Underpromise. Overdeliver.

One common tactic that people use to wow their clients or bosses is to promise a little less than what can be achieved, then deliver more than what was promised.

If you promise everything you think you can achieve, you create a very tight and difficult schedule for yourself, one that’s prone to disaster if you begin to fall behind, and you’re also struggling to simply deliver what was promised.

On the other hand, if you promise a little less than you can achieve, you create a looser schedule for yourself, one that can deal with a few small setbacks without disaster. Not only that, you’ve also left the possibility of going above and beyond what was asked of you, which is sure to leave the client extremely happy with what you’ve provided and set the stage for future work.

This idea actually translates really well to some aspects of personal finance.

When Sarah and I were rapidly paying off our home mortgage, we agreed to pay a certain amount extra toward the mortgage each month – roughly half of an extra payment. We could have committed to a stiffer amount, but we chose not to.

Instead, each month, we decided to throw as much extra toward the mortgage as we could beyond that minimum amount. In order to maximize our excitement about this, we would often look at projections for how much faster our mortgage would disappear if we could muster half of an extra payment this month.

Some months, we didn’t contribute anything extra. Something came up in our everyday life, like a broken flywheel on a vehicle or an extended family trip to a national park, and we would only contribute our minimum.

During other months, we contributed a large extra payment, substantially more than a double payment. Those months felt good. It not only felt great to submit that big payment, it also felt great to go beyond our personal goal.

We underpromised. Sometimes, we overdelivered. When we were able to do that, it felt great.

On the other hand, we could have committed to a double payment each month. Had we done that, we probably would have achieved our goal each and every month, but in doing so, we would have made some of our months quite stressful. There also wouldn’t have been motivation to go beyond the “minimum” with our goal.

Looking back, I’m fairly certain that we would have taken longer to pay off the mortgage with double payments than with one-and-a-half payments with extra money thrown in when possible.

Why? It didn’t feel stressful to meet the lower goal, plus it felt really good to blow by it and contribute more.

I do the same thing when walking/jogging. I have a mile-long loop that begins and ends at my front door. If I go out there with a goal of just doing one loop, then I usually feel good about achieving the goal when I get back home – and some days, I’m motivated to do another loop or two or even three. (I will go on this mile loop walk multiple times a day when the weather is nice.) If I go out there with a goal of doing two or three loops, I can usually push myself to the finish, but I never do “extra” loops.

I would probably achieve the same amount of walking if I did it either way, but with the lower goal and the openness to overdelivering on that goal, I feel really good about what I’ve done and I look forward to doing it again. With the higher goal, I’m a lot less motivated to get out there and do it.

The goal isn’t high enough to intimidate me, but it’s enough to leave me feel as though I’ve done something. It also leaves me at a point where, if the mood strikes me, I’m compelled to do more – sometimes much more.

For me, I’ve found this works best when I’m genuinely committed to the greater cause behind the goal. I was fully committed to paying off my mortgage early. I’m fully committed to my daily walk (it’s when I do my best brainstorming and I usually feel great afterwards). I’m going to do these things anyway. I just find that I’m motivated to do more and I feel better about it if I underpromise and overdeliver to myself.

What goals do you have in your life that you feel stressed to achieve? Would it work better if you cut back on that promise a little bit and left the door open to achieving more? If you’re committed to the big picture, this can be an effective strategy for convincing you to save more, invest more, build a side business, or countless other things in your life. It can reduce the stress of those improvements and make you feel better about what you’ve achieved (and also impress other stakeholders), while often producing even better results than before.

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