Grandma’s Law: How to Put the Power of Incentive to Work for You

There’s a simple law you can apply to your goal setting that will definitely help improve the amount of things you’re able to get done.  It’s called Grandma’s Law.  Today we’ll talk about how you can put Grandma’s Law to work for you and your team.

You Gonna Eat That?


We’ve all been there.  Growing up, my folks called them “trial Foods” – food we hadn’t tried before but they thought we should eat as part of a healthy balanced diet.  Stuff like spinach, broccoli, cooked carrots, Brussels sprouts.  I had no interest in these foods and would avoid them whenever possible.

But then my parents would pull a dirty trick on me – they invoked what Dr. Ogden Lindsley calls “Grandma’s Law.” They took something they knew I liked, such as eating dessert, and used it as incentive for me to do something I didn’t: eating vegetables.  If you eat your spinach, you can have cake.

And generally it worked (although once, when we moved to a new house, they did discover an unusual amount of dried out carrots and broccoli stuffed behind the kitchen radiator…)

Anyway, you can use Grandma’s Law to your advantage, and this can apply to you on a personal level, or to your team as well.

Putting Grandma to Work

As an individual, one way to do this is to make a list of all the things you need to get done, and put it in order of the most enjoyable things first, and least enjoyable ones last.  Now, once you have your list, start checking things off.

Here’s the trick:  start from the bottom of the list.  As you do each task, the next one is going to be more enjoyable, something to look forward to.

This is a great way to get those ugly tasks out of the way early so they aren’t hanging over your head.  And each time you get a task done, the next one can serve as a sort of reward for having gotten the previous one done.

The Brussels Sprouts of Fitness

I used Grandma’s Law when I was doing a lot of triathlons.  I love to bike, I love to run.  But swimming is definitely not my strong suit – it’s a hassle to get to the pool, the water’s cold, and the little girl in the next lane is so fast she makes me look like I’m going backwards.  Not my favorite.

Swimming was like the “Brussels sprouts” of my workout program.

Yet the only way to get better is to practice regularly.  So I used Grandma’s Law on myself – It was at the bottom of my list of things I liked to do, so it was the first thing I did every day.  And once I was done with it, everything else seemed easier.  I don’t claim to be a fast swimmer, but that rule definitely helped me get better.

Get Grandma on your Team

You can use Grandma’s Law in a team setting as well.  In his book “Bringing out the Best in People” author and clinical psychologist Aubrey Daniels gives the example of a production team at a Kodak factory.

A department manager named Gary Lorgan knew that his employees enjoyed working on special work-related projects as teams.  He also knew that they had production quotas and quality standards to meet, which were important, but not nearly as fun for his people.

So Lorgan made a deal with his team – they would set a weekly production goal for the department.  And that’s what they would work on first.  But as soon as they met their quota, they would shut down the line, and the employees got to work on their special projects for the rest of the week.

This arrangement served as a great spur to the department.  They would work hard to get the job done.  They even put up large graphic charts in the work place so everyone could see their progress and stay focused.  The quotas were tough to meet.  Sometimes they didn’t get there at all.  But at other times, they met their goal on Thursday, and had all of Friday to do the fun stuff.

Whatever you and your team do, think about what the fun things are; ask your teammates.  And then use Grandma’s Law to arrange the work so the important stuff gets done first, and the fun stuff comes as a reward.

Grandma’s Law – The Takeaway

At the heart of the Grandma’s Law approach to getting things done is the idea of immediate positive reinforcement.

If you arrange the work so that good things come as a result of doing the important but not-so-fun stuff, it is much more likely that those important things will get done.

The key here is that the payoff has to be certain and immediate.  Not something they might get at the end of the month or the quarter, but something that pays off right away.

Promising me a piece of apple pie next month if I eat Brussels sprouts today is not a strong incentive.  But if you set that pie up on the counter where I can see it, smell it and know all I have to do is choke down a few vegetables and I can get some right now, you can bet I’ll start eating healthy!

The sooner the payoff, the stronger the incentive. Click To Tweet

So figure out what your apple pie is, and what your Brussels sprouts are, and get organized so that you can eat healthy, get dessert, and make Grandma proud!

Take Care!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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