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. 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”
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 (e.g., an army that burns its bridge behind it making retreat impossible). A famous example of this tactic is when Hernán Cortés had his men scuttle the ships in order to eliminate any means of desertion. This is important in deterrence theory because a threat must be credible to have deterrent power. Strategies such as burning bridges and tripwire forces will eliminate possibilities thus increasing the chance of military conflict. The ideal would be to force your opponent into a clear last chance to avoid war.
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.
- 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.
- 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.