Using buy-in to create motivation

Life has been lumpy lately. I've been dealing with some heavy stuff in my personal life — Mom, my cousin Duane, etc. — and that's left me feeling low. Combine that with my natural inclination toward depression, and you've got a recipe for a gloomy guy.

That said, I woke up feeling great today. And that energy carried through as I had my regular Zoom call with Diania Merriam, the organizer of the EconoMe Conference.

Diania and I started these calls for professional reasons, but after nearly two years they've evolved into something else. Now they're mostly a chance for us to help each other with our respective mental health struggles. During today's conversation, we had an interesting digression about personal finance.

[Screencap of J.D. and Diania on Zoom]

We were talking about how I need to get out of the house more. Because I work from home, I spend most of my time alone. It's not good. Humans are social creatures, and that goes double for me. No wonder I feel shitty when I never leave the house!

Anyhow, Diania mentioned that she gets a lot of benefit from attending yoga regularly. And then she said something interesting.

“I've actually started cleaning the yoga studio,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, instead of paying $113 each month to be a member, I clean the yoga studio for two hours per week. In exchange, I get free membership. But you know the crazy thing? I find that I am much more motivated to attend classes because I'm cleaning the place than I did when I was paying money out of pocket. It gives me a sense of ownership. I look in the mirrors and think, ‘I cleaned that.' I have a greater sense of buy-in.”

“That's interesting,” I said. “Buy-in is so important. And it's different for each person and each situation. I joined a gym last week. Kim and I have a sort of rudimentary home gym here in our basement, but in the four months we've lived in Corvallis, I've never used it. Kim has used it once. But now that I'm paying to belong to a place, I've been to the gym four times in the past week.”

“Do you worry that's only because it's new?” Diania asked. “Do you worry that you're not going because of the money you're spending, but simply because of the novelty?”

“I see your point,” I said. “But I'd like to believe it's because of buy-in. I know that I enjoy exercising. And I know that a decade ago when I was paying $200 each month for Crossfit, I went to the gym four or five times a week. Because I was spending so much, I was motivated to go. I'm hoping that's the situation here too.”

Diania and I talked about the problem with personal inertia. When we do things, it's easy to keep doing those things — whether they're harmful or helpful. We develop habits, we develop routines, and then we stick with them. The challenge then is to overcome what I'll call “negative inertia” — being stuck in a rut — and replacing it with “positive inertia”.

Our conversation reminded me of my article about using barriers and pre-commitment to do the right things with your money. (Trivia: This is one of my favorite articles that I've ever written.) For me and many others, it's vital to create barriers to bad behavior while simultaneously removing barriers to good behavior.

Here's a funny/sad example.

I initially visited our local gym on November 11th. I took a tour, talked with the manager, and brought home two day passes for us to use. “I'll be back tomorrow to join,” I told the manager as I left. But that didn't happen. Instead, I got distracted by life. (Kim and I never even used our free day passes before they expired!)

Over the next few months, there were days that I very much wanted to go to the gym. I wanted to lift weights or to ride the stationary bike. I wasn't able to do so, though, because I'd never completed the sign-up process. And the thought of completing the sign-up process was a psychological barrier. “I don't want to mess with that,” I thought to myself several times. So, I never went to the gym.

Last Tuesday — nearly three months after touring the gym — I'd finally had enough. “This is a stupid barrier,” I thought to myself. “I need to remove it.” I stopped what I was doing, walked to the gym, and completed the sign-up process. Now, I've been to the gym four times (and will go a fifth later today) and Kim's been twice. I removed the barrier and now I'm exercising.

But it's not just removing the barrier. I've also created buy-in because I know I'm paying for my membership. This financial “investment” creates motivation to make use of the facility.

Now, I'm well aware that this isn't always the case. Plenty of people sign up for gym memberships without ever using them. That's because a financial buy-in isn't always effective. There are other sorts of buy-in. For each change that you want to make, you have to figure out which type of buy-in will work for you.

In Diania's case at the yoga studio, a buy-in of time was more effective than a monetary buy-in. “You know what, J.D.,” she said during our call this morning. “I'd be willing to bet that an investment of time and energy is almost always a more effective buy-in than a buy-in of money — especially for folks like you and me who have all the money we need.” I think she's right.

Because Diania and I are fortunate that we don't have to worry about money, a financial buy-in doesn't always work. For us, time is generally more valuable than money. When we devote our hours and energy toward a cause, we feel more invested in it. But for somebody in different circumstances, the opposite might be true.

There are other forms of buy-in too. Sometimes we buy into things emotionally. Sometimes we do so intellectually. And so on. Each person and each circumstance is different, but the principle remains the same: buy-in matters. Buy-in creates motivation.

Diania and I briefly talked about the dark side of buying in: the sunk-cost fallacy. Sometimes we stick with things because of all that we've invested before. We base our decisions on the past rather than the future. We might, for instance, maintain an old friendship that has long since become destructive. Or we might hold on to a poor investment because of all the money we've put into it already. The process of buying in can encourage positive change, yes, but it can also lead us to cling to things we ought to let go.

As always, there are plenty of other changes I'd like to make in my life. Some of these are changes I've wanted to make for years. Why haven't I made them then? Tough to say. But my conversation with Diania has helped me to understand that one tool I can use to foster these changes is to create some sort of buy-in.

More about...Psychology

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