Most of us have something that we procrastinate about, maybe even more than one thing. We are all good at coming up with some excuse or other about why we’re putting off what’s good for us … or what has to be done, whether we like it or not … or something we even like, if we’d only get on with it. And then we feel so good once we’ve done it. Go figure. Common activities that fall in this category include: homework, exercising, dieting, housework, gardening, and quitting smoking. The list should also include turning off the TV more often!
There has been lots of research done in how incentives can influence behaviour, whether financial, positive reinforcement from friends, or other types of rewards. Different people respond to different incentives. For me, for example, money alone doesn’t seem to do it. I used to think that if I joined a gym and committed myself to prepaid fees, then I would feel obliged to make sure I got there for regular workouts. It turns out that doesn’t work. When I was attending my university gym or the Y – or to be accurate, paying to attend and only occasionally attending – I would justify not going by thinking of the money as a donation to a worthy cause. But when I switched to a private gym my attendance didn’t improve and all I was donating to was the bottom line of private industry.
When a trainer was involved, I always went, but now that I think about it, it was the knowledge that someone was waiting for me that got me there, not the fact that I was paying for her to be there. Making a date to go to the gym together with a friend would have the same effect and be a lot cheaper. So it seems that the best motivation for me, at least with some things, is knowing that someone else is counting on me.
The May issue of Entrepreneur Magazine reported on a new start-up company, GymPact, that has an innovative solution for this very problem. It offers a free iPhone app that includes financial incentives to help users get off their butts and exercise. GymPact uses a fascinating approach to motivating their users. Users set their own goals for how many times each week they intend to exercise. If they fail to meet their commitment in a week, they agree to pay a “fine” for missing it. $5 is the minimum fine, but if users feel that they need a higher fine to make it work, they can set it higher. They can pay as much as they want for what are voluntary fines! Users who incur fines for missing their goal are charged weekly through credit card, and the collected fines are redistributed to the users who completed their weekly goal, with a percentage being taken off by the company.
The incentive package being offered is: fine for failure, email of disapproval for failure, extra money for success, and the chance to improve next week. Some users report that the chastising email is more of an incentive than the fine; others report that the reward of a payment, although small, is the strongest incentive. Something for everyone. In its early stages, this model has proved remarkably successful, especially for the company founders, Yifan Zhang and Geoff Oberhofer, who came up with their idea as part of a project they worked on while studying at Harvard. Among other strategies, the app uses GPS technology to monitor each time a user has checked into any sports facility.
Reading about this intriguing approach to providing motivation through technology, I wondered how technology could provide motivation in other typical areas of procrastination or avoidance. Maybe an app that works with your TV, where you can set a goal to not watch certain time-wasting shows? Maybe an app that works with your vacuum cleaner, where you get charged if you haven’t turned it on at least once a week? I don’t think I’ve come up with a winning revenue-generating idea to match GymPact yet, but there have to be other potential areas of procrastination just waiting for an app.
What are your biggest areas of avoidance? What incentives work best for you? What other start-ups opportunities are out there to help us all get off our butts, feel virtuous, and get bonus payouts at the same time? It’s worth thinking abut!