meet a friend for dinner.

So I began to search for a system that really worked at giving me some control over my behavior with difficult, distasteful, or overwhelming tasks. In my search for a practical system, I discovered that B. F. Skinner, the founder of modern behaviorism, had a time clock connected to his chair.

Whenever he sat down to work, he ‘punched in.’ Whenever he left his chair the clock stopped, as if he were ‘punching out’—as I did when I worked at a supermarket, and like the ‘billable hours’ that lawyers and architects use to keep track of the time to charge their clients.

This very prolific writer used a time clock! He maintained flow charts that amounted to giving himself a gold star every time he completed a small segment of work! This amazed me. I said to myself, ‘If B. F. Skinner has to use a system, then so do I.’

This strategy of giving out gold stars (or any other symbol you see fit) for rewarding and reinforcing good behavior is known in psychology as a ‘token economy’ (2). The tokens themselves have no intrinsic value, but can later be exchanged for ‘backup reinforcers’ in the form of actual rewards.

As I’ve mentioned before, rewarding yourself for good behavior is a crucial part of making it stick and if we’re going to do it, why not use the method the founder of modern behaviorism used in his own life? 🙂

How to Create Your Own Token Economy

Setting up your own token economy is very simple and straightforward:

1. Create specific and measurable minimum daily quotas. Before you can reward a step in the right direction, you’ll have to determine what that step is exactly and how you’re going to measure it. One way to do this that is similar to B.F. Skinner’s approach is to use the Pomodoro technique (3) and give yourself a set number of tokens for each completed 25-minute session.

2. Get some kind of token to reward yourself with. This could be gold stars, coins, poker chips or something else you happen to have laying around the house. Each time you successfully reach your minimum daily quota, reward yourself with X number of tokens. Then start stacking your tokens where you can see them every day to create an inspiring visual representation of your progress that you’ll want to keep building every day.

3. Set up your backup reinforcers. These are the rewards you get to exchange your tokens for. The key here is to reward yourself with things that keep you moving toward, and not away from, your long-term goal (4). In other words, don’t celebrate a good week of running by eating chocolate cake, but rather by getting a new piece of running equipment. Create a list of backup reinforcers that allows you to progressively build the identity of the person you want to become. For the running example this could be:

  • Water bottle – 5 tokens.
  • Running socks – 10 tokens.
  • Portable music player – 15 tokens.
  • Pedometer – 20 tokens.
  • Running shoes – 100 tokens.
  • Entry to Marathon – 500 tokens.

This is not a perfect token economy by any means, but I’m sure you get the point. What’s important is that you create a list of rewards that gives you an ever-increasing sense of accomplishment and competence. If you can do that, you’ll create the motivation necessary to reach your goals.

Footnotes

  1. The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play
    by Neil A. Fiore
  2. Token Economy
  3. The Pomodoro Technique
  4. Hat tip to Steve Kamb and Eric Barker for their great advice on the most fun way to make your life awesome.