Goals are great — but often, the ways we achieve those goals are tedious, time-consuming, and (let’s face it) boring.
- To run a marathon, you must train and run dozens of miles each week.
- To write a book, you must sit down and write thousands of words each day.
- To clean your house, you must … well, clean your house.
It’s this tedium that often results in people giving up their goals entirely — even if it’s something they really want to achieve. That’s the reason why gyms are chock-full of people at the beginning of the year but thin out dramatically by the end.
Luckily, there’s a way that you can work toward achieving your goals and build good habits, while having fun: A commitment device.
What’s a commitment device?
A commitment device is a method of locking yourself into a habit or behavior that you might otherwise not want to do.
And there are essentially two types of commitment devices:
Positive devices. These are devices that give you a positive reward for performing different tasks. The idea is that when you associate that task with the commitment device, you create a positive feedback loop that makes it much easier to cement new habits.
- Listening to your favorite podcast while you work out.
- Watching a show on Netflix while you clean your living room.
- Drinking your favorite soda while you’re washing your dishes.
Negative devices. These are devices where you take something away or risk having something taken away to encourage you to follow through with a behavior or habit. The idea is that you force yourself to focus on the task by taking away the thing that is preventing you from focusing, or you do something that makes you risk losing something to force you to complete your task.
- Telling a friend that you’ll give them $100 if you don’t go to the gym every day for a month.
- Unplugging your television so you won’t be tempted to watch it.
- Throwing away all of your junk food in order to eat healthily.
While they’re called positive or negative devices, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other! They’re just ways of describing how the commitment devices work. And whether or not you choose a positive or negative device depends entirely on your preference and what you want to achieve.
Commitment devices are incredibly effective too. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Harvard released an article a while back penned by three doctors in behavioral economics that extolled the virtues of commitment devices.
“[Commitment devices] have been shown to help people lose weight, improve their diets, exercise more, and quit smoking,” the article says. “One randomized experiment, for example, found that access to a commitment device increased the rate at which smokers succeeded in quitting after six months by 40%.”
And it’s not just health goals. Commitment devices can help you adopt almost any behavior — such as fighting off mythical creatures.
The power of tying yourself down
Perhaps the most famous and oldest-used commitment device was in Homer’s The Odyssey.
Our hero Odysseus was on his way home from the Trojan War when his ship encountered a group of sirens — mythical women who are somehow simultaneously beautiful and, er, also birds.
Sirens have the ability to sing alluring, captivating songs that cause men to steer their ships into rocks in order to hear it better. Knowing this, Odysseus told his men to tie him to the ship’s mast and not undo him no matter how much he begged and pleaded.
While I don’t think you should go as far as tie yourself to a mast in order to achieve your goals…
Though I guess you can.
… you can use a commitment device — much like our hero Odysseus — as your veritable mast to keep you concentrated on your goals.
3 good commitment devices to get more done
Below are a few good commitment devices you can use to achieve your goals and build good habits.
Eventually, you’re going to want to create your own commitment device for whatever habit you’re trying to build. For now, though, these are good jumping off points.
Commitment device #1: Embarrassing social media bomb
This commitment device is good for time- or location-based goals like:
- Waking up early
- Getting to work on time
- Going to the gym
Here’s how it works: Using a social media scheduling dashboard like Hootsuite or Buffer, you schedule an embarrassing tweet or Facebook status to be posted at a certain hour. As long as you get to the dashboard before it posts, you can prevent it from posting.
For example, say you want to get into the habit of waking up at 6am. You could schedule a tweet to be sent out with an embarrassing message or photo of yourself at exactly 6:05am. That way, if you’re not up by 6, that message will post.
Alternatively, you can tell yourself that you can only turn it off at a certain location, like the gym or work. That way, you’ll only prevent the action from happening once you get there.
If you REALLY want to take it to the next level, you can schedule an automatic payment of $5 to a friend of yours at a specific time, so the only way you don’t lose your money is if you get up and turn off the payment.
Commitment device #2: Ice the problem
This is a tried-and-true commitment device we’ve talked about before here at I Will Teach You To Be Rich. It’s great if you’re trying to:
- Save more.
- Get out of debt.
- Curb your spending habit.
Here’s how it works: Take your credit card, debit card, checkbook — whatever is the cause of your overspending habit — put it in a bowl, fill the bowl with water, and put it in your freezer.
That’s right. We’re telling you to literally freeze your spending.
This does a number of things psychologically. First, it embraces the adage of “out of sight, out of mind.” If you don’t see your money, credit cards, or checkbook, the choice between spending and not spending becomes much more clear.
Second, if you REALLY want to spend money, you’ll have to spend time chipping away at an ungodly big block of ice in order to get to it. This gives you time to think about what you’re doing and whether or not you can live without whatever purchase you were about to make.
This sounds goofy, I know — but it works.
Alternatively, you can just give your checkbook, credit card, or debit card to a trusted family member or friend and they can hold onto it for you. But c’mon, the block of ice is way cooler.
Commitment device #3: Treat yourself
Here at I Will Teach You To Be Rich, we’re all about the Rich Life. That means spending and saving your money for things that you love.
The best part: You can leverage your spending in order to reward yourself for good behavior.
Charles Duhigg, habit-building expert and author of the NYT bestselling book The Power of Habit, says that any good habit is broken down into three components:
- Cue. The trigger for a behavior.
- Routine. The behavior in action.
- Reward. The benefit you receive from the behavior.
And the reward is the most important part of building habits.
Here’s how it works: When you finish a behavior or task as part of a habit you’re trying to build, you can reward yourself with something. This is a very powerful commitment device. That’s because you’ll be able to associate the behavior or task you do with positive emotions of getting the reward.
Imagine two people: Jimmy and Lucy.
Both set a goal to save $500 / month over the next six months. However, Lucy tells herself that she is going to treat herself to a $500 purchase of a pair of shoes if she saves that much. Meanwhile, Jimmy doesn’t set a reward for himself.
Who do you think is going to be most likely to achieve their goal? Lucy, of course. She has the incentive of a commitment device: The $500 pair of shoes. Jimmy, on the other hand, must rely on willpower alone. As such, he’s much less likely to achieve his goals.
That’s the power of a good commitment device. By acting as your proverbial mast, the commitment device keeps you grounded in your goals and makes you much more likely to achieve it.
Alternatively, you can reward yourself by pairing it with the behavior you want to adopt.
This is also known as “task batching,” and it works by grouping less enjoyable behaviors with ones you already enjoy.
Cleaning the house or washing dishes? Mix your favorite drink and enjoy it while you get your chores done.
Running on the treadmill? Load up your favorite audiobook or album to listen to while you work out.
By pairing things you like with the habits you’re trying to build, you’ll eventually come to associate that habit with good feelings — virtually ensuring it’ll be ingrained.
What’s your commitment device?
Now we want to hear from you: What are some commitment devices you’re going to implement?
Are there any you’ve used before to great success?
What do you recommend?
We can’t wait to hear from you!