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Precommitment: Commit in Advance to Keep Yourself On Track

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Click for photo Our future and current selves rarely see eye-to-eye.  As much as we’d like to indulge in every short-term pleasurable activity as they present themselves, it’s not always the best thing for us when we look at our life in its totality.  Our time perspective can go a long way to optimizing for the right focus at the right time, making sure we indulge when we can (being “present hedonist”) but also keep an eye on the long-term prize (being “future goal-oriented”).  With the right time perspective we can make sure we’re not foregoing our health, our life goals, or any multi-step, complex accomplishments for today’s six-pack of beer, a McDonald’s Happy Meal, or 10 hours of mindless television.  It’s one thing to claim that time perspective can “solve” this for us, but that feels too theoretical.  Time perspective is about strategy, but there are also tactics we can use to adapt to a new time perspective.  One of the tactics that can help us adapt is precommitment.

The term precommitment was first introduced by a Nobel-prize winning economist named Thomas Schelling as part of a self-management system called Egonomics.  Calling Egonomics a “system” may not be entirely accurate since it was originally described as “the art of self-management” in a research paper (available here).  At the core of Egonomics is the idea that within each person exists two selves: the future self and the present (or past) self, constantly at odds, leading to a sort of cognitive dissonance between the two.  Both selves exist within us and are equally valid, but aren’t always active at the same time.  It’s a natural and ongoing conflict between immediate desire and long-term goals.

“Many of us have little tricks we play on ourselves to make us do the things we ought to do or to keep us from the things we out to foreswear.  Sometimes we put things out of reach for the moment of temptation, sometimes we promise ourselves small rewards, and sometimes we surrender authority to a trustworthy friend who will police our calories or our cigarettes.  We place the alarm clock across the room so we cannot turn it off without getting out of bed.  People who are chronically late set their watches a few minutes ahead to deceive themselves.” – Thomas Schelling, “Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management”

Precommitment is one way to address this tension.  The basic idea is to increase your chances for success by doing things in advance to make it harder, if not impossible, for your future self to find a way to “back out”.  It’s similar to an idea discussed in the context of the Getting Things Done system: Always assume your future self is lazy.  But with precommitment, you’re perhaps taking it even further in that you’re not just presupposing laziness, you’re practically dragging your future self kicking and screaming toward the “right thing” by taking away his or her alternative options.

Schelling developed his theories while looking at conflict management between nation-states, particularly those with nuclear weapons.  In fact, his Nobel Prize was for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis."  So it’s no surprise that a lot of the tactics he discussed with respect to self-management relate directly to military application.  Precommitment in this context is described as a strategy where a party to a conflict can strengthen its position by cutting off options to make its threats more credible.  One of the most common examples of precommitment is Cortés torching his own ships at Veracruz so his men couldn’t consider retreating home.  A more modern, geeky example would be the sendoff of the ships in the series finale of Battlestar Galactica.

Precommitment is one of the many tools in our imaginary toolboxes as we work towards a balanced perspective of short-term pleasure vs. long-term advances.  It’s a great “life hack”; one that you’ll find in almost every realm of personal development ranging from managing finances to improving your marriage to getting in shape.  Now that you can identify it, you can start to be aware when you come across it – and you can explore ways to introduce precommitment into your own everyday life.

Here are some examples of precommitment:

  • Don’t buy food at the grocery store you don’t want yourself eating at a later date.
  • Don’t carry cigarettes around with you, put the burden on your future self to bum one from someone.
  • Sign-up and pay in advance for a seminar, class, or a personal trainer.
  • Arrange in advance to meet someone at the gym or the outdoor track (accountability!)
  • Make your next dentist/doctor/hair appointment on your way out of one, noting the penalty you’ll pay for skipping.
  • Buy clothes a size or two smaller than you currently wear.
  • Setup an automatic withdrawal from your paycheck into an investment account every month, or add future expenses to your register before you have the funds to pay them.
  • Get a ride to work on a day you want to walk or ride your bike home.
  • Book and pay for time away from work or home in advance.
  • Leave your laptop at work so you aren’t tempted to use it.
  • Give friends and family a date they should expect something from you.

There are many more examples out there of how precommitment can help keep you moving forward.  Let me know if you already employ precommitment… or if you plan to!

Written by Mike Torres

July 5th, 2009 at 1:51 pm