Group Goal Setting: How You Can Beat the Truffle Oil Affect and the One Hack That Works

March 21, 2017  |  By: Kristen Berman

In my last post I shared that my 10 person house is embarking on a journey to share our goals with each other, refine them together and then hold each other accountable to reaching them.

We call this concept Mutually Assured Non Complacency (MANC). MANC suggests it’s much easier to paddle through life’s routines than question the basic premise of the routines and make changes. Because of how hard it is to disrupt our own routines and patterns, we need the help of others.

In this post, I will share what our house has learned so far.

I’ll start with my personal story.

My MANC goal is to be able to set aside two hours a week, two times a week to push forward my learning objectives. This is really not much. After allowing for 8 hours of sleep, we have 80 hours during the weekdays to play with. My goal is to simply spend 5% of that on learning!

Yet, in the busyness of life (like many people) I tend to prioritize the seemingly urgent requirements of work and the pleasant but many times obligatory requirements of social life. My longer term intentions frequently suffer when faced with the allure of immediate temptations.

My MANC plan, which was approved by the housemates, was to spend one morning and one evening learning R, a statistical tool for data analysis. I picked this as my first challenge because I knew it wouldn’t be easy. While I want to learn R, learning R is not urgent nor is it required for my work. If I can design a system for this, my reasoning was that I could design a system for anything.

Lesson 1: The Truffle Oil effect.

When we go grocery shopping, we tend to have a rough budget in our heads. While at the grocery store we may realize a dinner party is coming up and we need something a little extra — truffle oil.

The question: Do we include truffle oil in our grocery shopping budget next week? Of course not! Truffle oil was something abnormal we purchased. Next week we won’t need truffle oil. Our budget should stay the same.

Next week arrives.

We go grocery shopping. While at the store we realize that our relatives are in town and we should buy them their favorite pastries for Sunday breakfast. Do we include these pastries in our budget next week? Of course not. Next week we won’t need pastries. Our budget should stay the same.

…And so on and on.

Every week we believe should be ‘normal’ but very week we have some ‘extra’ expense.

Abigail Sussman and Adam Alter wrote a very nice paper documenting this ‘truffle oil’ effect within expense management.* And I realized in the first three weeks of my MANC that I was treating scheduling like buying truffle oil.

Something would come up — like travel or a big meeting — and I would miss my study sessions.

I would rationalize that ‘this week was different’.

Next week would be normal and I wouldn’t have the travel or big meeting. Of course, the next week was not normal.

A social engagement came up that was impossible to decline. I went to this social engagement and attributed it to the anomaly that it was. Because of that, I did not adjust my schedule for the following week.

…And so on and on. After 3 weeks I had failed. I had only accomplished 2 of the 6 study sessions I had scheduled.

Every week I had not accounted for “truffle oil” in my time budget and every week I skipped my diligently scheduled study sessions.

The reality is that all of us tend to be poor at accounting for our expenses and our time. We have some sense of what is a “normal” week looks like and we make plans based off of this anchor. Sadly, each week is not ‘normal’.

For my MANC to work, I needed something more than just calendaring.


I needed a hard commitment. This is NOT the “I’ll see you out later tonight!” commitment.

A hard commitment is one in which someone else is really counting on you. You’d be an asshole (or lose money) if you backed out at the last minute.

Hard commitments have saved my MANC.

I decided to hire a tutor for Tuesday from 7pm — 9pm. My first tutoring lesson cost $80 and I turned down two social options to make it. Note: There is NO way I would have turned down these two appealing social options had John from Wyzant not been waiting for me.

Now, for the last 3 weeks, every Tuesday, John and I have had a date to learn R.

My real breakthrough came last week when I required him to give me homework. This enabled me to feel obligated to him enough to complete the additional two study hours outside of our tutoring session.

I believe if I keep this up for another 3 weeks (with the homework!) I will have sufficient knowledge of R for the purposes I set out to achieve.

Of course, the real goal is to figure out how to set up a scalable system such that it doesn’t rely (completely) on expensive tutoring.

Thus far, my roommates have made interesting progress on this. They made hard commitments… and they have made progress on their goals!

Person 1:

His goal was to push forward a professional interest such that at the end of three months he could send an email to his network with a concrete data driven proposal. To do this side project, he would need to be diligent about his priorities after work. To support this, he pre-scheduled every day for the next 3 months and shared his calendar with the housemates! The catch? The events and activities he scheduled were difficult to back out of without money or social capital costs. Now the housemates 1) know exactly what he is supposed to be doing each week night and 2) don’t feel bad if he says no to a spontaneous event that isn’t inline with his calendar.

Person 2:

She pre-scheduled a dinner with our housemates brainstorm on her new business idea. This caused her to work over the weekend and articulate her thoughts enough to share them with others. Without this dinner as a hard commitment, she would have continued to refine ideas without moving quickly to the next step.

Person 3:

This person wants to design a lifestyle that isn’t reliant on working 12 hours a day. He wants to design for weekend adventures. How did he MANC? He made himself a hard commitment by inviting a small group over to the house to share 6 months of adventure plans in public. He passed out laminated sheets that outlined potential upcoming trips and asked for comments from the group. In the safe MANC environment, we not only volunteered to come with him on the trips but we also challenged him on the criteria by which the adventures were chosen.

For my next post, I will talk about some of the roommates who aren’t as fond of structured environments and how they are still managing to use MANC and the housemates to achieve their end goals.

*The Exception is the Rule: Underestimating and Overspending on Exceptional Expenses. Abigail B. Sussman and Adam L. Alter

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Originally published at on March 21, 2017.


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