The Forcing Function: Make Yourself Take Action

I recently began taking an online sales course offered by the University of Chicago, and I’ve been learning a variety of useful ideas. Once you move beyond the notion of sales as a “sleazy” discipline, it becomes pretty obvious why the field is so disparaged: no one wants to put themselves at constant risk of rejection. Consultative selling, which focuses on forming a relationship with the sales target to help them solve a problem, requires you to invest a lot of emotional capital into your sales targets. As in a relationship, you incur the risk of rejection; after you put in a lot of relationship-building, the client might simply say “no.” No one wants to get hurt after making themselves vulnerable to another person.

Just another form rejection letter. Vulnerability is hard.

So how do you convince yourself to get up and take action, instead of just thinking about doing things? By using a forcing function. A forcing function is any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result. The concept comes from interaction design, where it refers to a design feature that prevents the user from completing an action without consciously considering it. For example, the “are you sure you want to delete that” prompt is a forcing function.

Often, we perform tasks on autopilot to save cognitive energy. Forcing functions deliberately disrupt that automatic behavior to bring things to your conscious attention. Beyond prompts on the computer, we can see plenty of physical examples of forcing functions. A modern microwave will not operate without door closure and will pause automatically if the door is opened while it is running. By forcing the user to close the microwave door while it is in use, it becomes impossible for the user to err by leaving the door open.

Another example is likely something you can’t imagine life without: your GPS. When cars began shipping built-in GPS systems, a forcing function prevented the user from interacting with the GPS while the car was in motion to prevent distraction. However, many drivers have found this feature irksome and current car models have ditched it. Notably, we see a spiritual successor to the GPS forcing function in Pokemon Go, Waze, Snapchat, and others apps that tells you not to drive while distracted and asks if you’re a passenger before allowing continued app usage.

Returning to the sales class I’m taking, I’ve realized that grades are forcing functions in school. The presence of a grade forces you to work hard and learn the material. (I am assuming, of course, that if you are taking a voluntary course that you had to pay for, you are at least somewhat self-motivated). In any case, grades have become a forcing function for me to do something pretty uncomfortable: trying to turn a pen into something of significantly more value via four successive trades.

I started reading up about bartering (perhaps in a subconscious attempt to avoid the forcing function) and learned about some fun stories. The Japanese legend of the Straw Millionaire, an impoverished farmer who successively trades up from a single piece of straw to marrying into a wealthy noble family, shows us how powerful bartering can be. Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald validated the power of bartering in real life with his “one red paperclip” experiment, in which he turned a red paperclip into a house via fourteen online trades. If you’re interested, here’s the list of trades.

Anyway, if you’re ever having trouble doing something, come up with a way that effectively forces you to do it. Hopefully the thought of getting a bad grade will force me to finally go trade that pen up into something fascinating.

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