Do you remember the tale of Odysseus and the Sirens from school? After the Trojan War, Odysseus sailed back to Ithaca, knowing he had to pass the island of Sirenum scopuli where the Sirens lured sailors to their death with enchanting melodies.
To avoid this fate, Odysseus had his men fill their ears with beeswax and ordered them to tie him to the mast. He knew that willpower alone wouldn’t stop him from the temptation.
‘Come here,’ they sang, ‘renowned Ulysses, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song – and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’
They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens’ voices.
Scholars believe the tale was composed roughly 2700 years ago and it shows how the battle of self-control, willpower and precommitment have been with us for millennia.
What does the science say?
Back in the late 1960s and 1970s the psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of studies on delayed gratification, called the Stanford marshmallow experiment. The idea was simple. You placed a child in a room empty of distractions and told him or her that they could either have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they waited for 15 minutes.
Mischel observed that some of the kids who succeeded with the task turned around or covered their eyes so they couldn’t see the marshmallow on the table.
In 2013, Molly Crockett made a similar but updated study (1) with focus on precommitment.
During the decision phase participants chose whether or not to make a binding choice for the larger-later reward. If participants chose to commit, they entered a delay phase during which the smaller-sooner rewards was not available, followed by the reward delivery phase. If participants chose not to commit, they entered a delay phase during which the smaller-sooner reward was available for the duration of the delay. Thus, by choosing to commit, participants restricted their access to the smaller-sooner reward option during the delay period.
Not surprisingly, the opportunity to precommit improved self-control and they noticed that more impulsive individuals were more likely to benefit from precommitment.
How to benefit from it in your own life?
Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place. – Molly Crockett
Precommitment is something you can apply to every aspect of you life. Simple things such as not having a TV in the bedroom, unplugging the video game, writing a shopping list before going to the store or creating a weekly food schedule so you plan your meals in advance.
You can follow a step-by-step plan like the following:
- Identify your bad habit.
- Precommit by blocking or removing it.
- Replace it with something better.
I’ve written about this before but using the right software could completely change your productivity when using a computer. Identify your bad habits with RescueTime, block the distraction by using SelfControl / AdBlock and finally replace it with something better.
Every time you open Facebook or a forum, it takes several minutes to get back into work-mode again. By blocking all the distracting sites and setting a timer, I manage to stay focused for 25 minutes and then get up to move around for five minutes so I never get mentally exhausted.
Another advantage with the Pomodoro Technique is that we have a tendency to take a break or procrastinate whenever we struggle with something. By forcing yourself into a 25 min schedule, you’ll always be able to pick up where you left off and not dread getting back.
Nowadays I call my iPad my consumption device. My computer is a work machine where I’m productive every minute and I use the iPad when I consume entertainment.
1: Crockett MJ, Braams BR, Clark L, Tobler PN, Robbins TW, Kalenscher T. Restricting temptations: neural mechanisms of precommitment. Neuron. 2013;79(2):391-401.