Humans have always used more or less clever of ways of binding themselves to do what they want or need to do.
One classic example is Odysseus ordering his men to plug their ears with beeswax and tie his body to the mast of the ship so he could listen to the siren’s song without being lured into jumping overboard (1).
Another one is Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés bold move to destroy his ships to remove the possibility of retreat and thereby increasing his chances of defeating the Mayans (2).
Now, I realize there’s a pretty good chance you won’t get seduced by sirens or fighting Mayans anytime soon, but these kinds of self-binding strategies can be very effective for day to day obstacles as well.
Most people have a good idea of what behaviors are good for us. We know we should exercise to be strong and healthy, read to expand our minds and meditate to reduce stress and be more mindful. We have a good idea of how much work or studies we need to put in every day to get a satisfying result.
For the most part, it’s not a lack of information but a lack of follow-through that’s the problem.
And this struggle to execute on what you genuinely want to do is by no means a new obstacle. Philosophers all the way back to Plato and Aristotle even created their own fancy term for this failure of the will.
They called it ‘akrasia’ (3) and it encompasses procrastination, lack of self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior.
This tendency of doing something else than we want is a little strange, especially to economists, who often presume that whatever we do by definition is what we want to do. This theory is called ‘revealed preference’ (4) and fails to account for a stubborn quirk of the human mind: what we want depends on when we’re doing the wanting.
We’re all susceptible to what’s known as ‘time inconsistency’ (5) and this tendency is nicely illustrated in a study on grocery-buying habits (6): When buying groceries online for delivery tomorrow people buy a lot more ice cream and a lot fewer vegetables compared to when they’re ordering delivery for next week.
So, our preferences are inconsistent and at times even contradictory over time. Our ability to weigh costs and benefits (in this case tastiness vs. healthiness) is heavily affected when some of those costs are immediate, and some are not.
In general, it seems we want to do what we know is good for us. Just not right now.
And here’s where the strategy of commitment devices is so helpful. A commitment device is essentially something you put in place in the present to ‘lock you in’ to a certain course of action in the future.
If you know you’re going to be seduced by Sirens later; you have yourself tied to the mast. If you know you and your soldiers may be tempted to retreat from battle; you destroy the ships so you’ll have to charge forward.
Other, less extreme, examples include (7, 8):
These days, there are also plenty of clever services you can use to commit yourself to your goals:
There are also plenty of great apps you can use to remove energy-draining clutter from your digital environment and help you commit to more productive behaviors (9):
As you can see, there are PLENTY of ways you can use self-binding to your advantage. When it comes to commitment devices, the only limit is your imagination. Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas for how you could kick akrasia in the butt and get moving toward your goals.
For me, my accountability partner Nik, my clients, and my 2000+ newsletter subscribers make for powerful commitment devices to always improve my coaching and writing skills. For you, it might be something else entirely.
Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve the key is to find a way to consistently show up and do the work. So, before you close this article I highly recommend you decide on 1-3 commitment devices to start experimenting with immediately.
Put a system in place that makes success easier and failure harder. The way to beat akrasia is to commit!