Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Tell HN: Auto-Blackmail
36 points by jacquesm on Nov 15, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 39 comments
I've got this dirty secret. I blackmail someone and it takes me places.

I call it auto-blackmail, and here is how it works:

Whenever I come up against something I really don't want to do but that I know I have to do I go out of my way to tell others that I'll do it, and when it will be done.

That way, if I don't do it I'll end up looking like a fool in front of those that matter to me.

I call it 'auto blackmail', the similarities are strong enough to warrant the title. I'm sure it is not original but it works wonders for me.

Blackmail is threatening to tell on someone if they don't do something you want them to do, Auto-Blackmail is a preemptive strike, you tell those whose respect you value that you will succeed, failure, after that is no longer an option.

This in response to some of the 'how to stay focused', 'how to avoid coders block' and other posts of a similar nature that I've come across recently.

I don't have a nicer way of doing it, when self discipline fails, blackmail invariably succeeds.

Join me and use the power of blackmail whenever you feel that urge to avoid a certain piece of work (you know, the one you really should be working on right now).

In fact, there is probably a nice little project embedded here somewhere, a place where you can publicly post your next item on your todo list that you'd really like to avoid and when you will have it done, after the timer expires your whole facebook and twitter posse will be automatically informed that you've dropped the ball :)

There was a study recently that said people are less likely to achieve their goals when they tell other people about them. Here's an article that discusses it:


And the actual study, "When intentions go public : Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?" [PDF]:


There was a study recently that said people are less likely to achieve their goals when they tell other people about them.

It's interesting that Robert Cialdini says the opposite; according to his concept of "Commitment and Consistency", if people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cialdini#Six_.E2.80.9CWe...).

So does G. Richard Shell in Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People. Shell, a Wharton professor, cites a study where half of negotiators committed to a goal in writing and the other half did not. Those who wrote down their goals were far more likely to win at the negotiation table. I picked up the book last week after several people here recommended it and am enjoying the many examples from famous people with which Shell peppers his lessons. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0143036971

In the end it still boils down to self discipline, but a different quality.

You still have to do the work. You have to be someone that cares what others think of you, and you have to be willing to put a part of that reputation on the line.

I'm sure the example studies are real but I don't think they are of a similar shape.

What I'm talking about is stuff that you have to do either way, you're not going to be able to postpone it for ever. The activities listed in that study sound like they were optional to begin with.

So, the fact that you are going to have to do this stuff combined with damage to your reputation of being able to get stuff done is what drives it, not the fact that you've simply told someone.

I often feel this way. I try not to tell anyone what I'm working on, because I usually don't finish it—the expectations drive me crazy.

Also, for me, talking about a project is another way to procrastinate actually doing it.

I do this sometimes, but it doesn't work that well. My problem is that the sort of people that matter to me, the people I'd tell about these goals, are exactly the sort of people who believe in me and support me and won't actually be that disappointed if I fail because they know I'll have tried my best. (Even if I haven't.) So I don't really fear looking like a fool in front of them at all.

Having to eat a nice serving of humble pie after you've told loads of people something's going to happen and it doesn't is unfortunate, but in my experience it mostly happens with things out of my control (job interviews and the like). I can't really empirically say if I've tried harder in a job interview because I told my mum about it or not. :-)

Another drawback of this system is that people really close to you care about what you're doing, so can get too intrusive and keep asking you questions about it. You end up resenting the questions because things aren't going well and you haven't actually started the task, which makes you resent the questioner, even though they mean well by it. It can drive a wedge between friends and obviously depends a lot by personality (one of my friends was like this and after a period of estrangement he learned to back off and I learned to not associate the resentment with him).

Having said that this auto-blackmail does work in specific situations for me, with specific people, but I think with more 'life' stuff than 'work' stuff.

For some reason I find that the more people I tell something, the less likely it is to happen.

So, for instance, I don't talk about potential sales calls, leads, stuff I'm picking up, projects I'm working on -- anything that could possibly be "jinxed"

It's probably just superstition, but dang if every time I talk about one of these things it seems to ruin it.

Not that long ago you wrote here that you were building something and that you would be releasing it soon, how is that coming along ?

Still plugging away. It's Sunday morning here and I don't feel sick any more, so that's a big plus! Woo hoo! Hopefully I can get a lot more done today than yesterday.

There are four delivery points. I'm hoping to make it to delivery point 1 in the next week and demo it here. Fair warning: it will be very lame, but each increment builds on the one before it and you have to start somewhere.

Just working by yourself really sucks, jacquesm. I can handle the work -- coding is coding. And I can do the biz stuff and the techie stuff. It's just the ups and downs and worrying about money and such is easier when you have two people to share in the load. As it is, I have a family that wants to know where the exit points are and hell! I haven't even got on the highway!

After reading this article today, I decided to start a video diary. Each day I'm going to explain to myself what my goals are and how I'm feeling. It's basically an advanced form of talking to myself, but hopefully it will help with the motivation.

if you need to blow off steam and have a feeling that you are not as alone in this: twelve.truetech.com:6667 #tmc

But don't let it keep you from your work ;)

I'm kind of the opposite. I love to work in secret and have others underestimate me, so that when I do go public about a project, I deliver a nice shocking punch. Then I brag the hell out of it at that point.

I partially credit keeping going on my startup with having told many of my coworkers about it before I left. Well, more accurately I say: "If I hadn't run my big mouth, telling everyone I was doing a startup, and don't want a job..." Yeah. I had no choice but to keep going. Not always the best thing though. Choice is good.

Though choice can make unhappy. (See `The Paradox of Choice' or so.)

Have to fight other's choices every day: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braesss_Paradox

The link above has a typo:

here the correct one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braess_paradox

That's a very interesting read, I never figured that something like Braess' Paradox would have such acute real life examples. I though it was mostly a thing confined to theory.

Years ago there was a diet based on this idea, I think it was called the blackmail diet. You set your weight loss goals, and then escrow, say, $10,000 to be paid to the Klan or the Na$is or some other loathesome group if you don't reach your goals.

People are still fat, at least in the U.S.

That's a fun one, I wonder if people are still fat, why isn't the klan the best funded institution on the planet :) ?

Either someone at the escrow company is now living the high life or the enrollment wasn't very high. But that's a really funny application of the idea.

I've looked it up, I'm late to the party:

  The Blackmail Diet by John Bear (1984, Ten Speed Press)

See also more recently a startup based on this idea from two Yale professors and a student:


(Earlier mentioned by pbh below.)

Regarding the last bit, this exists in a couple forms. The one I can remember at the moment is stickK (http://www.stickk.com/).

The founders are a practicing lawyer, a professor, and a recent graduate in American Studies. The remaining staff consists of a marketer, another lawyer, an economist, and a couple of MBA's. How well is this working out?

Actually, the best thing that works for me is to work with somebody. For example, two of us are working on our startup: I'm the coder, my partner is the business guy. When we discuss how each one of us is doing and check if we match our goals, then I get enthusiastic for the next 24h. Of course, this is an oversimplified example but hopefully you got the idea. :)

pg has written about a similar idea about founders who get featured in magazines have a higher bar to live up and are less likely to just give up.

I have been doing this a lot recently--telling every friend I meet that I am broke and I am going to fix this part of my life in a big way. But i'm not sure if this is a cause or the effect because I am not doing this systematically or as a plan. I actually would be kinda embarrassed if I was doing it consciously. It is just what comes out of my mouth naturally these days. The impact of this is after a while you attain a certain image in your friend circle. That image gets reinforced from multiple channels. Example: a friend of mine posted one of those quizzes on my fb wall:

  "Is Zaid addicted to Facebook?"
  I answered ''no. But he is addicted to his laptop.
  Constantly refreshes his bank statement. Asks where the f*** is his 10,000. ''

I think that for the PG sample that is because the 'bite' is too big. If you say you're going to be a millionaire before you're 30 you are going to find out soon enough that that is not so easy and maybe give up, whereas if you hadn't thought about it you might have accidentally succeeded.

For me the usage is very simple, bite-sized concrete things that I know I can easily do but keep postponing.

I would never use it for something that is either out of my immediate reach or not under my control. Then it would have the opposite effect.

Interesting. I don't usually have a problem going forward with my intentions at a macro scale. The most frustrating part is I hit a rut every now and then at a mini-step and may end up avoiding it a few days(or weeks at worst!). It helps to have a friend or two to not only call your BS but actually lend you a hand. I have couple friends who'll go ahead and do the mini thing I've been avoiding. Like I said, in reality it's usually a pretty small thing(like making a call) but in my head it becomes a huge thing until someone shows it's not.

I suffer from that. What always amazes me is that even after all those years when I kick myself in gear and get it over with it usually is less than an hour, two at the most to get that molehill-that-became-a-mountain out of the way.

This is a very annoying character trait and I do everything I can to get it out of my life, including the tricks I outlined above. The golden rule seems to be don't make promises you can't keep. Treat those statements about what you are going to do exactly like you would treat a solemn promise.

Sometimes it's stronger, sometimes it is less, but on the whole this is really a bad element in my character and it takes a lot of effort to get (and keep) it under control.

I am not sure if I'll ever be free of this particular demon but I'm definitely going to continue to work on it.

Just one example to show you how bad this can get. I do some contracting and had to move a bunch of tickets over from one ticketing system to another. Not rocket science, simply take one database, do a format conversion and import into another.

All told it was less than 4 hours of work. But it took me 4 days, and I finally did exactly what I said above, I mailed all the users of the old system that their new system would be up later today.

That sort of clinched it for me, now there was no backing out. Several hours later, job done, users active on the new system. Why it took me that long is simple, it's a totally boring job, anybody could do it, there is 0 challenge in it for me.

Give me a puzzle and tell me that I can't solve it and I'll be on it like a shot though :)

Exactly! If you are like me, you probably spent more than four hours just thinking about that monkey on your back. This happens almost on a daily basis for me. I deal with it by at the least telling myself that it's ok to not do something, but it's not ok to be thinking about it all the time. At least this way whenever I do get to it, I wouldn't have wasted hours fretting about it which is the real time sink.

Richard Hamming talks about doing this in his "You and Your Research" talk: http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html

(search for 'ashamed')

I use this all the time - my favourite is to promise to give a talk about something I haven't actually written yet. Powerfully motivating.

better yet, stand up in front of a hall of some of the best engineers in $country and say you will do something. that really is a driver!

is this a reference to foreign engineers becoming taxi drivers in the US?

This is not blackmail, it's called being "accountable". When you say you're going to do something, you do it. Again, this is not blackmail, this is how successful, trustworthy people operate every day.

From your profile, you seem to understand this, but do others not?

What is happening to this world when accountability has become a surprising new concept????

A surprising number of workplaces still do not understand the concept of accountability - I can say that they are frustrating places to work.

I agree with the original poster; there is no better way to get your goals accomplished than by publicizing them.

> (you know, the one you really should be working on right now).

This is the problem really. Don't compel yourself to do anything you don't want to. Don't guilt yourself into thinking that you should be doing something else instead of what you really want to do. Stop doing this in the name of productivity, efficiency, ambition, or goals. Instead, focus your energy on making yourself realize why something must be done, if it needs to be done at all. If you can convince yourself that it needs to be done, then you will have no problem doing it and will in fact do it willingly. If you can't convince yourself why it needs to be done, then you should do something to make sure you don't have to do it.

E.g., writing a school paper for a class you don't much care for. That is something that happens to me because some of my required Masters classes are a bit too easy (in fact my undergrad courses in the same subjects were much more advanced). I tell myself that life is a learning experience and writing well is an art that I must continually practice to remain proficient, regardless of the subject matter or specific task at hand. Knowing that this one 10-page assignment is a small piece of the bigger jigsaw puzzle of my life as student makes me want to work on it. Not because I love the class but because I see how this particular assignment fits into the big plan I have previously made. I always try to stick with my big plans unless there is a true reason not to. Is a 10 page assignment a true reason not to stick with my Masters degree and my academic plans? No. Then it is something that will take me one step closer to my final goal. Who doesn't want to take one more step in the right direction?

I don't play tricks with my brain or try to excite myself by small goals or high-scores (try to get an A+ in a 10pg paper I wrote in 2hrs). I see a lot of advice in these motivational / GTD type posts that are mostly tricks and advice on lying to yourself. I don't set my clocks 10mins ahead. I try to understand why it must be so instead of fooling myself and hoping that a safety-net for my follies will somehow help me.

Why do I work on the really boring project at work that nobody else wants to help me on? Because I understand that this is something that helps with the bigger picture of my career. If it doesn't, then I will make sure I don't have to do it. I don't want to live a life avoiding things that must be done or playing tricks on myself just so I do things I don't want to do. If I sit back and truly don't want to do something, I make sure I don't have to do it.

This doesn't mean I look forward to doing the dishes. Wife and I both hate doing the dishes and we avoid using too many pots and pans while cooking. However, I do the dishes whenever I can because it makes the misses happy and that is my bigger goal. Doing the dishes gets me one step closer to marital bliss and who doesn't want that? Do I really want to claim "honey I will do the dishes" and do them reluctantly only because I claimed that publicly? Or do I do the dishes willingly because it makes my wife happy and thus me happy?

I definitely use the same "big picture" approach to get through some less than fun tasks - and especially to stop doing things, for example, eating healthily (i.e. stopping eating crap) is part of the big picture of a thinner, fitter me.

A great piece of advice someone gave me, in line with the "If I truly don't want to do something I put myself in a situation where I don't have to", is simply "You don't have to do anything you don't want to". In context, of course. I don't have to eat healthily, but I want to, because I desire the end goal. Even stuff like paying taxes or cleaning my flat - I want to live in somewhere that's not a pigsty, I want to achieve the state of having done my tax return, etc. It's certainly led me to make much better use of my time, with regards pointless meetings and so on. I'm not being very erudite today but I hope that makes some sense.

However, small goals definitely work for me. On big-picture tasks where the end is far away, and there are unpleasant steps on the way, it's good to have smaller things to work to that enforce the belief that the goal is achievable in the first place.

On a side note, I love doing the dishes. I'm not married, so it's not the domestic bliss motivation, but there are two things I like about it. Firstly, somewhere over the last few years I mutated somehow, and I actually get a kick out of seeing a lovely clean kitchen with dishes all done (possibly boosted by the fact there are no dishes left to do!). Secondly, I find it's actually great thinking time, and my sink window has a great view. :-)

Different strokes for different folks!

What works for me may not work for others, that's for sure.

I've always worked with lists and commitments, that's the way I structure my time.

If it is on the list it will get done sooner or later. If I commit to a time it will probably get done by that time. If I commit to it publicly then it will get done by that time.

When faced with a thousand choices and many of those are more interesting than that ones that should be done the danger of leaving the things that have to be done until it is too late is very real (for me).

I'd rather be washing your dishes because it would make you and your wife happy than I would do my own, but those need to be done as well. (my own solution to this is very close to yours, use as little stuff as possible).

I've rebuilt a house, without the lists to keep me going I would have surely given up. And without telling people that I would have phase 'x' finished at such and such a date I would have finished a lot later.

So, this is my way, I'm impressed with yours, and I wished I could self motivate for the drudgework as well as you apparently can but I feel I need a little extra push.

Side note: I have a lot of respect for you and your work. My comment above is in no way an attempt to disrespect you or your work ethic. Reocities is an awesome project and how you managed to do it was even better.

You're right about different strokes. I don't expect everyone to do what I do in the same way. However, I question the underlying premise behind having to do things you REALLY don't want to do. My comment was really about making sure you don't have too many of those.

> I've always worked with lists and commitments...

> I've rebuilt a house, without the lists to keep me going I would have surely given up.

Talking about lists, I live by them. I even wrote my own todo-list app (like every run-of-the-mill hacker) called http://untodos.com that works with my personality. I put things in Today / Soon / Whenever buckets and move them around depending on real-life situations. If something has been in the soon list for too long, I'll revisit it and either drag it up to Today or down to Whenever. I guess it is a very personal list and unlike you, I don't want to tell people publicly about what I intend to do, willingly or not.

> When faced with a thousand choices and many of those are more interesting...

Not to judge you for being so enterprising, but do you feel having a thousand choices is actually a good thing? I've worked in many interesting projects and a couple of startups over the last decade and found that individuals with too many interesting projects rarely brought a project to fruition. On the other hand, those with just a handful of interesting projects successfully completed most of them. It's the old "too many eggs in a basket" issue. Lot of entrepreneurs are afraid of putting all their eggs in a basket so they begin to get more baskets till there's too many baskets and too few eggs. If you feel compelled to do something instead of what you really want to do, is it because you have too many interesting baskets? Again, this is a personal preference and the # of baskets you are comfortable with will be different from mine.

> I'd rather be washing your dishes...

Is that a public admission of a task you will eventually get around to doing? If so, you're always welcome to St. Petersburg, Florida. We live 5mins from the beautiful Gulf of Mexico.

Having too many choices is a mixed blessing.

I think that the number of choices we have in life are a measure of our welfare, if you are near starvation you have 0 choices, you need to get some water&food, and you need to get it now.

As you go up on the welfare ladder you get more and more options on how to spend your time and your choices seem to multiply.

To quote Joe Jackson ( http://lirama.net/song/226232 ) "They say that choice is freedom, I'm so free I'm stuck in therapy", too much choice is definitely not a good thing.

I try to find a good mix between the stuff that I like to do and the stuff that I have to do.

What I have to do is mostly driven by the need to stay afloat and to stay 'current', what I like to do is usually somewhere off on the fringe, learning languages just for the heck of it (human languages and programming languages) simply because it interests me.

I like to work on stuff that has a clear beginning, a middle and an end, open ended things are less of an attraction to me.

Probably because I can never 'check them off' one of my lists :)

As for the many eggs theory, I think you need at least 6, 3 that you currently depend on (less than 3 sources of income for a business and you're fragile, it's like a chair, it needs three legs to be stable), and 3 waiting in the wings as 'plan b' in case one of the other ones fails so you can get back to 3 legs relatively quickly.

If you try to do much more than that it is my experience that the quality will start to suffer.

Re. washing your dishes, that's a really nice thing of you, to invite me! I'm no longer traveling to the US like I used to, I think your immigration department & TSA have become too much of a nuisance to be dealt with. If I were I'd definitely take you up on it.

I've had to give them my fingerprints, a photograph and my boots on my last tour to the US and I ended up late for a meeting on the west coast because I had to go buy new shoes...

Since then I've avoided the US completely on my travels. (the boots were confiscated because they had steel toes and plates in them, they were supposed to be handed back to me on landing but they forgot to put them on the plane...)

Should you make it to this end of the world then please know that you're invited as well, I'm about 2 hours away from Amsterdam.


Applications are open for YC Summer 2023

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact