How to finally do what you’ve been putting off – Meta skills part 2

Commitment devices have boosted my productivity from spending hours or even days procrastinating to consistently achieving my aims. The idea is that you make it costly to fail to do what you say you’ll do. For example, you tell a friend that you have to do 8 hours work a day or you pay them £50. Or maybe you have to shave one side of your body if you fail (I know someone who had to do this!)

Some tips:

  • Make your pass/fail criteria clear – you don’t want any possibility to wriggle out of your commitment.
  • Make commitments with friends so that you have a real person to report to.
  • Be careful with commitment devices for creative tasks – test out different ways to incentivise yourself.

There are a few of online ways of setting commitment devices. When combined with a friend monitoring you, these can be very powerful:

  • Beeminder – if you need to be able to track quantities (like your weight) or adjust your goals regularly. Also good if you like pretty graphs.
  • StikK – if you have a simple goal you want to commit to.

But I find that just setting up a shared google spreadsheet where I log my successes/failures works best.

What are the benefits?

Commitment devices are the ultimate anti-procrastination tool – they make you more likely to follow through with any valuable action that you’d otherwise tend to put off.

Another benefit is that commitment devices force you to set specific goals and specific goals are more motivating.

Potential problems

Obviously the loss of money is a potential cost, and you have to set it up so that the loss is costly otherwise the system won’t work. But you can adjust the costs so the amount you pledge is in proportion to how value the action is.

A less obvious cost is decreased motivation. According to evidence in Drive by Dan Pink (video summary), “carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims. Mechanisms designed to increase motivation can dampen it.” Rewarding people for completion of tasks can be counterproductive for tasks that aren’t routine and require some creativity to complete. So it may be bad to set strict goals for creative tasks. However:

  • It’s often better to do a task sub-optimally than to never do it at all, so it might be worth setting a commitment device for a creative task that you’ve really been putting off.
  • I’ve found once I’ve set up my commitment device and started doing the thing I’ve put off, I often enjoy it more than expected and therefore become more motivated. You could try it and see what happens to your motivation.
  • There are many mechanical tasks that support more creative tasks e.g. learning new facts and techniques, doing exercises, writing up ideas.
  • You can set up process goals that support your creative work. For example, you could have a goal to spend 10 hours a week thinking deeply about problem x. It’s a bit vague, but it could stop you from wasting all your time on superficial tasks like email.

How strong is the evidence?

Commitment contracts fit with our common sense. It would be weird if people didn’t try to avoid losing money. And there is some evidence that they work. StickK, a website where you can set up commitments with money at stake, has analysed their 125,000 contracts over the past three years. They found that the more you precommit, the better you do. The success rate for people who don’t name a referee or set financial stakes is only 29%, but it rises to 59% when there’s a referee and to 71.5% when there is money at stake. And when a contract includes a referee and financial stakes, the success rate is nearly 80 percent.

More information

See this beeminder blog post for more on commitment devices.

The full series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Commitment Devices
  3. Task management
  4. Prioritisation
  5. Spaced repetition