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The Positive Power of Short-Term Goals and Small Rewards

By Mark Ford, founder, The Palm Beach Research Group
Friday, February 24, 2017

When I was first getting into the business of selling educational programs, a famous zero-down real estate guru asked me, "Do you know the thing people who take my courses want most?"
I had a sneaking suspicion I was about to get it wrong, but I gamely answered: "To be successful real estate investors?"
"They want to avoid taking action."
I told him I wasn't sure I understood. He was kind enough to clarify. "Most of the people who take my courses and who will be buying your programs want to feel like they are on the road to success. But they don't want that road to end. They like the journey. They fear the destination."
"And why would that be?" I asked.
"To tell you the truth," he said. "I don't know. But I can tell you this. After our real estate students have gotten the knowledge they need to succeed, few of them get out there and get to work. If you give one of my customers – someone who has completed his real estate education and is fully prepared to start investing profitably – a choice between actually getting to work and buying another course to learn more, he will buy the course."
"Are they afraid of failing?"
"Could be that," he said. "Could be they're afraid of success. As I said, I don't know."
Since then I've thought a lot about this failure-to-get-started problem. I've read dozens of books, talked to many of my colleagues, and posed the question to hundreds of my customers.
Everyone agrees that we stop ourselves from doing something new because it feels like a huge slog. The huge amount of work combined with insecurity and the possibility of failure holds us back.
The three roadblocks I see repeated time and again are:
•   Lack of Confidence: People who haven't yet been successful in life don't believe they can be, even if they are fully prepared to succeed.
•   Fear of Pain: Some people see taking action as work, and work as a form of pain. These are usually people who have never experienced the pleasure of working on something they value.
•   Laziness: Besides the fear of work, human beings are programmed to be lazy. Being lazy means trying to get what you want with the least amount of effort. Some people don't take action because they want to find an easier way.

But the fact that we feel these three things even when we are ready proves that we're behaving irrationally.
So what stops us? If these three roadblocks are why so many people don't take action when they are ready, what is the solution?
There's no mystery to that. Behavioral scientists know that the way to change a person's behavior is by motivating them through positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner studied this concept and learned that some rewards strengthen certain behaviors by "reinforcing" the mind's desire for them.
But the key to this is the "reinforcement schedule." That is, people actually need to experience success and rewards on a regular basis in order for them to be motivating forces.
When an entrepreneur has the knowledge, he knows well enough how long and hard the journey will be. He'll see his goal as a stupendous task. A long slog. Which means that any sort of positive reinforcement could be years off.
If this is something you've had trouble with in the past, there's an easy way to overcome it.
Just make your first step smaller. Much smaller...
Instead of seeing your first step as "buy a house," make it "list three local real estate brokers tomorrow."
Making your tasks small makes them less scary. And it gives you more opportunities for positive reinforcement.
I reward myself constantly and for almost any sort of accomplishment, big and small. By attaching rewards to my desired behavior, I increase the likelihood that I will repeat that behavior in the future.
Over the years, I developed a reward system that works very well for me. Here it is:
I keep a daily list of every task I want to accomplish. When I complete each task, I cross it out (or change its color on my screen) to "signal" that I have accomplished it. This little gesture is like a tiny shot of endorphins. It picks me up and gives me energy to attack my next objective.
This reward, as you can see, is pretty mundane. But that's the thing about rewards. They don't have to be big or even special. They need only be enjoyable.
If you finish your list of real estate brokers, and then change that item on a task list from red to black, you'll feel more confident taking the next step: calling and interviewing one of those brokers.
Doing this, making your tasks smaller and setting goals so that they're easily attainable, is the opposite of what some productivity gurus say – the ones who call for big and ambitious goals. And there's a reason those gurus say it. Many want their customers to fail so they can "sell them extra programs," which is what the guru I mentioned in the beginning did.
It would be easy for me to consider my color-coded list of small tasks as simply an ordinary part of my day. But by looking at it differently, by seeing it as a source of pleasurable rewards for specific, desired behavior, it motivates me.
I think that is the key – breaking your objectives into smaller and smaller tasks. That way, finishing tasks will make for behavior-changing rewards. And the little pleasures you get from that are blessed gifts. Truly speaking, you are lucky to be able to enjoy them. Be happy about that, and use it to your advantage.
Mark Ford

Further Reading:

When you get stuck, waiting for inspiration doesn't always work. In this classic essay, Mark shares a seven-step solution to starting (and finishing) your projects. Learn how to get the ball rolling and jumpstart your creative mind here: Stop Procrastinating and Start Doing... Here's How.
Successful entrepreneurs don't ignore fear. They work through it, step by step. If fear of failure is stopping you from starting your own business, Mark outlines how to lower your risk and build confidence through preparation. Read more here: The Eight-Step Plan to Overcoming Your Biggest Fears.

Market Notes


Today's chart highlights another flailing retailer...
We last checked in on weakness in retail with Michael Kors (KORS) and VF Corporation (VFC). Now more quarterly earnings reports are in, and it's clear that retail is weak across the board...
The latest disappointing story is apparel and beauty-products supplier L Brands (LB). The company owns some valuable brands, including Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works. Right now, Victoria's Secret is dragging the company down...
The brand is in the process of cutting its swim and apparel categories. This has hurt sales already, but it seems more pain is coming... The company announced that it expects same-store sales to drop 20% this year.
Yesterday, L Brands opened more than 13% lower on the news. Shares are down more than 50% from their November 2015 peak and are now trading at a new multi-year low. It's another sign to avoid the retail sector until conditions improve...

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