• Jon D'Alessandro

Productivity Tactics: A Practical Guide to Precommitment

Prevent distraction and impulsivity with these practical precommitment tips (including 26 techniques you can implement immediately)

In the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, the protagonist Odysseus and his crew embark on a fearsome return voyage to their homeland following the decade-long Trojan War. During the adventure they must sail past the land of the Sirens, who lure men to their death with an irresistibly enchanting song. To avoid the trap, clever Odysseus instructs his sailors to fill their ears with beeswax and row like hell. But the hero, determined to hear the song himself, orders his men to tie him to the ship’s mast and leave him tethered no matter how much he begs and cajoles.


The wind fell deathly still as they approached the island. The sirens began their bewitching song, tempting Odysseus with wisdom and serenity if he ventured closer. He demanded to be freed, but his men only bound him tighter and rowed with all their might until they were clear of the island. The hero's plan worked. He heard the deadly siren song and lived to tell the tale.


The Theory of Precommitment

Odysseus’ strategy is an example of precommitment, or proactively restricting the number of choices available to encourage self-control and prevent distraction and impulsivity.


Jon Elster developed the first comprehensive theory of precommitment (also fittingly referred to as “self-binding”) to explore strategies for combatting the all-too-human error of being “imperfectly rational” — meaning we are capable of rational future planning but prone to deviate from said plans.


Precommitment is valuable because we can’t consistently rely on sheer force of will and discipline to maintain consistency and accountability. Plus, as Elster observed, we habitually change course, opt for short-term gains over long-term, and modify our preferences over time.


Counterintuitively, we are sometimes better off with fewer opportunities. Ultimately, precommitment is purposefully restricting your freedom of choice, figuratively burning the bridges behind you in pursuit of a goal. We create constraints to increase the likelihood of following through with a desired course of action - for example, removing options, making certain avenues more costly or temporarily out of reach, or by insulating ourselves from the awareness of other options.


In a more modern example, Quentin Tarantino famously writes screenplays longhand in a notebook rather than using a computer. That single commitment removes a world of potential distractions and tangents, allowing him to focus solely on the story’s progression. Elster provides other examples:

  • Broadcasting one’s commitment to quit smoking to friends in order to create social pressure and raise the cost of backsliding

  • An author committing to write a short story rather than a novel to ensure they economize in their writing

  • A director shooting in black and white to mitigate the tempting “facile charms of color photography,” instead channeling that creative energy into the story itself.

Precommitment Tactics

If you want to add precommitment to your own productivity toolbox, here are some practical techniques to avoid digital distraction, crush your goals, manage your time and finances, and improve your wellbeing:


Technology:

  • Block access to certain websites with tools like the Freedom app

  • Discourage phone use during productive periods with apps like Forest

  • Impose time limits for certain phone apps by using built-in functions like Android’s app timer

  • Your phone is rife with colorful, attention-grabbing, dopamine-sucking apps and features. Set your phone to black and white mode to purposefully, for lack of a better phrase, make it boring. The greyscale setting is also incredibly useful in the hours leading up to bed.

  • Leave your phone or laptop at home, or give it to someone else and - like Odysseus - make them promise not to give it back for a set period of time or until you’ve accomplished a specific task, no matter how much you beg and cajole.

  • Like Tarantino, write longhand instead of using your distraction-filled computer.

  • Proactively log out of distracting apps.

  • Put your phone or the TV remote in a time-locking container (like this one).

Goals:

  • Find an accountability buddy. Discuss your important goals and hold one another accountable for pursuing them, including frequent check-ins. Alternately, meet (live or digitally) to work on important projects and discourage distraction during that time.

  • Pay in advance for things like a workshop, class, seminar, personal trainer, etc.

  • Publicly announce an important goal to friends or via social media. (Without diving into the details, research on the effectiveness of publicizing your goals is mixed at best, so your best bet is to make the announcement without entertaining any pre-congratulatory behavior which can diminish motivation.)

  • Write a check to charity and give it to a friend. Have them commit to sending the check if you fail to achieve a certain goal or finish a key project in a specified amount of time.

  • Write down - in advance - the exact time and place you’ll complete a specific task. This substantially increases the likelihood that you actually do it.

Time Management:

  • Use time blocking to proactively designate slots in your calendar to work on specific tasks or projects. Work on nothing else and resist being pulled into other supposedly “urgent” tasks during that time.

  • Leverage “day theming” where you focus on a specific type of activity on certain days. For example, reserving a portion of every Friday for strategic thinking, or working on more transactional (i.e. boring) necessities every Tuesday morning.

Finances:

  • Take the “out of sight, out of mind” approach with your finances and have your paycheck divided and routed into several accounts — a checking account for expenses, a savings account, and your retirement account, for example.

  • Bring a set amount of cash out with you instead of a credit card.

  • Start and contribute to a retirement account like a 401(k) or IRA which has an inbuilt withdrawal penalty. Use a 529 plan account to save for your children's education expenses.

  • Invest while you sleep: Have a certain amount of money automatically withdrawn into an investment account. Set up automatic recurring trades based on your investment strategy.

  • Commit in advance to allocating a portion of a future salary increase to a financial goal.

Health:

  • Don’t use discipline to avoid eating junk food, just leave it on the shelf at the grocery store.

  • When visiting the doctor or dentist, make your next appointment before you leave.

  • Find a workout buddy and arrange in advance a dedicated time and place to meet them (at the gym, at the starting point for a jog or bike ride, etc.).

  • Store indulgent foods, cigarettes, or other temptations in a time locking container.

  • Put your alarm clock across the room so you’re forced to get out of bed to turn it off.

Precommit and Prosper

This is merely a subset of practical precommitment techniques that you can leverage or tailor to your own needs. Precommitment is not a magic pill that will solve all your problems, but it is an effective tool to help you maintain consistency on the long journey to accomplishing important goals. It helps you get out of your own way and mitigate counterproductive, yet all-too-human tendencies that can otherwise derail your progress or performance.


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