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The Best Way to Motivate

Procrastinate much? Do you or a kid you love have trouble getting it in gear and getting things done? Would you rather indulge in the fun stuff than grind away at all those important, difficult, and/or tedious responsibilities? Welcome to the majority. But don’t worry, these patterns can be changed more easily than you’d think.

By nature, I am a procrastinator and crammer. But some 38 years ago, while a sophomore in college, I discovered the best system for motivating myself—a system so easy and effective that our son mastered it at age 10, and, now halfway through his high school years, has continued to benefit from it. I call it the dinner/desert system.

The dinner/dessert system is really simple. Consider why we eat dinner before dessert. It’s because if we started with dessert, chances are there wouldn’t be enough room left in the belly for those nutritious vegetables. For as long as there have been dessert, parents have successfully motivated their kids to finish their dinners by withholding dessert until they do. This isn’t rocket science.

The first principle of the dinner/dessert system is to put responsibility before pleasure. The second principle is to make sure the pleasurable reward arrives as quickly as possible after the responsibility is met. Whether it’s getting the homework, music practice, taxes, housekeeping, bill-paying, or yard work done, immediate rewards are far more effective than delayed rewards. We don’t tell our children that if they eat their dinners for an entire week, they can have dessert on the weekend. Human nature just doesn’t work that way.

Principle three of the dinner/dessert system is to make sure the ratios between responsibility and reward are appropriate. Don’t tell the kids that if they eat two bites of broccoli, they can have a banana split later. Real life doesn’t work that way. We can’t just do the dishes and then go out and play a round of golf as a reward. Greater efforts should earn bigger rewards, but the size of the reward should not surpass what’s been reasonably earned.

As a psychologist working with lots of parents and high school and college students over the past 30 years, I’m constantly teaching the dinner/dessert system. To convince them how effective it is, I share my own story of success with it. In my youth, I was always an underachieving student. I had no discipline when it came to studying habits, and a single, working mother of three wasn’t in a position to provide that discipline. In high school, I always favored socializing and watching TV ahead of my assignments. It was the procrastination/cramming—or dessert-before-dinner—system. I was in for a rude awakening after I eked my way into a competitive university. It quickly became clear that I needed a better way to motivate myself, or I would fail. Fortunately, I was paying enough attention to my behavioral psychology class to learn about the Premack principle, the law of motivation that states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors.

So I made a deal with myself that I would get all of my studying done in the afternoon and then immediately afterward pursue the rewards that college life had to offer (details unnecessary). The results were nothing short of amazing. Academic work became more tolerable as a result of it’s becoming closely associated with pleasure, and pleasurable activities became more enjoyable because they were no longer tainted by the anxiety and guilt associated with procrastination. Funearnedfeelsbetterthanfun took. But things got better still. My GPA rose to a level at which I began receiving scholarship awards and got me into a doctoral program in psychology. Over the following four years of graduate school, I successfully held down a full-time job and participated in internships, all because the dinner/dessert system sustained my motivation.

One more valuable principle of the system is that not all responsibilities need to be completed before some form of reward is taken. For some people (especially youths) it often works better to go back and forth—completing one work task followed by a short indulgence and then repeating the pattern until everything has been accomplished.

On a side note, my best friend from high school (smarter than I) attended the same university but continued using the procrastination/cramming system we’d gotten away with in high school. The unfortunate result was that she failed even to graduate.

These days, I see the dinner/dessert system being more important than ever. Computers, the internet, video games, smartphones, and social media are like having a candy store and bakery open 24/7, with their goods tastier than ever (even addictive). Unless parents impose the dinner/dessert system on today’s youth, many will underachieve or fail once they’re out on their own.

I advise parents to regulate their kids’ behavior using the dinner/dessert model until the kids demonstrate the maturity to use it for themselves. When I taught our son to do it at age 10, the need for oversight of his homework and guitar practice was lifted off our shoulders and taken onto his. He’s practicing this for eight years before he heads to college will be a tremendous advantage, but even starting the system with teenagers who are already in high school will give them ample preparation for when they’re on their own.

The Premack principle is no gimmick. It’s a motivational system hardwired into our brains over eons of evolution. And it’s never too late to get it started. Adults can get the hang of it readily enough just by making some good deals between their responsible side and their pleasure-seeking side. “Let’s get this chore out of the way, and then we can go off and do…” Then comes the fun part: developing your menu of desserts.

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