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Stakes: How To Actually Hold Yourself Accountable

This article is part of a series on the learning framework developed by Tim Ferriss through years of experimentation, called DiSSS (or DS3). The initials stand for Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes. While each article can easily stand on its own, if you want to start from the beginning, go to my article on deconstruction.


When you’ve set up and structured everything regarding your learning, the next step is pretty simple: practice. It’s now time to insert the new information into your brain, and then apply it in order to strengthen your comprehension and retention.

But, while this step is quite simple to describe, actually doing it is by no means easy. You have to stay committed to your learning process, overcome any obstacles or disappointments, and beat procrastination. While this will be an ongoing process in your learning, you can do something from the beginning to make it easier. That is introducing stakes.

Stakes – Important Concepts

Built-in stakes or not?

According to Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Chef (and to a lot of research) the 2 most important keys to achieving a goal are creating incentives and introducing accountability. The truth is that sometimes stakes are built-in in your process, like, for example, if you are moving to China in a few months and you are learning Chinese.

But, most of the time, those stakes will not be present by default, and you will have to deliberately create them. Such examples are when you are in the early years of college, when you learn something new aiming for a promotion, and generally whenever the initiative to start learning is mainly internal.

Opportunity to win vs fear of losing

Economists and behavioral psychologists used to believe that the power driving people the most was the opportunity to win something. But, research from the New York University has proven that fear of losing is actually by far the biggest motivator in human behavior.

Knowing that, when creating stakes for yourself you should prefer to create an ‘investment’ up front, which you then stand to lose if you don’t stay committed. Of course, if that’s not possible, the promise of reward can be compelling as well (just not as much).

The power of deadlines

While reading all the strategies to introduce stakes below, you should keep in mind the importance of building deadlines. Humans respond very well to deadlines, and even procrastinators find that their procrastination can be contained when facing deadlines. The biggest problems arise when there is no deadline, and that’s why many people struggle when their motivation is internal, without external stakes.

Therefore, make sure to create deadlines in your learning process, either by having a friend keep you accountable, or by promising results to someone (e.g. a client or a teacher) by a certain date.

The importance of stakes – a real-life example

I, personally, have always been the type of person that would start one thing after the other, only to quit after a few weeks or, in the best cases, a few months. These things include, but are not at all limited to, languages (Spanish and Japanese), martial arts, various aspects of coding, exercise, meditation, journaling, and many many more.

To top it off, all these were after I discovered metalearning, and therefore my learning or habit-building were structured better than average. Thanks to that, I was able to avoid the common frustration of not improving fast enough, but even that was never enough. The problem had always been that I would rely on self-discipline and willpower to stay committed. To be frank, humans are horrible at self-discipline. A lot of research is backing this statement; I suggest reading the great book by Benjamin Hardy, titled Willpower Doesn’t Work.

What I should have relied on is, you guessed it, stakes. As soon as I started utilizing stakes in my processes, I witnessed unprecedented commitment and productivity in myself. By being committed to you, I’ve managed to consistently publish an article every week, and study Italian at least 1 hour per day for The Italian in 3 Months Challenge.

Also, by collaborating with a person I really admire, I’ve introduced stakes in my work, which allow me to perform at my best. Finally, by being a member of a MasterMind accountability group (more on that later), I’ve managed to learn quickly and consistently a lot of things about blogging and entrepreneurship.

Ways to introduce stakes

1) Accountability Buddies

The most important and effective way to introduce accountability in your life is through a friend, in a process called accountability buddies. The concept is that you each set your goals and processes, and then meet with each other regularly (e.g. once per week) to check up on each other. This produces great results, and also allows for regular feedback, which is a very important part of your learning process.

Although this way is the most effective one, there are various alternatives. For one, you could just ask a friend to check up on you, without necessarily returning the favor. Also, you could engage with a mentor, who could both guide you and keep you accountable. This is quite common, actually, when people get a teacher to learn instead of self-educating.

2) Stake your reputation

Another great technique to introduce stakes is by sharing your goals, and maybe even your process, with every single person you can. This works wonders, mainly because it follows the ‘fear of losing’ principle, where it is your reputation that is at stake. It also allows for a kind of accountability partner, as some of the people you share your plans with may check up on you throughout your process. An example is my Italian Challenge, where I’m accountable to all of you.

Note that another way to stake your reputation is by sharing your plans with a specific person you may want to impress. For example, it could be a person you are romantically interested in, or it could be your boss. You wouldn’t want to tell your boss that you are learning a new skill that is relevant to your job and then quit, would you?

3) Money is a great incentive

Well, it’s true. Money is one of the best driving powers for humans, and while earning it is a big motivator, the fear of losing it is unparalleled. Therefore, an amazing strategy to introduce stakes is by wagering a substantial amount of money for you up front, which you then stand to lose if you don’t stay committed. According to Tim Ferriss, a good amount is 1% of your annual income.

A simple, yet effective, way to use this technique is by making a bet with a friend or mentor. But, if you want to be more effective, you could use a service like stickK, where you wager your money as an incentive to stay committed. There a referee is appointed (could be a friend or someone from the site), and, in case you fail, the site automatically lets your friends know (ouch), and also sends your wager to an anti-charity of your choice. An anti-charity is a charity you would rather ‘die’ than give money to, like an opposing political party or sports team.

Apart from stickK, you can also check out DietBet and Beeminder.

4) Leverage human instincts

Humans are competitive by nature, and therefore a great strategy to introduce stakes would be to compete with other people towards a goal. Apart from competition, collaboration is a strong motivating factor as well, because people don’t want to let others down. Finally, humans are highly motivated by rewards, so introducing them into your process can produce amazing results.

While these are extremely effective strategies, they are often hard to implement, and this is why they are not the first items in this list. Nevertheless, there is a process that can make it easy for you, and that is gamification. Gamification is the usage of the above (and more) game elements to enhance experiences, driving participation, engagement, and loyalty in the users. Utilize the work others put in building such compelling experiences, by hunting down such apps, which usually feature competitive and collaborative elements, as well as rewards.

Make sure to read my full post on gamification to learn more about receiving all these benefits.

5) Keep yourself accountable in the short-term

While keeping yourself accountable is not a good strategy, it can be quite effective for short intervals. There are some techniques you can utilize for this, but by far my favorite one is doing a time log in days that you absolutely must perform.

In short, doing a time log entails writing down what you do every single minute in a day. This prevents you from lying to yourself, as you get to be insanely honest with what you spend your time on. Personally, I find this a great technique for crazy days, that helps me completely beat procrastination. Learn more about doing a time log in my relevant article.

6) MasterMind groups

MasterMind groups are like accountability buddies, but in group form. The reason I didn’t include it in the first item is that (usually) the primary focus of MasterMind groups is not accountability, although they have that role too. Instead, it’s mostly about members that share common goals, are brutally honest with each other, and share value and knowledge as necessary. I include it in this list because such a group can provide you with an immense amount of value, while also helping with keeping you accountable, especially if you specifically ask for it (as I’ve done).


Stakes are a really important part of the process, that you need to incorporate in order to ensure that you stay committed. Of course, a big part of accountability has been introduced when you chose a subject to study, as I assume that you’ve chosen something that is relevant to your life right now. If not, make sure to discover ways that will make it relevant as fast as possible.

Also, go ahead and introduce stakes to existing learning or other processes you are currently going through in your life. If not, at least add them the next time you set up a process. Finally, don’t forget that not everything works for everyone. Experiment with the various ideas in this article, and figure out what suits you.

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