I listened to a fascinating Freakonomics podcast today called “Save Me From Myself“. [aside: if you’ve never listened to , or read anything by Dubner & Levitt — journalist and award-winning economist, respectively — I highly recommend them].
In this podcast they discuss different types of “commitment devices” and their effectiveness. If you think of yourself as having two personas: your current self and your future self. A commitment device is a mechanism that you put in place to protect your future self from sabotaging a change that your current self wants to implement.
You might immediately start to think of examples you have setup for yourself. Commitment devices come in all flavors and sizes. They range from the easily reversible announcement to all your friends that you’re on a diet to lose weight, or the App that blocks you from using Facebook on Tuesdays, to reduce your internet time, to the drastic, irreversible measures such as bariatric surgery to lose weight or committing some unspeakable offense that causes Facebook to ban you for life.
Dubner mentions a couple of websites that have cropped up to help you structure more sophisticated and robust commitment contracts. I checked out one of them, called Stickk.com, developed by a Yale economist. This site sets up real contracts with Goals, Stakes, Referee and Support. The Stakes can constitute real money being deducted from your credit card. Ouch. “Years of economic and behavioral research show that people who put stakes – either their money or their reputation – on the table are far more likely to actually achieve a goal they set for themselves.”
The weakness of many commitment contracts is that we either a) don’t make them powerful and robust enough, or b) your future self rebels or c) you truly do change your mind. Our ‘future’ self is often vastly more creative than we can ever anticipate today, so the key is to create something that the boundless creativity of the ‘future’ self simply cannot reverse.
Really makes me ask myself how serious I am about any changes I try to make. Do I really want them to be irreversible for the rest of my life, or do I want to keep my options open.
Maybe we should classify changes according to intended stick-to-it-iveness. Something like “dead serious” or “kinda-sorta-good-idea-for-now”. For the “dead serious” changes we could call in the big guns. Bring on the irreversible commitment devices. For all the others, follow the usual process: fervor to-> bit of a drag to-> first temptation to-> rewind, start again to-> negotiate new terms to-> rationalize scaling back to-> nevermind … drop it!