Barter with yourself

I’ve started to experiment with a motivational strategy that I adapted from a combination of existing ideas. Let me explain the mechanics.

First, form two lists, the desires and the costs.


Fill the desires list with those unconstructive, distracting, unhealthy, or otherwise not entirely beneficial set of behaviors that you nevertheless indulge in. This may include behaviors that you genuinely wish to eradicate, or those you still find acceptable but wish to have greater control over.

The list may include coffee, alcohol, smoking, specific foods you abuse, social media checked, televised media, video games, etc. Be as specific as need be for those time and quantity-sensitive behaviors. Maybe you wish to emphasize the second daily cup of coffee and beyond, if that’s your source of addiction. Maybe you wish to limit the wine or be accountable for even the small and technically acceptable quantity consumed.

Be honest with yourself in terms of what behaviors or non-constructive habits you wish to be accountable for. Remember, while the specific habit or behavior may not carry an inherent consequence, if not tamed, you become psychologically attached, an idea you may not enjoy.


Fill the costs list with behaviors you will barter in consequence for carrying out one of the desires. The list is not a form of punishment for succumbing to bad habits. Rather, the list should contain behaviors otherwise beneficial to your life, parts of larger milestones, or simply habits for a healthier life. The list should contain the items which you wish to carry out but struggle for one reason or another. It should not reflect healthy activities that you already have no problem attending to, since this would defy the purpose.

Items that might populate the list include writing X amount of words in a journal or specific medium, meditation for X minutes, exercise or one set of push-ups even, language practice, a walk outside, a call to an old contact, cleaning of a room, practicing a public speech, etc.

Insure the behaviors are concrete and ideally comparable to the desires list in time/energy consumption. For this scheme to function, it would be unreasonable to require an hour worth to compensate for 5 minutes of ‘vice’. Now if you require the writing of 300 words in exchange for smoking a cigarette, and the task carries you to produce 1000, then all the better. After all, writing is presumed to be one of your goals.

Barter across the two lists

Set up a bartering desire-cost system in a way that works for you. In the simplest implementation, you enforce yourself to execute any cost-related behavior of your choice in exchange for any desire-list behavior you succumb to. You may require a certain sequence to the two behaviors, or leave it arbitrary. Or it may depend on the specific pair of behaviors. If preferred, you may view it as an action/reward chain, such as only for performing a challenging task are you rewarded with one of your vices. Be honest with yourself.


You may wish to vary or impose further restrictions on the system.

  1. You can introduce units of measure, such that one unit of the desire list behavior constitutes X units of a specific cost behavior. This makes sense especially in presence of disproportional effort between the two lists.
  2. You may rename the lists to your liking. You could rename desires to vices if you prefer to focus on the more explicitly malignant behaviors. With time, you might eventually reprogram yourself and start to viscerally loathe these items, which may or may not be your intent. Be careful with the naming.
  3. Rather than have full freedom of any cost behavior, which might drive you to always consider the simplest choice, instill certain requirements. For example, for the first one or two desires of the day, require yourself to execute among one or two specific cost behaviors. These might be your priorities. Then only after executing those pre-requisites, you may further choose among a list of electives.
  4. With the system of pre-requisites and electives in place, give yourself further flexibility to circumvent it with the idea of a loan. For example, you might absolutely need that cup of coffee at the very moment, but cannot immediately divert your attention to one of the still unfulfilled pre-requisites. In this case, allow yourself to choose a more viable elective that you can quickly execute (perhaps a set of push-ups). However, you must later in the day execute the original pre-requisite. I actually follow such a system, but again, it only functions if you are honest with yourself.
  5. Randomize. If freely choosing between multiple cost behaviors, pick one randomly from time to time. Create a shuffled list of cards, or leverage a computer. With an interesting list, this should lead to an interesting day.

How effective is this bartering system?

It will depend on you and on the list contents. From my very recent experimentation, I can say that I find some way to cheat on almost a daily basis, but that I also largely respect it, an improvement over my previous state. In observing your dedication to such a system, you also open further insight to the nature of your habits, on how you operate, and on what you’re willing to sacrifice to achieve certain short and long-term goals.