Do I have to? Convincing yourself to do things

A significant portion of life consists of convincing yourself to do things—things you know you should do but really don’t want to. From watching your diet, to organizing your garage, to seeing the doctor, unappealing but critical tasks abound.

What can negotiations research teach us about such situations? Quite a lot if we treat them as negotiations between two tiny versions of ourselves—one motivated by wants and the other by needs. Indeed, by construing such situations as negotiations between our want selves and should selves, we can start to make life negotiable.

In particular, when you see your should self imploring you to do something that your want self detests, it can often help to:

  1. Consider their underlying intentions. Neither your want self nor your should self has ulterior motives. The should self doesn’t want to eliminate all your fun by imploring you to diet; that self is only trying to watch your waistline. Conversely, the want self doesn’t want to prematurely clog your arteries; that self simply wants you to enjoy the burger. Acknowledging the positive intentions of both selves can help you to take both seriously.
  2. Make mutually beneficial tradeoffs. If your two selves are fighting over just one issue, one of them is likely to leave unhappy. If they’re debating whether to eat that cake, for example, the should self will be none-too-pleased when you do. But each self probably has additional concerns. For example, perhaps your should self has been nagging you to see the doctor. Would that self let you eat the cake if you agreed to see the doctor?
  3. Get creative to satisfy both selves’ interests. Alternatively, can you identify a creative solution that satisfies both sides at the same time—often called a bridging solution? Imagine your two selves are fighting over whether to clean the garage, for example. Could you satisfy both by paying somebody else to do so?

The nice part about negotiations with yourself is that you always tend to win. But perhaps these tips can help you to identify a win-win.

Negotiation as entrepreneurship

When we hear the word “negotiate,” we often think of ourselves in a “negotiation,” staring down an unscrupulous car dealer or intransigent HR representative. Only infrequently do we treat “negotiate” as what it is: a verb.

That’s a shame because it leads us to forget that negotiating is an action people choose to take. Someone has to decide to negotiate. Remembering that can help us see negotiation for what it really is: an entrepreneurial attempt to achieve our own goals by helping someone else do the same. And seeing negotiation as entrepreneurship can make life more negotiable.

A quick, simple, real-life story to illustrate what I mean: I hate and I mean hate putting away all my clothes after they’re washed. I’m not sure what it is: perhaps it’s the press of other priorities, e.g., the need to publish or perish. Or perhaps just laziness. Regardless, I despise few chores more than folding and hanging. My wife, in turn, hates and I mean hates cleaning the cat box. And her reasoning is a little more sensible: it stinks and spills all over the place, and the cat inevitably decides to resolve his indigestion at just that moment. Loving my boy cat to pieces, however, I don’t really mind it.

Now, this looks nothing like a negotiation—particularly the kind with the car dealer or HR rep. But it clearly presents the opportunity to negotiate—and did in real life. Talking through our respective hates one day, she expressed confusion over mine: “What’s so bad about putting your clothes away?” And herein lay an entrepreneurial opportunity.

No, I wasn’t launching a Silicon Valley startup, seeking VC funding, or even setting up a corner store. But I would like to think I was being quite entrepreneurial when I proposed the simple and obvious trade: How about you put my clothes away if I clean the cat box? It’s not rocket science, and my end of the bargain may even seem silly if you like folding or dislike cat excrement. But it made sense to both of us at the time and made us both better off over the long run.

It’s a silly story, I know, but it has a point: the real purpose of negotiation is not to bend a car dealer into submission. It’s to create value by meeting your own needs and someone else’s at the same time. Since doing that is the same as being entrepreneurial, we’d probably all benefit by starting to see negotiation as entrepreneurship rather than conflict.

Household harmony: Carving up the chores without conflict

How often have you stopped and thought: “Gee, I wish I was doing more housework”? Whether it’s washing the dishes, vacuuming the carpet, or cleaning the cat box, few of us want more housework. As a result, those of us who live with others are likely to eventually experience chore-based conflict.

Dividing up the chores can be contentious! But it’s negotiable.

To negotiate this particular morass, it helps to understand negative bargaining zones and how to deal with them. This post will introduce that topic and propose one strategic response; future posts will offer many more.

So imagine a simple example: you’re fighting with a dissatisfied spouse about washing the dishes. You wash the dishes on Saturday and Sunday, which seems appropriate since your high-stress (and high-paying) job occupies your time Monday through Friday. Your spouse does the dishes the rest of the week, which might seem unfair except that he (to alternate genders in my posts) works a low-stress, part-time job that leaves lots of time for scrubbing.

“Thomasina,” he says, “you’re not pulling your weight around the sink.” “Thomas,” you say, “you’re making 1/100th of my salary.” And thus it’s come to a head.

In a pinch, you’re also willing to wash dishes on Friday (for a total of three days per week). But you’d really rather sip a margarita that night, and you think the idea of Thursday dishes is outrageous. Unfortunately, Thomas doesn’t see it that way: “Every time you come home late, you eat nachos and sip margaritas! Do you know how many dishes that creates, and how hard I have to scrub that nacho cheese? It’s only right for you to do dishes at least Thursday through Sunday!”

This is a negative bargaining zone: the least that one party would accept (four days of dishes) is more than the most that the other party is willing to offer (your three days). And, if you and Thomas just try to persuade each other on the dishes, this is the start of a conflict.

But do you really have to do that? Aren’t there other chores in need of doing? In particular, isn’t Thomas always vacuuming up the cat hair on Saturday, complaining all the while about missing college football? And wait, doesn’t your schedule free up considerably on the weekend? What if you offered to take over the Saturday vacuuming while maintaining your current level of dishwashing?

Well, it’s no telling what Thomas will say (especially if he’s still brooding over the salary comment). But chances are, he’ll at least stop insisting on Thursday dishes. And he may even get so excited about college football that he forgets about Friday dishes.

What’s happened here? You initially faced a negative bargaining zone: four days of dishes demanded versus three days offered. But by introducing another issue (vacuuming), you’re now making an offer that exceeds his minimum demands (defined more broadly). You’ve turned the bargaining zone positive and, in the process, made housework negotiable.

So here’s the bottom line: Many of our conflicts only become conflicts because we fixate on one issue. By introducing another issue, we give ourselves at least a fighting chance of not fighting.

Have you ever split up the housework several chores at a time?