(A note on terminology: I use “decision” to mean instances where you have to pick between several options. I use “choice” to indicate these options.)
This is a technique I use that I find helpful for staying on-track and avoiding distractions– precommitment. The idea behind precommitment is to lock yourself into good choices *1. This is an example of self-imposed choice architecture *2.
Now a few words of caution: This will definitely not work for everyone, and it doesn’t always work for me, either. But I think the ideas and motivations behind the technique can be helpful for others, and it’s my hope that you salvage something useful from this concept.
I’m going to link two related concepts with the idea of precommitment:
1- The removal of choices
2- A mental heuristic when faced with temptation.
I’ll refer to (1) as physical precommitment and I’ll refer to (2) as mental precommitment.
For either of these two to be effective, you need to anticipate a decision coming up where you have to make a choice. However, if you could just make the “right” choice at that point in the future, then we wouldn’t need to precommit. So not only do you have to anticipate a decision coming up, but you should also see that you have a high chance of not choosing the “right” choice then. So the choice the “future you” makes might not be the choice the you in the present would like the “future you” to take.
A good analogy is found in Odysseus and the Sirens. Odysseus knows that once he hears the Siren’s song, he will want to leave the ship and go towards them (and his certain death). Anticipating this change in priorities, he asks his men to tie him up before they proceed, in line with his priorities now (life over the Sirens) versus later (the Sirens over life).
Humans are often inconsistent, and there are many examples where our individual desires in decisions can overpower our initial goals. For instance:
1- Hamza decide now that he wants to cut down sugar in his diet. However, Hamza knows there is a stash of cookies in his pantry, and he tends to get snackish in the afternoon…
2- Owen needs to finish typing his essay, but he knows he is often distracted by Facebook and other social media sites while on the computer…
3- Amir wants to finish studying his chapter in his Algebra textbook, but he knows that his attention wanders after around an hour– watching YouTube videos or playing video games will seem very attractive…
In all of the above cases, there is a decision coming up in the future. In each case, one choice will be in line with your goals, and the other will not. However, you anticipate that choosing the right choice will be hard for you at the time when you face the decision.
Also, we need to recognize that this shift of priorities occurs. If we are unaware of the fact that we make inconsistent choices, we cannot allay the situation.
If you decide to use physical precommitment, the idea is to eliminate the potential to make the “wrong” choice before the time to face the decision arises. Here are some examples following the first 3 scenarios:
1- Knowing that he may crave sugary snacks, Hamza removes all cookies and candies from his pantry. Instead, he stocks it with fruits, nuts, and vegetable sticks. If he gets snackish in the afternoon now, his only choice is to eat non-sugary foods.
2- Owen sets up a series of web extensions like Stay Focusd*3 and Kill News Feed*4 to limit his options on the web. If he is on the computer at all, working on his essay is the only thing he can really do.
3- Amir goes to his library and uses a study room. He brings just his textbook and some water. If he loses concentration, he can take a small breather, but it’s now much less likely that he will become totally off-tracked from his studying.
In some cases of physical precommitment where the self-imposed restrictions can be easily self-removed, it may help to have a friend act as an accountable 3rd party. For example, if you worry you will remove the extensions you just installed, a willing friend can create a supervised user account on Chrome for you.
The key is to see what “bad” choices you may be tempted to take, and remove them, so your only options left are the ones you wanted to take originally.
Mental precommitment is the idea of capturing your mindset now by writing it down or recording it in some way, so that when you are faced with the decision in the future, you can still make the “right” choice.
Example: When I wanted to wake and be productive in the mornings, I kept the mindset of “I want to get up and get things done” while writing a letter to myself. I keep it on my bedside, so now I associate it with that mindset when I get up. You already know what the “right” choice is– you wrote it down already, along with your mindset at the time.
If you write it out/do an analysis of what the “correct” choice is, you can also tell yourself you’ve already decided, when the time to face the decision comes up.
As a mental note, you can tell yourself that no matter what reasons your brain has come up with to choose the “wrong” action, you don’t have to listen because you’ve already done the calculations.
It’s more of a rational counter to rationalization by your brain. The two major implicit assumptions are that:
1- Right now, you are not thinking clearly.
2- The “past you” was thinking clearly and already saw the best course of action.
So you should just ignore your brain and trust your past self.
Of these two ideas, physical precommitment is definitely not new, but I think it’s still very helpful for getting the things you want done. Mental precommitment is a personal thing I’ve been trying recently with mixed results, but I thought it may be useful to people looking for a way to put a counter to rationalization into words.
If you can put both of them together, you’ll probably experience the best outcome.
I know that neither precommitment strategies address the change in priorities that we anticipate before the decision arises. It seems like the best-case scenario is to maintain the same goals and priorities, no matter what the situation. Then we don’t need to go into all these complex workarounds to ensure we make the right decision. We’d just… make the right decision.
FUN FACT: It’s also worth noting that precommitment has many interesting parallels to decision theory. Specifically, I know of its relation to causal decision theory and Newcomb’s Problem. There are implications about what precommitment costs vs making the decision when faced with it means for people– that we can’t act 100% rationally at times, but that’s another long line of thought.