Humans have always used more or less clever of ways of binding themselves to do what they want or need to do.
One classic example is Odysseus ordering his men to plug their ears with beeswax and tie his body to the mast of the ship so he could listen to the siren’s song without being lured into jumping overboard (1).
Another one is Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés bold move to destroy his ships to remove the possibility of retreat and thereby increasing his chances of defeating the Mayans (2).
Now, I realize there’s a pretty good chance you won’t get seduced by sirens or fighting Mayans anytime soon, but these kinds of self-binding strategies can be very effective for day to day obstacles as well.
Most people have a good idea of what behaviors are good for us. We know we should exercise to be strong and healthy, read to expand our minds and meditate to reduce stress and be more mindful. We have a good idea of how much work or studies we need to put in every day to get a satisfying result.
For the most part, it’s not a lack of information but a lack of follow-through that’s the problem.
And this struggle to execute on what you genuinely want to do is by no means a new obstacle. Philosophers all the way back to Plato and Aristotle even created their own fancy term for this failure of the will.
They called it ‘akrasia’ (3) and it encompasses procrastination, lack of self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior.
This tendency of doing something else than we want is a little strange, especially to economists, who often presume that whatever we do by definition is what we want to do. This theory is called ‘revealed preference’ (4) and fails to account for a stubborn quirk of the human mind: what we want depends on when we’re doing the wanting.
We’re all susceptible to what’s known as ‘time inconsistency’ (5) and this tendency is nicely illustrated in a study on grocery-buying habits (6): When buying groceries online for delivery tomorrow people buy a lot more ice cream and a lot fewer vegetables compared to when they’re ordering delivery for next week.
So, our preferences are inconsistent and at times even contradictory over time. Our ability to weigh costs and benefits (in this case tastiness vs. healthiness) is heavily affected when some of those costs are immediate, and some are not.
In general, it seems we want to do what we know is good for us. Just not right now.
Enter ‘Commitment Devices’
And here’s where the strategy of commitment devices is so helpful. A commitment device is essentially something you put in place in the present to ‘lock you in’ to a certain course of action in the future.
If you know you’re going to be seduced by Sirens later; you have yourself tied to the mast. If you know you and your soldiers may be tempted to retreat from battle; you destroy the ships so you’ll have to charge forward.
Other, less extreme, examples include (7, 8):
- Signing up for long-term gym memberships instead of single day passes.
- Cutting up your credit cards to avoid mindless spending.
- Leaving work at the office so you can’t keep doing it at home.
- Buying junk food or candy in small packages, rather than in bulk.
- Getting rid of all alcohol in your house to prevent drinking.
- Using temptation bundling and restrict certain fun stuff only to occasions when you’re engaging in a healthy/productive behavior.
- Buying small plates to avoid overeating.
- Teaming up with a workout partner for accountability.
- Having a portion of your paycheck automatically transferred to your savings account.
- Canceling your TV service to protect your time.
These days, there are also plenty of clever services you can use to commit yourself to your goals:
- Coach.me — Get a coach for the particular goal or habit you’re working on.
- StickK — Create commitment contracts and, if you want, put some money on the line. If you don’t meet your goal, they will send your money to a charity or organization you don’t like!
- Beeminder — Combines self-tracking and commitment contracts. Your challenge here is to keep all your data point on a Yellow Brick Road, or they take your money.
- Pact App — Allows you to create weekly pacts to exercise more or eat healthier and decide what you’ll pay other Pact members if you fail. If you stay on track, you’ll earn cash from other who didn’t.
There are also plenty of great apps you can use to remove energy-draining clutter from your digital environment and help you commit to more productive behaviors (9):
- Quicksilver is a launcher utility app for Mac OS X that gives you the ability to perform common, everyday tasks rapidly and without thought. After installing this app, you’ll never have to have your computer desktop cluttered with icons again.
- OneTab is an extension for Google Chrome and Firefox that converts all of your open browser tabs into a list. A very handy way to remove clutter and free up more computer memory.
- Adblock Plus is an extension that blocks annoying ads from your web browser.
- Bartender lets you organize your menu bar apps in Mac.
- Readability turns any web page into a clean view for reading on your computer, smartphone, or tablet.
- News Feed Eradicator for Facebook is a Chrome extension that replaces your Facebook news feed with an inspiring quote.
- Freedom is an app for Mac that allows you to lock yourself away from the Internet so you can become more productive.
- SelfControl is an app for Mac that lets you block your access to sites and mail servers for a set amount of time.
- StayFocusd is a Chrome extension that allows you to restrict the amount of time you can spend on time-wasting websites.
- Forest is a clever way to stay off your phone when you should be working. The app lets you plant a digital tree whenever you want to focus. The tree will then grow during the next 30 minutes, but if you leave the app, the tree will die. Stay committed and you’ll plant a forest.
As you can see, there are PLENTY of ways you can use self-binding to your advantage. When it comes to commitment devices, the only limit is your imagination. Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas for how you could kick akrasia in the butt and get moving toward your goals.
For me, my accountability partner Nik, my clients, and my 2000+ newsletter subscribers make for powerful commitment devices to always improve my coaching and writing skills. For you, it might be something else entirely.
Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve the key is to find a way to consistently show up and do the work. So, before you close this article I highly recommend you decide on 1–3 commitment devices to start experimenting with immediately.
Put a system in place that makes success easier and failure harder. The way to beat akrasia is to commit!
- Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Commitment Devices
- Hernán Cortés
- Revealed preference
- Dynamic inconsistency
- I’ll have the ice cream soon and the vegetables later: A study of online grocery purchases and order lead time
- Commitment Devices Using Initiatives to Change Behavior
- What are some examples of commitment devices?
- List from The Science of Willpower: Proven Strategies to Beat Procrastination & Get Big Things Done