When to Raise (or Lower) the Stakes

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Stakes play a big role in our lives. Steaks, too. But should you always try to raise the stakes?

Just about every action we take has stakes attached to it. If you place a bet, stakes are defined in dollars, but if you want to improve your life, stakes are conceptual and more fluid. The size of the stakes we place on our goals can determine whether we fail or succeed.

Are Higher or Lower Stakes Better?

Neither higher or lower stakes is inherently better. Though if you ask the average person or self-help guru, they will always tell you to raise the stakes, to elevate the importance of things in your life. This can be effective, but it can also freeze us.

A mini habit lowers the stakes of a beneficial behavior you’d like to master. It’s been crucial to my success because I am weaker than average when it comes to discipline. I’ve gotten better at it, but in the last few years, I’ve mostly relied on lowering the stakes to get myself unfrozen, and have accomplished much more than when I used high stakes.

High stakes aggressively provoke action, while low stakes gently lure you into action.

This is not to say that I’m afraid of the big moment. I am intensely competitive. For example, when playing basketball, I always want the ball in my hands when the game is on the line (high stakes), and I have a good track record of making game-winning shots. So this is not to say that a person who does better with low stakes in one area is weak or cowardly in general. Ideal stakes are situational and unique to each person.

Those who prefer low-stakes actions can actually be more stubborn and “maverick” than those who prefer high-stakes actions. Part of the reason I struggle with discipline is because I’m extremely independent and hate feeling controlled, even if it’s by my own goals. A high-stakes situation feels controlling, because the stakes basically “force you” into a particular action. So when I’m the one raising the stakes, I often resist action and declare my freedom by not doing anything.

Example and Analysis 

High Stakes: “I must get in superb shape, the best of my life.”

Stakes aren’t always defined by negativity (Negative stakes: I’m going to get tasered if I don’t!). In this case, the desire is to do something very beneficial and life-changing. But the stakes are high because it would really hurt to fail. The higher the reward, the greater the pain of failure. That’s high stakes.

Low Stakes: “I’m going to do one push-up per day.”

This is a low-stakes aim. You’re not trying to transform yourself overnight. You would certainly like this to lead to better things, but given this goal, failure would merely mean that you didn’t do a single push-up. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? The truth is that it’s a very big deal (since habit-formation is life-changing), but it’s strategically presented as a low-stakes aim.

Looking at these two options, what differences do you see?

  1. One push-up offers much more freedom. To get in the best shape of your life requires a serious time and energy commitment, along with sacrifices. 
  2. Failing to do one push-up is negligible, but failing to get into the best shape of your life will make you think about who you are. Failing to reach a big target is a big blow to one’s confidence. You might wonder if you’ll ever be able to reach it.
  3. Psychologically, they are opposite. “Best shape of your life” pushes you, “one push-up” pulls you toward it.

The Psychology of Stakes

Ever since writing Mini Habits, I’ve been torn a little bit, because I see the value in raising the stakes, too. Athletes in my favorite sports raise the stakes to push themselves to higher and higher levels of success, and it works. I also see people succeed in their business and personal lives through raising the stakes.

But there are also an unbelievable number of people who fail or hold themselves back by raising the stakes too high. There are many people (like me) who don’t respond well to high stakes in certain areas. High stakes, as you can see, provide a boom or bust outcome.

With low stakes, however, one can steadily improve in any area without all the drama. It’s easier, less stressful, and often more rewarding because you achieve more than you expect. But given the “boom” part of the high-stakes equation, it’s worth looking at what determines that outcome. How can we know when it’s time to raise the stakes? What makes a positive outcome more likely?

When and How to Raise the Stakes 

Why do you think it is that I like higher stakes in basketball but not, in say, being productive?

I’m actually good at basketball.

If I were a terrible basketball player, I’d want to pass the ball away if the game was on the line, because I’d have no confidence that I could positively affect the outcome. It’d be pretty embarrassing to airball a would-be game-winner and let the team down. But skilled players tend to get excited and rise to the occasion when the game is on the line because it’s an opportunity to prove their abilities!

To raise the stakes successfully, you should already be moderately skilled (at a minimum) in that area. One area where I could likely raise the stakes (but still might not want to) is writing. I’ve gotten better at writing, not just the art of writing, but the act of writing. It used to be so difficult for me to even start writing, and now it’s second nature (thanks to my mini habit). So I could challenge myself to write more or write better, but I’m more of a slow-cooker by nature than a pressure cooker, so I still prefer low-stakes at this point.

Personality and world view is another consideration. Productivity isn’t my main goal in life, and it’s lower on my priority list than most. Though it might surprise you to hear that I plan to never retire. Work is a very important part of my life, but it’s not the most important part of my life. That’s why I intend to work as long as I live, but not to the extent that many of my peers do.

Some people have the right personality to thrive with high-stakes goals. Others, like me, thrive with mostly low-stakes goals. Yet others will thrive with a combination of the two.

Putting all of this together, you might see the (generalized) ideal. Use a smart, low-stakes strategy like Mini Habits to become proficient in an area, and then, (if you want,) increase the stakes. If your skills can support higher stakes, it can be extremely rewarding to rise to the challenge.

Look at your current goals and evaluate their implied stakes. What is the risk/reward and how does it affect your willingness to pursue the goal? Finally, be careful not to assume that a strong motivational feeling now will continue into the future. Another issue with high-stakes goals is their front-loaded nature. It’s easy to feel motivated at the very beginning of a difficult goal (think New Year’s Resolutions), but that can wane quickly as you enter into the “grind” stages.

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