Freakonomics Poll: Have You Tried a Commitment Device?

(Photo: Alan Cleaver)

Our latest podcast, “Save Me From Myself,” is about the use of commitment devices. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes or get the RSS feed.)

A commitment device is a sort of mind trick to help you accomplish a goal that you don’t quite have the willpower to achieve on your own. Sometimes we need a contract with ourselves, or a little financial stake for motivation. This goal can be exercising, studying, quitting smoking, or anything really.

So we want to ask: have you tried one? What was it? And, most important, how did it turn out?

Have you tried a commitment device to help you reach a goal?

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  1. Don says:

    duck taped all my video games in a box, worked.

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  2. Julie says:

    I’m more a fan of the technique laid out in Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch.” Part of what they recommend isn’t so much a commitment device but changing your environment so that the thing you want to do is the path of least resistance. If you want to eat better, get rid of all the junk food from your house and stock healthy snacks. If you want to start playing a musical instrument, put it right in the middle of your living room and put the TV remote control in another room. If you want to get your spending under control, put your credit cards “on ice” in your freezer.

    I prefer this to a commitment device because it’s actually modifying your environment so that it’s easier to do what you want. You’re not relying on willpower, but on the fact that you’re lazy and will do whatever is most convenient and easiest at the time.

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    • Aaron says:

      I used this technique in college to get homework and studying done. I realized I had way too many distractions in my apartment, so I would go to a local coffee shop to get my work done. Granted, coffee was more expensive there, but I was definitely able to get more work done there.

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    • Shane L says:

      “changing your environment so that the thing you want to do is the path of least resistance”

      Great idea, yes. I did this by accident by moving to Japan for a year. Snack food simply seemed to be much less sugary than at home, and vending machines were stocked with interesting tea drinks instead of the fizzy sodas of home. It just became much easier to eat healthy, with no greater effort on my part.

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    • Shane L says:

      (Of course I don’t mean going to Japan is the only way to do this! One could probably artificially create this healthy environment in one’s home. But a healthy diet was a pleasant and unexpected side effect of being in Japan.)

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    • Adriel says:

      I did the exact opposite of this to quit smoking, but I don’t know if this would work for others.

      I put a single cigarette and lighter on my coffee table and pledged not to smoke THAT cigarette. Since I had that cigarette at home, I’d never need to buy another pack to satiate cravings. And since it was a single, evil cigarette that I had to look at everyday, it was actually easy not to smoke it. Since I’m too proud to be beaten by one measly cigarette, it became my commitment device.

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  3. Amanda says:

    I use the Commit app for iPhone. It reminds me to do _____ (whatever) everyday and then you get a running score for how many days in a row you have completed your chosen task. I really like it for a commitment device.

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  4. Jason Fisher says:

    We have TV timer for the “kids” they have to put in a pin to watch TV, and theoretically so do we. There is a master code that has unlimited time, my wife created the first two numbers of the pin and I did the last two. Then we found out the number and we have been using the master code ever since so I cheated myself much like your guest.

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  5. Edu says:

    My commitment device to exercising is to sign up to races. Tried it with a couple of half-marathons, and it worked. Like with everything, the fear of failure pushes you to get things done.

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    • Matt says:

      One strategy of creating a commitment mechanism is to create very manageable, concrete goals (like “take a salad for lunch every day”) instead of long-term abstract ones (like “lose weight” or “exercise more”).

      I found it was too easy to skip exercising because sometimes it’s hard to find 30 free minutes in a day. So last year I made a goal to run 10 minutes a day. It’s not the sort of regimen that a most trainers would recommend, but it really worked for me. I couldn’t very well use the excuse that I didn’t have time for it, even if I was traveling or working late.

      After just 2 missed days in 10 months I eventually upgraded my runs to a more normal length.

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      • Shane L says:

        Good thinking, Matt!

        Another simple thing I do is to take the stairs rather than escalator/elevator where this is reasonable. I’ve no real idea if it makes a difference to my health but I presume slogging up stairs is a way of squeezing some exercise into my ordinary day, without having to psych myself up to a more formal and strenuous workout.

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  6. VBinNV says:

    How about an choice: No, I can mak and keep my commitments without a device.

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    • James says:

      I second that one. I have sufficient willpower to do what I choose to do, without needing to trick myself.

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      • Daniel Reeves says:

        No no, this is like someone with 20/20 vision scoffing at corrective vision devices. Agreed that *you* don’t need these devices, but many of us do. And we’re not the impetuous, flaky losers you might think we are either. I finished my PhD by using these kinds of tricks on myself. Actually my girlfriend at the time helped a lot. In fact, we went on to found together, based on the tricks we devised for ourselves and friends/family.

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      • robyn ann goldstein says:

        I agree that one needs “willpower.” Indeed, that might seem to be enough. But is it decisive. I once wrote a review of a `new’ translation of Weber’s text of the Protestant Ethic. By chance as a result of a phone conversation, I was offered the opportunity to receive $100. and was given an approximate deadline. I finished early. Why? It was not so much the 100 although, it was nice to receive a check for doing something of real importance to me. It was the fact that it was something that I wanted to do and that I could do of giving to the author of that translation, the gift of what I thought he was in a position to accomplish.

        But let’s call a spade a spade. Bribery never worked for me. It was tried on me and I tried it on myself. Forget it. You have to want something for yourself and I am not there i.e., where I wanna be yet. When I am, then finding a publisher will help, but only to objectify the fact of a deadline and that nothing’s perfect.

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    • Sluggo says:

      Check out this website of an associate professor of economics who diets and trains strictly for 26+ weeks to be one of the best natural bodybuilders in the world:

      Brian’s “commitment device” is knowing that there are others out there trying to outwork him.

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  7. Jesus Garcia says:

    I tried and didn’t work… I used it to commit myself to study at least 3 hours a day, but… since it was so easy to cheat, I decided to give it up and just study as much as I can without using that website…

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    • Daniel Reeves says:

      In my highly biased opinion, is much better for that kind of goal. You can still cheat, of course, but since it’s all about graphing/visualizing your progress and recording your data you probably won’t want to cheat, since you don’t want to falsify your graph. That’s true for the highly self-selected set of people who use Beeminder, anyway. :)

      Danny of

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  8. Nonchalant Savant says:

    Commitment device?

    Is that like an engagement ring?

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    • Nichlemn says:

      Yes. For the past month, a friend and I have engaged in a system where each day we email our goals for (mostly) the next day, then pay fines to each other according to our failures. Though we use the honour system, I don’t cheat partially because I know it could start a slippery slope to the failure of the system.

      It’s been successful. While we’ve each paid a fair share of fines, they’ve mostly been for minor infringments (e.g. achieving a goal but later in the day than specified).

      We’ve actually tried similar systems for several years now, but they never lasted. They’d be one-off shots for a project of some kind, if we ever even got around to doing the system.

      The breakthrough this time is that setting goals for the next day is now a goal in and of itself. Setting goals, after all, is an activity that can be procrastinated just like any other. If you don’t commit yourself to keep at it, you could find yourself achieving a goal and then falling right back into bad habits again.

      And inspired by the book “Nudge”, we have default goals that are in place unless specifically edited no later than the day before. The idea is that by requiring an “opt-out” rather than an “opt-in”, the consequence of apathy is to keep setting goals.

      I’ve also tinkered around with the fine structure. The problem with Adam Scott’s $750 fine was that it was too large in the case of accidents and unusual situations, but as a one-shot deal it also failed to provide any deterrence on the margin if he fails once. My structure involves small, steadily increasing fines.

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