Your Commitment Devices Database

A guide to using an underrated behavior change technique

Do you have a difficult time staying committed to your goals? You’re not alone. Struggling to align your present self and your future self just means you’re a human being. So how do we humans bridge what’s called the “intention-action gap?” Enter one of the most underrated behavior change techniques: Commitment Devices.

Commitment Devices has two main components.

Firstly, it’s a voluntary choice you make in the present that impacts your choices in the future; you try align future choices to only those that reflect your long-term goals (1). This means you must be self-aware of where and when the gap exist between your intention and actions. Secondly, Commitment Devices adds a cost to not acting in line with your stated intentions and goals (2).

[Commitment devices] are decisions you make with a ’cool head’ [right now] to bind yourself so that you don’t do something regrettable when you have a ‘hot head’ [in the future].” — Daniel Goldstein

Image by sketchplanations

Talking about binding yourself…

One of the earliest and most famous examples of this comes from Greek mythology. Greeks knew the Sirens’ song lured sailors to their demise. But bound to his ship’s mast, and with the ears of his crew filled with wax, Ulysses became the first to hear the Sirens’ song without perishing.

While still a new area of research, Commitment Devices have been shown to be effective behavior change technique for a range of settings, from promoting gym-going to increasing quit rates among smokers by 40% and boosting rates for medical adherence (2).

Examples of Commitment Devices

Potential commitment devices exists all around us and we generally underestimate how making a slight change in our decisions today can help commit our future selves to desired goals. For example, we can:

  • Schedule workouts with an exercise partner (socially costly to skip)
  • Purchase smaller sized lunch boxes (hassle costs makes it less likely we overeat)
  • Sign-up for fruit and vegetable subscription (financial costs to skip and reduced friction for eating healthy)

Type of Commitment Devices

Academic literature does not currently categorize Commitment Devices, but doing so might help distinguish what type of commitment devices are more helpful for a specific person or situation. For this reason, we hope these preliminary categories sorting them based on different types of costs are beneficial (4).

Social 👨‍👩‍👦: Commitment device that adds social cost of not acting in line with long-term goal. Great for someone who enjoys social accountability. Friction 🚧: Commitment device that adds hassle cost of not acting in line with long-term goal. Great way to change the choice architecture of your home or workplace.Financial 💸: Commitment device that adds financial cost of not acting in line with long-term goal. No one likes to lose money. Not the type of Commitment Device for someone who struggles with gambling addiction. 

What is NOT a Commitment Device?

There are some related behavior change strategies that can easily be confused as Commitment Devices (3). While they all involve voluntary commitments, they don’t necessarily involve adding restrictions nor makes failure to act in line with long-term goals more costly.

  • Pre-commitments: I commit to X behavior
  • Temptation bundling: I commit to only doing Y while doing X
  • Implementation intentions (If/Then Plan): If situation Y occurs, then I will do X

While not Commitment Devices, these can all be useful behavior change techniques, from time-blocking in your calendar (pre-commitment), to only listening to your favorite podcast at the gym (temptation bundling), or having a back-up plan for your running session should it rain (implementation intention).

Type of Goals

To make it easier to find a Commitment Device that aligns with your particular behavior change goal, we’ve also created the following broad set of categories to help narrow things down.

Reduce consumption 📉: Relates to reducing all types of undesired consumption. Increase productivity ️🔥: Commitment Devices to boost productivityIncrease exercise 🏃: Increasing all forms of physical exercise Improve nutrition 🥑: Commitment Devices to improve nutritional intakeBoost wellbeing 🧘: Relates to improving other factors relating to physical and mental wellbeing, including reducing stress and improving sleep.Improve finances 💰: Commitment Devices to increase financial investment and savingsImprove sustainability 🌱: Commitment Devices helping to improve carbon footprintUniversal 🌍: Commitment Devices that apply to all of the above

Access the Database

Ready to bind yourself to the proverbial mast? Great! While Commitment Devices can feel counter-intuitive and challenging to think about, we hope to make them more accessible via this open database that you can access below.

Click here to access database

This post is a work-in-process and I’m sure that I’ve not covered all there is to say about Commitment Devices. Please reach out here if you have any suggestions or corrections. Thanks!

References

  1. Bryan, Gharad, Dean Karlan, and Scott Nelson. “Commitment Devices.” Annual Review of Economics 2.1 (2010): 671–98. Print.
  2. Commitment Devices Using Initiatives to Change Behavior — Todd Rogers, Katherine L. Milkman, & Kevin G. Volpp.
  3. Digital Tools for Behavior Change (SlideShare), Aline Holzwarth, Pattern Health
  4. Credit to James Elfer for ideas on categorizing commitment devices.

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Samuel Salzer

Samuel Salzer

Behavioral designer, author and keynote speaker. Helping organizations create habit forming products. Curator for the popular newsletter www.HabitWeekly.com