Commit #3: An appalling penalty

When you take on a challenge, you think you need willpower. You don’t: instead, remove ambivalence by inventing a horrific price for failure

Drawing illustration of red coat with bird flower embroidery by sans noblesse

My embroidered coat. I’d really miss it. There’s no question – I have to succeed. Laura Eades 2014

A challenge is a contract with yourself. Whether you’re resolving to beat a bad habit or to be more creatively productive, you can firm up the contract with rewards and penalties. I’ll talk more about rewards separately.

I’m editing my novel in five weeks. If I fail, I have to leave my favourite coat on the U-Bahn. There’s a picture of it here. It’s irreplaceable – I’m not even sure if the maker still does business. The thought of leaving my embroidered, corduroy coat behind anywhere is absolutely heartbreaking. I’m seriously motivated to succeed.

1. Make your penalty awful

My friend suggested the coat. I gasped when she said it. That is the definition of awful. Your brain winces at the thought.

2. Make your penalty pointless

When I wrote my first draft, I took inspiration from NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty and told myself that if I failed to hit my word count, I’d have to pay the price of a parking ticket (just thinking about a parking ticket makes me angry. In the UK they are about £80)… … not to a charitable cause …

3. Make your penalty disadvantageous to your loved ones

…. but to Manchester United football club (I’m not a football fan, and this is my husband’s rival club, so I knew he’d also be invested in helping me reach my target). He asked me worriedly towards the end if he could write some! Whereas my early-stage penalties during that time were all about him having all the lie-ins. Which of course makes him invested in my failure.

4. Make your penalty safe

Not throwing yourself off a bridge. Or drinking cooking oil. Or pulling a fingernail. Or doing anything mean to anyone else. Or donating money to a destructive cause like a right-wing fascist political organisation or an arms trader.

5. Make your penalty humourously extreme

But humiliating haircuts, money in envelopes entrusted to friends with instructions to burn it, loss of possessions, bicycles left unlocked… any of these make you draw breath? No? Then go further.

6. Make your penalty public

Tell people what’s at stake. On Facebook. Your friends. Task someone with effecting or witnessing the penalty. Invite them out on the deadline date – if there’s no sacrifice to make, you can go for pizza instead.

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Got a really good penalty for yourself? I’d like to hear it. Click on the pale grey dot with a plus sign underneath the blogpost to open up the comment section and chip in.