Commitment Devices: A Powerful Method to Stick to Your Goals

If you have a hard time sticking with your intentions, you’re in good company. It’s a problem people have been struggling with for a very long time.

In fact, philosophers all the way back Plato even have their own word for it. They call it “akrasia,”1 and it encompasses procrastination, poor self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior.

The reason we have this problem is what behavioral economists call time inconsistency2. We tend to choose short-term pleasures now and postpone long-term benefits for the future.

Studies have shown, for instance, that when people buy groceries online for delivery tomorrow, they buy a lot more ice cream and a lot fewer vegetables compared to when they’re ordering for next week3.

Short-term pleasures like having an ice cream are immediate and tangible. Conversely, long-term benefits like those of eating vegetables are far away and abstract. And that imbalance makes our preferences inconsistent over time.

Of course, constantly postponing behaviors that lead to long-term benefits make it very difficult to achieve your goals. And so, throughout history, people have tried many creative strategies to overcome this tendency.

Avoiding Akrasia

The most classic of all akrasia avoidance strategies is attributed no none other than Odysseus. He had his body tied to the mast of the ship so he could listen to the Siren’s song without getting lured into jumping overboard.

Another classic example is Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés’s bold move to destroy his ships behind him to remove the possibility of retreat.

And a more recent, quite funny, example comes from entrepreneur Maneesh Sethi. He hired a girl to slap him in the face each time she caught him wasting time at his computer4.

Behavioral economists refer to these strategies as commitment devices5: ways to proactively lock yourself into a desired course of action.

In other words, a commitment device is something you put in place now to avoid akrasia later. Here are some examples:

  • Get long-term gym memberships instead of one-day passes.
  • Cut up your credit cards to avoid mindless spending.
  • Leave your laptop at the office so you can’t keep working at home.
  • Buy junk food or candy in small packages rather than large ones.
  • Get rid of all alcohol in your house to prevent drinking.

These days, there are also many digital commitment devices you can use to avoid akrasia online. Examples include:

  • Beeminder, a service that helps you stick to your goals through a combination of self-tracking and monetary incentives.
  • News Feed Eradicator for Facebook, a Chrome extension that replaces your Facebook news feed with an inspiring quote.
  • Freedom, a service that lets you block apps and websites so you can stay focused and productive.
  • SelfControl, an app for Mac that enables you to block your access to sites and mail servers for a set amount of time.
  • Moment, an app that tracks how much you use your phone and helps you create daily usage limits.
  • Forest, an app that “plants” a digital tree that grows while you stay away from your phone and dies if you leave the app.

Which Commitment Devices Will You Use?

As you can see, there are many ways that you can use commitment devices to your advantage. So, take some time to think about how you can bind yourself to your daily habits and long-term goals. If you find some effective commitment devices, you’ll be much more likely to stick to them.

Do you want to master your habits? Get my book The Habit Blueprint.

Footnotes

    1. Akrasia
    2. Dynamic inconsistency
    3. I’ll Have the Ice Cream Soon and the Vegetables Later: A Study of Online Grocery Purchases and Order Lead Time
    4. Why I Hired A Girl On Craigslist to Slap Me In The Face — And How It Quadrupled My Productivity
    5. Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Commitment Devices

Hat tip to Daniel Reeves for inspiring this article with his piece How To Do What You Want: Akrasia and Self-Binding.