Commitment Devices2 min read

A commitment device is a deliberate choice that you make today to restrict your options of tomorrow, with the intention of helping your future self to practice self-control and stay on track with your goals. It is designed to create a buffer against your future urges and environmental pressures. 

The classical example of a commitment device is the story of the Sirens in Greek mythology. The Sirens were dangerous creatures who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music, causing the sailors to crash their ships into the rocks. In the ancient tale, Odysseus (Ulysses) wanted to hear the Sirens’ song without crashing his ship, so he ordered his men to lash his body to the mast of the ship. That choice was a commitment device which restricted his future choices, preventing him from acting on impulse.

In our modern life, a commitment device could be deleting time-wasting apps from your phone, or blocking time-wasting websites on your browser. There are several browser plugins that you can use to limit your time on certain websites, to wipe out your Facebook or Twitter feeds, or to hide the black hole known as “Related Videos” on YouTube.

In “real life,” it could be buying a long-term gym membership, so that breaking your commitment has financial consequences. Another example is not keeping chocolate or chips in the house, so unhealthy snacks are just not an option—or at least not an easy option, as you’d have to leave the house to get them. 

Some people create a contract with a friend or family member, committing to achieve a goal within a certain time frame, and placing a monetary deposit. You get your deposit back only if you achieve your goal; if you don’t achieve it, you lose the money to an anti-charity (an organization that you’d hate to support). Or, instead of a financial consequence, it could also be a social one—for example, in case of failure your friend has to release embarrassing photos of you on social media.

There are many ways to create a commitment device, and you can get creative. The purpose is to make your self-control failure impossible, or at least to add a consequence bad enough to stop you in your tracks and prevent you from indulging. 

What are your Sirens? How will you tie yourself to the mast?

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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