Grandma’s Rule

Some of the best minds in the world are working tirelessly, spending millions to determine how to motivate us to be more productive in our daily lives.  I could’ve saved them a lot of time and effort by just telling them about Grandma’s Rule:

Grandma’s Rule is that you eat your vegetables if you want dessert.

To most parents, this is obvious; in fact, it’s a common parenting technique that has been around for ages.  Psychology researchers have even figured it out in the 70s and have called it Premack’s Principle.  It’s simple and extremely effective.

The main idea of Grandma’s Rule is that there are generally things you don’t like doing but you know are good for you (e.g. eating veggies, exercising, doing your homework) as well as things you like doing (e.g. playing games, indulging in dessert, watching a movie).  Left to our own devices, we tend to do what we like doing instead of things we don’t like doing even though they’re beneficial for us.  Pretty obvious, right?  The more difficult question is how do we get ourselves to do these less desirable but beneficial things.  The answer is simple: Grandma’s Rule.  Only allow yourself to do the pleasurable activity once you have finished all the unpleasant but beneficial activities.  It’s a super power for productivity and it’s easy to see why.

Every time you do unpleasant activities, you get rewarded with a desirable activity i.e. positive reinforcement.  Over time, these unpleasant activities become less and less unpleasant because of the positive reinforcement of the reward, making them easier (and more likely) for you to do them.  Moreover, the additional boost to productivity gives you more positive reinforcement because you’re getting so much done, which encourages you to keep doing it and getting more done.  In engineering terms, we call this a positive feedback loop.

There are probably only a few dozen really important ideas that can carry 80% of the freight in your life, and Grandma’s Rule is definitely one of them.  Before I finish off, I want to retell an anecdote that Charlie Munger mentioned in one of his speeches.  He tells us of a very well paid psychologist who runs around America telling executives how to manipulate themselves to be more productive using not much more than a disciplined application of Grandma’s Rule.   This psychologist basically tells the executive to organize their day so that what’s unpleasant and important gets scheduled first and then reward themselves with something they really like doing afterwards.  The executive see that it works marvels and with the obvious gain in productivity the psychologist gets paid very handsomely.  Granny was a very wise woman.

An idea doesn’t have to be complicated for it to be extremely effective.  Granny’s rule is definitely one of these super effective yet simple ideas1.  Although truth be told, I am questioning a bit if it works all the time.  I actually do like eating vegetables before dessert, so maybe it won’t work for me in that case.  Unless, it already has worked… *Mind Blown*.  Granny was a very wise woman.

  1. Another important one is the golden rule, which has been around for at least a couple of millennia.  It’s clear that the idea of reciprocity is something that is tightly linked to human societies. []