Get Motivated: Pay Yourself (A Message from My Mentor)

01.26.2015 | 11:02 am

A Note from Fatty: I’ve known David Lazar for more than a decade, starting with when I worked at programming magazines, and later with when I worked at Microsoft. He has an incredibly sharp and insightful mind and is one of those people who gets things done.

So when I started at Microsoft several years ago, I asked if he’d be my mentor there. Most of that mentoring happened during road rides—the best possible way to have a business meeting, if you ask me.

And even after I left Microsoft, David and I have stayed in touch. He contributes to my fundraisers; I contribute to his. 

And a few days ago, he posted, in his blog, a really intriguing way to motivate yourself to stay on track with your objectives. I think it’s worth sharing.

Get Motivated: Pay Yourself 

Tis’ the season for resolutions. Perhaps you’ve already been through a cycle of resolving to change, trying, failing and giving up.

I’ve been reading a ton about how people can achieve their goals, especially fitness-related goals. Real change is hard, witness the industries that are vying for your attention and money – TV shows, books, gyms, diets, new phones, fitness bands and apps.

I have a simple system that will help you succeed with your fitness goals, change your behavior for the long term, and the price is a one-time fee of whatever you want.

Before I tell you how to meet your goals, a little about me. I’m a fitness success story. I took up triathlon at age 40 after being relatively sedentary in my 20’s and 30’s. I’ve competed in at least one race or long-distance endurance event every year since. At age 50, I completed the half-Ironman in under 6 hours. I’ve been bike commuting year-round since 2008, my longest daily commute was 27 miles each way. And I still work out 5 or more hours a week, every week.

I’m also a student of human behavior, having been a marketer at Microsoft for 20 years. I’ve studied how customers respond to pricing, messaging, incentives, coupons, free offers, etc.

So I think I’m pretty well qualified to suggest a system for behavior change. My system is based on my experience and the latest research.

The key insight that experts have observed is that behavioral change is nothing more than establishing a new habit. In general, it takes people just a few weeks or months of successful performance to establish a habit. Once the habit is established, it’s very hard to change. Meaning, if you do this successfully, you may be able to sustain your goal for years to come.

The next insight is that financial rewards work. A cash prize of $10 per visit is enough to convince most people to go to the gym. Cash penalties of equal magnitude for non-performance increase the success rate.

Finally, people perform best when goals are clear and attainable, and they are externally observed. This last bit is important. Have you ever noticed when you’re running or biking and you approach or pass someone, your form improves and you speed up? That’s because we all like to be observed doing well.

Here’s my method:

  1. Set an attainable goal, for example: “I will ride my bike or go to the gym 3 times per week, 60 minutes each time, for 5 weeks. I will start this Saturday.”
  2. Write your goal and post it in a spot you see every morning. (Morning works well because you have time to make plans. If you have to go home to get your gear after work, chances are better you’ll fail that day.)
  3. Put 3 glass jars near the goal placard. Put your chosen sum of cash in the middle jar. I recommend $100 in this case, 5 weeks x $20 for each week. You decide exactly what amount works for you.
  4. The right-hand jar is for successful performance. Move $20 one jar to the right each Saturday if you made your goal of 3 gym visits. Congrats!
  5. The left-hand jar is for non-performance. Move $20 one jar to the left if you missed.
  6. You can cut yourself some slack. If it’s Saturday, and you only went twice, count today’s workout toward the previous week and start your next week on Sunday (tomorrow).
  7. When all the money is in the right-hand jar, congrats, you have attained your goal and probably established a healthy habit. Spend the money on something nice – an evening out with your S.O., new gear – something you wouldn’t normally buy. But do not take a break, keep going! If you feel any hesitation, cough up another $100.
  8. If all the money ends up in the left-hand jar, get ready to do something really distasteful, like giving the money to the NRA or some cause you personally detest. You will have selected this organization at the beginning so you will be working throughout to avoid it.

By the way, there are apps that use this methodology, I prefer the low-tech approach, but feel free to use one if you like.

Leave me a comment and tell me about your biggest fitness challenge and whether my idea works for you!


  1. Comment by Don | 01.26.2015 | 11:17 am


    I like it, and will give it a go. Can I use a debit card?

  2. Comment by David Lazar | 01.26.2015 | 11:49 am

    @Don, I suspect your comment is tongue-in-cheek, but seeing the cash move between *glass* jars is what makes this work. That’s why I prefer the old-fashioned approach over using an app.

  3. Comment by Tom in Albany | 01.26.2015 | 11:55 am

    So, I clicked the link and read David’s post. Of course, this rendered reading Fatty’s post completely useless, except for the intro of course. If I’m not careful, I’m going to get lost in David’s blog.

    Thanks, Fatty. And cheers!

  4. Comment by SteveB | 01.26.2015 | 12:30 pm

    What Tom said.

  5. Comment by PNP | 01.26.2015 | 1:54 pm

    Beeminder is good, too, and it’s Fatty’s fault that I know about it!

  6. Comment by Don | 01.26.2015 | 2:44 pm

    @David, it was tongue-in-cheek, and I concur with the tangible money move. I will delve further into your blog. Thanks for sharing your insight. db

  7. Comment by Clydesteve | 01.26.2015 | 2:50 pm

    …starting with when I worked at programming magazines, and later…

    Wait! YOU know how to program magazines, Fatty?!? I have this magazine that never says what I want it to say…

  8. Comment by Sports Jerseys | 01.26.2015 | 3:12 pm

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  9. Comment by David Lazar | 01.26.2015 | 4:26 pm

    Hey @Clydesteve – Fatty has many previously undisclosed skills! The magazine in question was the “Visual Basic Programmer’s Journal.” Fatty wasted many hours chasing my team and I trying to land juicy quotes and world-changing secrets. Here’s a shot of me drinking a flaming beverage from one of the mugs he used as a bribe!david-starbucks-vbits-e1422311401763.jpg

  10. Comment by Jeff Bike | 01.26.2015 | 5:10 pm

    Can I borrow a $100?

  11. Comment by Danny of Beeminder | 01.26.2015 | 11:16 pm

    To anyone who’s done this and paid money to a cause they personally detested, can I ask you some questions? For science? (I’m being serious here!)

  12. Comment by clydesteve | 01.27.2015 | 12:43 am

    @Dave Lazar – Well yeah, I knew Elden used to write for a magazine about programming, it was just the actual programming of magazines that got me excited.

    The flaming bev. shot, BTW is pretty exceptional.

  13. Comment by Steven Soto | 01.27.2015 | 7:59 am

    I like the use of a commitment device (the money in this case). Another thing that works really well is public knowledge of your commitment device. In my case, I have a friend that would love to see money go to the NRA, and he would keep me honest, so I would tell him about it.

    The telling him about it is my “Ulysses Pact”, a powerful commitment device. Freakonomics has done a podcast on commitment devices, but I don’t think that they mentioned the Ulysses Pact specifically. One woman told her story about quitting smoking. She told her friend (who was trying to get her to quit smoking) that if she smoked again, she would give $1,000 to the KKK. She never smoked again.

  14. Comment by David Lazar | 01.27.2015 | 11:11 am

    @Danny – I will contact you offline re Science.
    @Steven – Thanks for the references re Ulysses Pact and Freakonomics.

  15. Comment by Brian in VA | 01.27.2015 | 1:43 pm

    That’s a great methodology! I’ll have to get my best friend, who just quit smoking, to make that pledge to the NRA. He’d never pick up another!

  16. Comment by J | 01.27.2015 | 4:12 pm

    I have found that setting the reward cash aside for a new bike part helps with incentives. Also, just being alive after completing a session with MaxCapacity (app for your phone) at 4 in the morning is a wonderful reward within itself. Especially if I can make it up the stairs afterwards.

  17. Comment by BIKELEPTIC | 01.31.2015 | 3:14 pm

    this is the uplift I needed right now.
    I teach time management and basic money management workshops to my clients at the residential facility and we’ve been reshaping our materials. Not only that, Brad and I have been working on our goals. I was putting aside 4% of every paycheck into my savings account; but he showed me the 52 week challenge, and I realized I could actually save MORE throughout the year and it would be substantially less noticeable for me.

    Living hand-to-mouth (partially self imposed because I spend all my spare change on parts and entry fees) makes for some creative resourcing. I really appreciate you sharing this at the beginning of the year! Yay for fresh starts!

  18. Comment by Aaron Davidson | 02.1.2015 | 12:07 pm

    Pay yourself first, and pay yourself in beer!


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