hard habits and goalsThere’s a saying that you should never trust a skinny chef. By that logic, you should never trust an out of shape behavioral designer.

Over the past four years, I’ve discovered many incredible ways to hack my habits and improve my life. I have taught myself to love running, dramatically improved my diet and found the focus to write a bestselling book. Understanding how the mind works and using it to affect my daily behaviors has yielded tremendous dividends.

Never trust an out of shape behavioral designer. Click To Tweet

However, there is one goal that’s nagged at me for years that despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to achieve — going to the gym consistently. I hate lifting weights. Hate it. I disdain the strain, the sweat, the smells — all of it. The only thing I like about working out are the results. Unfortunately, there’s no way to enjoy the benefits of going to the gym without, you know, actually going to the gym.

That’s not to say building muscle is all that important. Diet has a much greater impact on body weight and health than exercise. But given that I’ve already hacked my diet and no longer struggle with eating right, I wanted to finally get to the bottom of this stubborn challenge.

Why was this one goal so hard to achieve? If I could figure out a way to overcome this challenge, perhaps it would provide insights into how to tackle other difficult to achieve goals.

Habits vs. Routines – There is a Difference

Recently, it seems habits are everywhere. A slew of new books, not to mention countless blog posts and apps, guarantee a whole new you by harnessing the power of habits. However, almost all of these well intentioned authors promise too much. Many over-prescribe habits as a solution to problems they just can’t fix.

So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.

Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.

However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.

Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.

Behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. Click To Tweet

So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When I finally realized I would never succeed at making going to the gym a habit, I began looking for how to establish a routine instead.

Burn or Burn

A word of warning. Before I share one technique I used to finally get myself to go to the gym regularly, I need to share a few disclaimers.

First, this technique, as effective as it is, can be dangerous. It is a very good way to get you to do a routine but provides no safeguards against doing the wrong thing again and again. If you’re doing something counterproductive, this technique will only get you to do more of it. For example, doing tons of sit-ups won’t help you (and may actually hurt you) if you’re also drinking sugary sodas every day.

Second, this method is not good for getting other people to do things. This is for personal use only so don’t try and force it on people who have to do what you tell them, like employees or your kids.

Finally, this isn’t the only method you can use and admittedly this is a rather brute force strain of behavior change. If learning to love a behavior is an option, I recommend trying a different technique. For example, I’ve written about finding your MEA – your Minimum Enjoyable Action. The MEA method is great for simple behaviors you enjoy doing. I learned to love running because I always enjoyed going on walks. Finding my MEA proved very effective at slowly improving my stamina until running replaced walking as an enjoyable pastime.

However, there are certain things we just don’t like doing, but we must do anyway. These behaviors require diligence, grit, hard work and consistency. This is where what I call the “burn or burn” technique comes in.

How it Works

  1. Pick your routine. For me, my routine was hitting the gym.
  2. Book your time. Make time in your schedule for the routine. If you don’t reserve the time as you would booking an appointment or important meeting, the routine won’t happen.
  3. Find a crisp $100 bill. Other denominations will work too but it has to be an amount you’d hate to lose.
  4. Find a lighter.
  5. Buy a wall calendar and place it somewhere you’ll see every day. My calendar is in my closet and it’s the first thing I see when I get dressed in the morning.
  6. Tape the $100 bill to today’s date in the calendar and place the lighter somewhere visible near the wall calendar.

Now you have a choice to make. Everyday, when the time comes to do your routine, you can chose either option A and do the routine, which in my case was to feel the “burn” in the gym, or option B and literally burn your money. You can’t give the money to someone or buy something with it, you have to set it aflame.

Yes, I know it’s technically illegal to destroy government tender but the reason this technique works is that you should never have to actually burn the money. Instead, the threat of watching your money go up in smoke makes this technique work. I’ve been on “burn or burn” for six months now and I haven’t burned a bill yet.

Why it Works

As radical as “burn or burn” sounds, there’s good science to support why it’s so effective. For one, it’s no surprise we hate losing money. But why not pay yourself for doing the routine instead of taking money away? Social scientists tell us humans feel the psychological pain of loss twice as powerfully as the satisfaction of a gain — a phenomenon known as “loss aversion.”

Furthermore, people are notoriously awful at predicting their future actions. “Sure, I’ll go to the gym tomorrow,” I’d say, but when tomorrow came, I’d find an excuse. The theory of hyperbolic discounting helps explain why what we say we will do in the future is not what we do when the time comes to actually do it. We are “present-biased,” meaning we fail to properly value benefits we won’t realize for some time. These psychological tendencies conspire to keep us from doing the things we know we should.

The “burn or burn” technique works by binding us to a contract we can’t weasel out of Click To Tweet

The “burn or burn” technique works by binding us to a financially painful contract so we can’t weasel out of it when the task needs to get done. In fact, a similar technique was shown to be amazingly effective at helping smokers kick their addiction to cigarettes. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that when smokers were asked to risk their own money, they were much more likely to quit.

Unfortunately, the researchers in the smoking study found that very few smokers would agree to risk their money. Perhaps these test subjects knew that if they wagered their own cash, they’d have to actually stop smoking, something they likely did not want to do.

I too struggled with starting “burn or burn” because I knew it meant I’d have to actually do the uncomfortable work. Then, I finally realized how ridiculous this line of thinking was. Why would I resist a technique that virtually guaranteed I would accomplish my goal?

If I wasn’t ready to commit, then I should forget the goal altogether. But if I really wanted it, I should gladly put money on the line to make sure I’d do the heavy lifting. After several weeks of difficult deliberation, I finally made my decision. I nailed the calendar to my wall, taped my money to the date, and put my lighter on the shelf where it still sits today and every day.

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Share this essay:

  • Michael Miller

    It’s almost like a hack you have done on yourself. I love it.

  • Darkorbit

    Choose your habits wisely

  • Rex Stock

    Nice piece, Nir. How come so much money is being invested (by investors) in apps and programs that don’t work? It’s downright maddening.

  • Rafael Weinberg

    Nir, after reflecting on your technique it occured To me that This technique might lead To an OCD like behaviour. What do you think?

    • I’m fairly convinced OCD is not something you catch.

      • Rafael Weinberg

        I meant that you build yourself a ritual in which you have a negative outcome if you do not accomplish something that is part of a routine. When it becomes automatic this game can turn into a neorosis. May be an extreme scenario but a possible one. What do you Think?

  • Interesting post Nir. And glad to read a blog post of yours after long. I would like to raise a few points made by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit [despite what you wrote about habit-forming apps, blogs and books 🙂 ].

    He said that developing a habit which is difficult is easier when we create a craving. A craving is triggered, following which we take a positive action, and then reward ourselves either intrinsically (in the mind) or externally (one tiny slab of black chocolate if we yearn for something sweet). He also mentioned that people tend to work out better when they find an exercise partner in the gym, and the place becomes friendlier.

    Question: How can we motivate someone to formulate a habit which they know is good for them but keep avoiding using excuses?

    • Again, habits are good for behaviors requiring little conscious thought. I don’t think habit-formation techniques (Duhigg-style) are good for complex, high will power behaviors. Also, as I state in the article, this technique is not for getting others to do something. Getting people to do things the DON’T want to do is not persuasion, it’s coercion and has some nasty ethical consequences.

  • Here’s an idea! … Take a “burn or burn” challenge for 1 week and let me know how it goes in the comments here.

  • Vadim Komisarchik

    Great article Nir! What about if you’re not entirely honest with yourself about the habit? For example, does it count only when I physically go to the gym, or does it count when I do a specific set of exercises in the gum? How do you count for the quality of the habit in this technique?

  • Dan O’Brien

    I use behavior modification for nearly everything thing I do, and you hit the nail on the head. It is all about the reward and consequence structure in your behavior schedule. Make something you don’t want to lose contingent on a behavior and you have a strong reinforcer. Well written indeed. Nomenclature and neuroscience play a large role in pathway activation and maintenance. I look forward to reading more.

  • I agree that habit formation techniques don’t work for things that require major effort (or many steps). An alternate version of the $100 bill trick that I like is using a smaller amount (for example, 20 $5 bills, if you want to go to the gym 20 times per month). You need 2 jars. At the end of every day that you’ve scheduled as a gym day and you actually went to the gym, you take one of the $5 bills and place it in a jar marked “Awesome Me.” Every day that you were supposed to go and didn’t, put the money in a jar marked for someone else (friend, enemy, barista — doesn’t matter). At the end of a month, you get to spend whatever money you have on whatever you like, or put it back into the fund for the coming month. This helps avoid the “all or nothing” nature of losing $100 on the first or second (or 20th) day and giving up in frustration (or poverty). Of course, all those little things like getting your gym bag ready the night before, and having a gym buddy who helps keep you accountable also contribute to the probability of success.

  • I agree that habit formation techniques don’t work for things that require major effort (or many steps). An alternate version of the $100 bill trick that I like is using a smaller amount (for example, 20 $5 bills, if you want to go to the gym 20 times per month). You need 2 jars. At the end of every day that you’ve scheduled as a gym day and you actually went to the gym, you take one of the $5 bills and place it in a jar marked “Awesome Me.” Every day that you were supposed to go and didn’t, put the money in a jar marked for someone else (friend, enemy, barista — doesn’t matter). At the end of a month, you get to spend whatever money you have on whatever you like, or put it back into the fund for the coming month. This helps avoid the “all or nothing” nature of losing $100 on the first or second (or 20th) day and giving up in frustration (or poverty). Of course, all those little things like getting your gym bag ready the night before, and having a gym buddy who helps keep you accountable also contribute to the probability of success.

    • This is pre-empting your own success though. If you want the habit bad enough, you’ll put up the money. If you don’t feel the pain you won’t get the gain.

      • Legend79

        Tiresome cliche. Not all pain results in gain.

  • Legend79

    Wow. If it takesburning money, maybe the desired habit aint that important, and/or beneficial. ??
    Maybe hacking the “hate” is something that needs more attention…??

    AS a former personal trainer and confronted with the exercise hater I always asked them to seriously delve iinto what it was that made them hate it…most times it was some bad school gym and/or childhood sports fail, or embarrassment. Which once confronted was easy to beat…did you stop doing math becauseyou goofed up in class? Did you stop eating because you once laughed or sneezed out some food at someone?

    • Good point. It bears mentioning that after we’ve enticed ourselves with an extrinsic reward for a while, we often realize that whatever we “hated” initially is actually enjoyable (or at least neutral) to us now. I think that getting over that hump can required some extra pushes, though.

  • lt_an

    Thanks for writing the great article on “burn or burn” to form habits.

    I have also seen this being used by corporations. Discovery (a South African life and health insurer) is offering Apple Watch for their policyholders to get them active and fit. If their weekly fitness targets are met over 24 months, the Apple Watch is free. If some or all the targets are missed, there is a monthly penalty of between 1/24 to 1/48 the cost of the watch.


  • The old rubber band on the wrist will accomplish the same thing.

  • As you note, burning US currency is technically a crime. Also, some people can afford to burn $100, others not. Moreover, depending on where and how you burn the bill, you could start a bigger fire, maybe do serious damage or hurt yourself or someone else.

    The point is that burning a big bill takes planning, effort, and may be risky. I thought of an alternative that is easier, less hazardous, and likely more motivating…

    Put the $100 bill in an envelope, stamped, sealed, and addressed to someone or some organization you absolutely despise. Think: Your worst enemy.

    No return address.

    Then hand the envelope to your personal trainer or fitness instructor at the gym with these instructions: If I fail to show up for a scheduled session, you must mail this letter.


    • The trick of giving money to an organization you hate has always rubbed me the wrong way. I like the underlying logic of it (because cognitive dissonance will make us work harder to keep from being a hypocrite), but it has the same all-or-none quality that burning the $100 bill has: as soon as you miss a day and lose your $100, what incentive do you have to start again? I would probably be so disgusted with myself, for losing the money AND for failing in my commitment, that I’d cleverly rationalize my way out of the commitment rather than face the prospect of going through that again.
      Here’s another idea with high stakes, but smaller pain points along the way: Put the $100 (or $200, or $1000, whatever is feasible for you) in small bills in a jar labelled “Yes.” Have another jar that is empty and labelled “No.” Set an amount of time (say, 6 months) that you want to keep your commitment for. For every day that you don’t keep your commitment, take one bill out of the “Yes” jar and put it in the “No” jar. At the end of 6 months, if all the bills are in the “Yes” jar, you can take the money and get what you want. If there are some bills in the “No” jar, you have to keep going with your commitment until you’ve moved all the bills back to the “Yes” jar.
      Of course, you can start again with a different reward item after you finish this one, but the hope is that by the time you’ve gone to the gym (or practiced your cello, or called your mother, or whatever) consistently for 6 months, it will be a habit for you that won’t need an external reinforcer.
      I like this method because the cash in the “Yes” jar can keep you aware of what you’ve already accomplished, and every bill that moves from “No” to “Yes” increases your confidence that even when you fall off the wagon, you can get back on again and pick up where you left off.

  • Legend79

    I have to bring this up again…why not hack the “hate”, or discomfort, or avoidance methods…over committing what is a real crime and an ethical one for many people? (Burning much needed and hardearned money, which to me would be an act of self destruction.)

    Exercise for me is the easiest of habits. Never had a problem with it. Now as a struggling, novice writer (with whole plotlines clear and ready in my head) who can find a dozen more things to do then face that blank page (even after writing a hundred of them) that’s what I have to hack. Why when I’m on a roll do I suddenly freeze up and avoid the task of writing? Fear of failure? Fear of success? (Which I think might be me…)

    So how does one hack those issues?

  • Dave Dann

    I offer a service, send me the $100 and then call me up to burn it when you fail going to the gym. Making it impossible to avoid the pain.

  • Hi Nir! For those wanting to do this with more structure, here’s our list of apps that implement commitment devices: http://blog.beeminder.com/competitors (Of course I’m the cofounder of one of them. Let’s see if anyone can guess which.)

    The big three (he says, immodestly) are StickK, Beeminder, and Pact. StickK (“take a contract out on yourself”) was the first to popularize the idea of a web-based service for commitment contracts. Beeminder is like StickK for data nerds, tying the commitment contract to a graph of your progress. (I’ll resist elaborate explications of all the advantages that has in terms of turning long-term commitments into daily commitments.) And then Pact (formerly GymPact) is focused on workouts and has the claim to fame that the losers pay the winners. (But note the adverse selection problem there — the payouts are limited to token amounts.)

    And since Nir asked for our own “burn or burn” stories, here’s one of my fitness-related graphs: http://beeminder.com/d/push (automatically counted by touching my nose to my phone on each repetition — and yes, I’ve done over 45,000 since I started that goal in 2012)

  • Jacqueline Pretty

    As soon as you mentioned $100 bills, my stomach turned – I can just imagine how powerful actually doing it is!

  • Jon Watts

    This reminds me of the saying ‘putting your money where your mouth is’, it’s just the conversation is with yourself.

  • Marcin Len

    Hi! I am starting today. Been thinking about it for the last 3 days. I am learning how to program from youtube, right now in the middle of the course that i started 5 months ago, although have been procrastinating for the last two months. My plan is to do at least 1 hour daily until the end of the course.

    • Marcin Len

      7 days past, and I have been working on my goal every day. My long term goal is to learn coding every day for 284 days, at least one hour a day, hopefully build a long term habit. I slightly modified your technique. Instead of burning money, I will flush them down the toilet. Also entry level for me is 10£, but every time I slip that will double next day. I kind of amazed how loss of money can influence my decision making. Thank you for great article.

      • Wow! Thanks for keeping us updated!

  • Divya Ramamurthy

    This is a very interesting article! Practicing good habits is always good for your business or company. Though the “burn or burn” challenge is extreme, it is still a way to motivate yourself. Some may resort to other means that are more people-friendly. Nevertheless, breaking bad habits only benefits you especially in a work environment. I found it very interesting how you compared a habit to a routine because I’ve never thought about a clear difference between the two.
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  • Mac Mac

    I am really surprised that neither the article or any of the comments mentions the obvious way out. Spotting the calendar and asking “Burn or burn?” And deciding, “Well, today I’m not doing either.” Isn’t this what we all do with other failed techniques? “Sorry, not this time. Maybe later, maybe tomorrow.” Good old procrastination. I wouldn’t want to burn money. I get exhausted and bored just thinking about exercise. So, I’d just let myself off the hook, and I KNOW others would too. I know it and you know it.

    I have trouble believing the author really believes that the smokers who refused to participate in the NEJM study did so because they knew they’d actually have to quit. Please. They knew they’d loose their money, and weren’t about to volunteer for that!

    Don’t mean to be rude, but for most people this “burn or burn” technique simply won’t work when conducted privately as proposed. I guarantee it. It might work for a week or few, but eventually most of us will break the schedule.

    Some have suggested recruiting an ally to burn the money for you. That’s much harder to make work, but far more likely to incentivize.

    This article starts off great, there’s some good stuff in the beginning. The difference between habits and routines is particularly instructive. Making going to the gym a part of one’s routine (and once there having a specific circuit to follow) seems like it could work pretty well to leverage the power of routines. Standing there in the closet, I don’t have to decide to burn muscles this morning, I just have to decide to simply go to the gym (that’s easy). Once there, it’s much easier to use the time well.

  • StickK also works if you aren’t into committing federal crimes. 🙂

  • Nice! “Leaving the world no worse than you found it” seems like a very reasonable motive.

  • Leslie

    Great and effective method! I like the idea of taking the initiative to establish a solid method for behavioral control. Most people just think “I wish” and “I want”, but I think taking action to “guarantee” certain behavior is itself effective for providing you the will power, because it instills a sense of agency in you; it puts you in the necessary “doer” mindset.

  • NDR_87

    Not sure how this is different from all the other methods? Aren’t you still using willpower as much? It seems to be that it’s just a more convuluted way of doing it. You can still decide not to do either option, that is, not to burn the bill *and* not go to the gym and there’s nothing but your willpower to stop that from happening. In the regular way of creating a habit you’re using willpower to go to the gym, in this way you’re using willpower to go to the gym and if you don’t, use willpower to burn the $100 bill. In your case you seem to have a good amount of it considering how you’ve already successfully created useful habits for you.

    Why this made you go to the gym and the other methods couldn’t I don’t know, but it seems as (in)effective for someone whose problem is lack of willpower. And for those that already have willpower, aren’t there other less radical but as effective, methods?

    • Thanks for the question. I think the difference is that a pre-commitment device like this binds us so that we don’t have to use willpower later every time we want to do the behavior.