Whitewashing Your Fence
by Steven M. Ledbetter
3 minute read
When I do workshops on habit-formation, people react to the information in a number of ways that I’ve gotten used to seeing. One type of reaction (that I see a lot with fitness buffs) is what I call the, “Tim Ferriss Reaction,” aka “how do I hack this?” These people love the system for fostering habit change that I’ve developed and immediately start thinking of ways to make it work best for themselves. I want to help these hackers, and I do it my usually obtuse way of telling them a story. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain writes about how Tom got his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence for him.
Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said: > > > > “What do you call work?" > > > > "Why, ain't _that_ work?" > > > > Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly: > > > > "Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer." > > > > "Oh come, now, you don't mean to let on that you _like_ it?" > > > > The brush continued to move. > > > > "Like it? Well, I don't see why I oughtn't to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” (Mark Twain,_ The Adventures of Tom Sawywer, _Chapter II) > >
The hackers I’ve met love this story because on its face it seems to be a perfect example of motivation hacking. Tom is tricking the boys into doing his work for him. So well in fact that they actually pay Tom for the privilege. The true moral here though, according to Twain’s exposition is that, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
There is no shortage of work in our lives, and because we are a country founded by Calvinists, no shortage of guilt in our lives for not working hard enough, not being disciplined enough, or not having enough willpower. The fact, however, is that willpower is limited, should really be saved for the times when we need it, and “work” is in the eye of the beholder. For example, do you really need to work out every day? Or do you need to move, pick up heavy things, and play around with your friends?
When I tell hackers about Tom whitewashing the fence, they see the trickery but miss the application. In my Habitry programs, people organize themselves into groups of SuperFriends to support each other for the 12 weeks of habit-based behavioral change. With rare exception, the groups with the most consistency are the groups that have the most fun with the habits and with each other. Tom gets his chore done by making the job fun for everyone, and once all the boys in town are together, they have fun just by the very nature of being all together. So when the hackers in my workshops want to maximize their chances of a successful lifestyle change, I tell them their path is simple, “make it as much fun for everyone else as you can.” Because when you focus on how to make the job easier for everyone else, you’ll find your chores get done without doing any real work.