Commitment Devices: An Effective Strategy to Help You Change Your Behaviors

In the Odyssey, the ancient Greek author Homer tells the story of King Odysseus’ journey back home from the Trojan War1.

At one point, Odysseus was about to sail past the sirens, which was a risky affair.

The sirens were seductive, cunning, and dangerous creatures.

They were known to mesmerize nearby sailors with irresistible music and enchanting singing voices.

The spellbound sailors would then steer toward the sirens’ island and shipwreck on the rocky coast.

But despite their fearsome reputation, Odysseus still wanted to listen to the sirens.

So, as his ship was approaching their island, he ordered his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast.

That way, he could safely listen to the sirens’ beautiful music and be untied when the ship was once again at a safe distance from them.

The Power of Commitment Devices

In modern behavioral economics, Odysseus’ strategy is called a commitment device2:

A means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.

In other words, it’s something you put in place now, so you will act the way you want to later.

A carefully chosen commitment device can close the gap between your intentions and actions.

And researchers have found that this strategy works well across a wide variety of situations.

For instance, studies show that commitment devices can help people3:

  • Improve their diets.
  • Exercise more frequently.
  • Quit smoking faster.

With a bit of imagination, you can create commitment devices for pretty much anything.

Let’s have a look at some examples for inspiration.

Commitment Devices for…

Sleep

  • Remove your bedroom TV — You’ll avoid mindless watching, stimulation, and blue light late at night.
  • Use an electronic timer for your router — Make time for relaxing activities by having your Internet switch off in the evening.
  • Put your alarm clock across the room — You’ll get up at the same time every morning and maintain your circadian rhythm.

Nutrition

  • Order groceries online — You’ll shop more deliberately and avoid impulse purchases.
  • Buy snacks in small packages — That way, you can’t binge unhealthy stuff.
  • Use small plates and glasses — It will limit the portion sizes and reduce overeating.

Exercise

  • Get a gym membership — If you pay upfront, you’ll want to get your money’s worth.
  • Hire a personal trainer — The accountability will make it easier to work out regularly.
  • Team up with a friend or group — You’ll be more likely to show up if others expect you to.

Work

  • Optimize your workspace — Make it as enjoyable as possible to be in.
  • Disable your notifications — Ensure that distractions won’t ruin your focus.
  • Use blocking software — Temporarily shut out distracting websites and apps.

Relationships

  • Use a “phone box” — Put your phone in a designated box or drawer when you get home.
  • Schedule recurring social events — Such as a monthly date night with your spouse.
  • Promise your kids you’ll read to them — You can be sure that they’ll hold you accountable. 😊

What Will Your Commitment Devices Be?

If this strategy resonates with you, I encourage you to think about how you could implement it.

What are your long-term goals? Which daily habits will take you there? And how can you bind yourself to those habits?

If you use sufficiently effective commitment devices, you’ll have no choice but to follow through.

Footnotes

  1. Odyssey
  2. The Stomach-Surgery Conundrum
  3. Commitment Devices: Using Initiatives to Change Behavior

Thank you, Beeminder founder Daniel Reeves, for informing my understanding of commitment devices.