Hedonic Offset

Last Updated on April 10, 2022

I lived as a chronic procrastinator for a long time. If a task was boring, stressful, or both, I would often leave them to the last minute, or worse still, past the due date. 

I tried rewards, I tried punishments. Neither worked that well.

Recently I had been putting off finished my year end business bookkeeping for a shockingly long time past due. I’d tried lots of approaches but nothing was working. It was a beautiful day and all I wanted to do was go to the beach. I exclaimed to my partner my predicament – I was met with laughter, followed by the suggestion I should just bring my bookkeeping to the beach! I thought this was a weird idea, but worth a try. 

It worked. I got started. 

The positive association of the beach was enough to offset the negative association of the bookkeeping. I’d discovered the power of a Hedonic Offset.

Some rough thoughts on it here…

Why We Put Off Stressful Tasks

It might be as simple as reading an email, but if there’s stress associated with it, it can be put off for months. Emotions are powerful.

What’s needed: System 1 and 2 alignment. I also like the “elephant and the rider” metaphor – we need to get them both on same side, else the elephant will find a way to stop you.

 The analogy suggests that everyone has two sides—a rider and an elephant. The rider represents the rational thinker, the analytical planner, the evidence-based decision-maker. The elephant, on the other hand, is an emotional player, full of energy, sympathy and loyalty, who stays put, backs away, or rears up based on feelings and instincts. The elephant is often on automatic pilot. It is the part of the brain that tells us to go ahead and eat the ice cream, after the rider has decided to put us on a diet.

Although the rider holds the reins and appears to lead the elephant, the six-ton elephant can, at any time, overpower the rider and the rider, although he may not know this, can’t force the elephant to go anywhere unless he appeals to him and motivates him in some sustainable way. “In order to change the elephant, we have to appeal to a felt need,” Heath said. “Sparks come from emotion, not information.”

Carnegie Blog

When To Use Hedonic Offset

I only use the Hedonic Offset for task I’ve really struggled to start. Sometimes I just need to either make the task less daunting (think Tiny Habits) or give myself a deadline (timeboxing). That works well for me for boring tasks or just tasks that might be overwhelmingly big. I recommend trying these two approaches first before resorting to the Hedonic Offset.

Make The Task Less Daunting — Make it Tiny

As the saying goes, and to use an unrelated elephant metaphor:

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time

I’ve had a lot of success using BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits approach.

Give Yourself a Deadline 

As Parkinson’s Law states:

The work expands to fill the time.

I’ve also had a long of success with setting deadlines, real or artificial. The time-boxing is powerful. More on Parkinson’s Law here.

How To Use a Hedonic Offset

Sometimes all the regular stuff just isn’t working. The deadline passed, and I haven’t even taken the tiniest step forward. This is when I deploy the Hedonic Offset.

The key is associating the task you don’t want to do with a task you do want to do.

Hedonic Offset Ideas

Here’s some of the hedonic offset ideas that I’ve used. This might help trigger something that would work for you.

  • Location. Find a new space. What about the beach? A park, cafe, bar, friends house?
  • Activity. Sometimes I cook myself favorite meal and do task while enjoying it.
  • Timing. Change the time of day. Sometimes I am able to get past the blocks by doing the task outside of my regular “business hours”.