Commitment Devices: The Best Way to Stick to Your Habits

If you have a hard time sticking to your goals, you’re in good company. It’s a problem people have been struggling with all throughout history.

In fact, philosophers all the way back Plato even have their own term 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 inconsistency, and it’s nicely illustrated in a study on grocery-buying habits2: 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 week.

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.

That imbalance makes our preferences inconsistent over time. It’s why we tend to choose short-term pleasures now and postpone long-term benefits for the future.

Beating Akrasia

commitment devices

All throughout history, people have a tried a lot of creative strategies to overcome akrasia, stick with their intentions, and achieve their goals.

The most classic example is probably Odysseus having 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 one is Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés 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 who hired a girl to slap him in the face each time she caught him wasting time at his computer.

Behavioral economists refer to strategies like these as…

Commitment Devices

A commitment device3 is a way of proactively locking yourself into a desired course of action. It’s something you put in place now to avoid akrasia later. Here are some more examples:

  • Get a 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 a lot of digital commitment devices you can use to avoid akrasia online. Examples include:

  • 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 lets you 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 which grows while you stay away from your phone and dies if you leave the app.

What’s Your Commitment Device?

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 intentions. Find the right commitment devices, and you’ll be way more likely to make your habits stick.

Footnotes

  1. Akrasia
  2. I’ll Have the Ice Cream Soon and the Vegetables Later: A Study of Online Grocery Purchases and Order Lead Time
  3. Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Commitment Devices