March 14, 2012 -- Quitters and daydreamers, take heart! New web services such as StickK.com don't just help keep you focused on your goals. They pay you to stick to them, and they pick your pocket if you don't. Result: You feel more committed to your ambitions, users say, and the odds that you'll achieve them rise.
Purdue pre-med student Carter Duggan, 23, hadn't had much success keeping resolutions. "It seemed like every year, on New Year's Eve, I'd make the same old resolutions. Then by the end of January, all my goals would go out the window." He decided he needed to do better. "This year, now that I'm trying to get into medical school, I know I really need to stay focused."
In December he cruised around the web, looking for tools for goal-setters, eventually settling on StickK. He says he liked the fact that StickK lets the user set any kind of goal--financial, education, romantic, health-related, anything. Other sites have a more narrow focus. Dietbet and HealthyWage, for example, are specific to people wanting to lose weight.
Duggan liked the fact that StickK makes users accountable to themselves by forcing them to put their money on the line: You sign a legally binding "commitment contract" with StickK, specifying how much you will forfeit if you fail to meet your goal. Duggan, for instance, has committed $250 that in May he'll ace his MCATs.
If you achieve your goal, you get your money back. If you don't, you forfeit it to a StickK-selected charity.
Want to up the stakes? You can designate an "anti-charity" as the beneficiary of your failure.
"We love to make things interesting," explains the website saucily. "The purpose of an anti-charity is to provide an added incentive for you to achieve your goal. By designating an anti-charity as your recipient...you'll certainly work that much harder to ensure that your money never falls into the wrong hands."
Allen Jerkins, 37, likes the sheer perversity of StickK's anti-charity option. "It's Machiavellian," he says approvingly. Jerkins, a self-confessed soft drink fiend, turned to StickK to him swear off soda. Jerkins is adamantly opposed to abortion, so he picked, as his anti-charity, the NARAL Pro-choice America Foundation.
StickK's list of 23 anti-charities (their anti-ness, of course, being in the eye of each goal-setting beholder) includes: The George W. Bush Presidential Library, the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, the NRA, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, and various fan clubs of opposing sports teams.
"If I screw up," says Jerkins of his commitment to lay off soft drinks, "I'm helping to fund abortion." He hasn't had a soda in six weeks.
Each StickK user also designates a referee--someone to keep tabs on him and make sure that they are sticking to their goals. Jerkins designated his friend Andrew, because, he says, "he's a no-nonsense guy and wouldn't let me get away with anything." Jerkins reports to him once a week, and Andrew then confirms to StickK that Jerkins is living up to his commitment. The arrangement based on the honor system.
StickK's CEO and co-founder Jordan Goldberg, 28, says his site's approach is based on behavioral economic research that confirms the effectiveness of commitment contracts. "At the end of the day," he says, "incentives matter. Our job is to couple both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators to maximize your likelihood of success." Goal-seekers given an incentive, whether in the form of reward or penalty, are three times more likely to meet their goals than those without, says Goldberg.
Since 2010, when StickK started, users have set themselves a bewildering variety of goals. Sam Espinosa, director of marketing, says some of the more unusual or provocative include:
Speak slowly to foreigners.
Don't cheat on my wife.
Stop head-banging out of anger.
No porn at work.
Learn to climb a rope.
Sex twice a week with my hubby.
Play Chopin's Etude Opus 10 Number 5 at full tempo and with the correct fingerings.
Step into a ring/mat/cage at least once to fight.