How to Use Commitment Devices to Form Lasting Habits

Commitment devices are an effective tool to form lasting new habits and kick old ones into the turf. Here’s how to use them.

The space between current intentions and future reality is a dark and overpopulated one. We know all too well the things that are in our future selves’ interest. And yet, time and time again, we fail to follow through.

We know that regular exercise will make us happier and healthier. We know that investing time in our education will open doors. These things are a given. But somehow the best intentions of our current self can be sabotaged by the myopia of our future self.

Philosophers and psychologists have described this disconnect for millennia, dating back to Aristotle and Plato. It even has a fancy name: akrasia.

Akrasia is the phenomenon of acting against our better judgement. It’s knowing something is in our best interest but not doing it. Procrastination, addiction, lack of self-control and failure to deliver are all embedded in this idea.

Time Inconsistency

At its heart, perhaps this is a simple question of willpower. We could examine this lack of willpower any which way. Maybe it’s personality and genetics. Maybe it’s fatigue from exercising self-control elsewhere. Or maybe it’s just good old-fashioned laziness. There is enough willpower research out there to lead us down many well-reasoned paths.

But the real root cause perhaps goes a little deeper. Akrasia demonstrates our bias for immediacy. While we may realise a current action is in our future interest, we don’t weigh current and future rewards equally.

As rewards get further away, we tend to discount them in favour of nearer-term rewards. Psychologists call this temporal discounting or time inconsistency. Its result is akrasia, driving procrastination and unhelpful habits.

The question, then, is how can we best avoid akrasia?

Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. We can break down our goals, provide nearer-term rewards, change who we spend time with, and eliminate distractions. But the truth is that sometimes none of that is enough.

Instead, sometimes we need to get to the core of the problem. We need to reconfigure our perception of the future. And perhaps the most effective way to do this is to use a commitment device.

What Is a Commitment Device?

A commitment device is a way of locking ourselves into a desired behaviour that we may not want to do but know is in our best interests.

Commitment devices have two important features:

  1. They are voluntarily adopted: We attempt to lock ourselves into a habit by choice.
  2. They tie consequences to failure: Failure to follow through on our commitment brings some form of consequence or cost. It’s this consequence which intends to bind us to the desired behaviour.

The most common types of commitment device are as follows:

  1. Imposing obstacles to temptation
  2. Making a public commitment
  3. Entering a monetary contract
  4. Entering a social contract

Each of these methods has its merits and demerits, so let’s take some time to explore each in more depth.

#1: Impose Obstacles to Temptation

By increasing obstacles to temptation, we can increase the emotional and/or monetary costs of temptation. This can be achieved by adapting our environment and/or our systems.

The good news is this isn’t all that hard to implement. Even the subtlest of changes in our environments can increase the perceived costs of temptation. Take one study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2011. Researchers found that just reducing the size of a plate and the colour of a tablecloth was correlated with reductions in food consumption.

Similarly, subtle changes in our systems can link temptation to a desired habit. Temptation bundling, as it’s known in the habit literature, aims to tie a desired habit with a temptation. The idea is that you’ll only get to act out on a temptation once you’ve performed the desired behaviour, therefore committing you to it. You’ll only get to watch that Netflix show once you’ve finished that project, eat that dessert once you’ve gone for that run.

Adjusting how we manage temptation is a solid starting point, but commitment devices have much more to offer still.

#2: Make a Public Commitment

By making a public commitment to kick a habit or start a new habit, we can raise the stakes. The consequence of follow-through failure becomes public discomfort, even perceived humiliation. Telling our family and friends, or even announcing a commitment on social media, aims to lock ourselves into our desired behaviour by creating a sense of accountability, playing on our fear of shame if we fail to deliver.

But a word of caution here. Public commitments aren’t a silver bullet. One study even suggested that with identity-based behavioural intentions, such as training for a career, going public might even have an adverse effect on delivery.

#3: Enter a Monetary Contract

Another alternative is to put a price tag on our commitments. The most obvious example of an everyday monetary commitment device is a gym membership. The idea is that we voluntarily choose to pay for a gym membership to increase our inclination for regular exercise. Our monthly cost provides a consequence for follow-through failure: payment for nothing.

Let me give a further, personal example. I founded this website to publicly educate myself on some of the foundations of a better life (finances, habits and psychology). But committing to the upfront cost of domain fees and hosting fees was a conscious decision to spur me past the first few months of blogging. There are other cheaper options to write online, but the start-up cost provided a consequence until writing became an established habit.

Hard-earned money can have a powerful influence over our behaviours. But of course, we know gym memberships and upfront costs don’t always work. How many dormant gym members pay up each month without so much as a drop of sweat falling on the premises? Other monetary options can help – such as tools like StickK to make financial pacts and create financial penalties – but sometimes we need a social cost.

#4: Enter a Social Contract

As a commitment device, a social contract is usually an agreement between two or more people to engage in a particular behaviour. Continuing on our gym theme, a good example is having a workout partner. The idea is simple: the cost of not working out becomes letting someone else down, as well as our monetary outlay.

Alternatively, we can look for accountability partners. An accountability partner is someone who understands your commitment and will provide the necessary support and pressure to hold you to it. The consequence of follow-through failure is again letting down someone else.

Both strategies – a direct partner for a habit and an accountability partner – play on the social and psychological cost of letting people down. Don’t underestimate just how far such commitment devices can take new habits.

From Akrasia to Enkrateia

The bottom line is that we can help form lasting habits by imposing costs to follow-through failure in their early stages. There are a variety of ways to achieve this same end, whose effectiveness differs by individual.

Once habits become established and automatic, they should be easier to maintain without these consequences. Commitment devices might be turned to other more pressing habit changes in our lives.

The ultimate ambition is to avoid akrasia: to consistently, day after day, do the things we know are in our best interests.

As Aristotle explored the idea of akrasia over 2000 years ago, he is said to have argued its opposite to be enkrateia: power over yourself, self-control and self-mastery.

The next time you confront akrasia, consider commitment devices. Bundle temptation. Commit publicly. Attach a monetary consequence. Get an accountability partner. It may just help you on your move from akrasia to enkrateia.

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