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Stick to your goals with commitment devices

Haikal Kushahrin
Haikal Kushahrin
2 min read
Stick to your goals with commitment devices
Photo by Marcel Strauß / Unsplash

Victor Hugo had a huge problem finishing "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Instead of writing, he partied. To keep up with the deadline, he did something strange- he locked up all his clothes. Unable to go out, he finished the first draft.

The greatest orator of Athens, Demosthenes, did something similar. To ensure he doesn't get distracted from studying, he shaved half of his head so he'd be too embarrassed to go outside.

Both instances sound extreme, but it's actually a proven psychological technique called a "commitment device".

A commitment device is a decision you make right now that can control your behaviours in the future. It helps you to stick to good habits and stops you from falling into bad ones. When you use commitment devices properly, willpower goes out of the window, and action becomes automatic.

The principle behind a commitment device is simple: you need to find a way to make it harder to get out of your desired behaviour than starting it. Victor Hugo and Demosthenes made going out harder than starting their writing and study. Similarly, if you want to get in shape, schedule personal training sessions. If you want to bail, you'll need to cancel the session, costing you time and money. In this case, showing up is the easier option.

With commitment devices, you can take advantage of your good intentions before you fall prey to gratification. Everyone has good intentions at the start of the year. Why not use them to build commitment devices? You'll be more likely to stick to it.

…one study of two thousand smokers found that having access to a cash commitment device (in this case, a savings account in which they could deposit money they would recover only if they passed a nicotine urine test in six months) helped people quit… Similar cash commitment opportunities have been shown to help gym goers exercise more, dieters lose more weight, and families buy healthier groceries.

Source: How to Change, Katy Milkman

Here are some examples:

  • Want to stop mindlessly browsing the Internet? Use website blockers to stop yourself from getting distracted at work.
  • Want to write consistently? I joined a small accountability group where we have to publish something every week or risk getting kicked out.
  • Want to work out more? Get a gym partner. If you don't show up, they'll think that you're a jerk.
  • Need to pursue a deadline? Set an amount of money you're not comfortable with losing. Give it to a friend and tell them they can do whatever they want with it if you don't hit your deadline.

Our monkey mind prefers short term rewards to long term rewards. Resorting to crazy strategies might sound over the top, but if your goals are important to you, consider building commitment devices to make sure you stick to them.



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