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?

 [poll id=”23″]


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


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.


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.


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.

Jason Fisher

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.


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.


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


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

Jesus Garcia

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...

Nonchalant Savant

Commitment device?

Is that like an engagement ring?

so... you mean like a wedding ring?! ;-)


I just have to say that I was sure when I got over here I would find you talking about chastity belts!


I keep a photo of myself at 300lbs in my purse. I look at it and it keeps me on track to keep up the healthier living practices.


Silly survey. Which time? I could select all the choices (depending on the context) and tell you a story about why my choice was true.


Gympact! You sent a goal of x number of times per week, as well as a penalty for each day you miss each week (e.g. $15 and 3 days per week, if I go only once, pay $30). The iPhone app tracks your location and time spent each day at a verified gym when you check in/out. At the end of each week the people who didn't meet their pact pay up, and the money is split amongst the people who fulfilled their pact. It's financial incentive and disincentive at the same time. It certainly has helped me!


write down in order of priority next days to do list of six things,followed this tip from harmonic wealth,by james arthur ray

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I think that many commitment devices are so easy to circumvent that they won't be useful. To give the stupidest example I ever heard of: A grad student wrote a check for his entire month's salary and gave it to a friend with instructions to cash it on payday if he didn't finish his thesis that month. He thought that the prospect of being unable to buy food or pay the rent would be motivating.

Naturally, he didn't finish his thesis. (Does any grad student ever truly finish a thesis?) But there was no penalty: he called the bank and put a stop payment on the check. I suspect that nearly all of the financial transactions ("go to the gym or pay a $3 penalty") are as easily circumvented.