Written by Ziz

I once had a file I could write commitments in. If I ever failed to carry one out, I knew I’d forever lose the power of the file. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since any successful use of the file after failing would be proof that a single failure didn’t have the intended effect, so there’d be no extra incentive.

I used it to make myself do more work. It split me into a commander who made the hard decisions beforehand, and commanded who did the suffering but had the comfort of knowing that if I just did the assigned work, the benevolent plans of a higher authority would unfold. As the commanded, responsibility to choose wisely was lifted from my shoulders. I could be a relatively shortsighted animal and things’d work out fine.
It lasted about half a year until I put too much on it with too tight a deadline. Then I was cursed to be making hard decisions all the time. This seems to have improved my decisions, ultimately.

Good leadership is not something you can do only from afar. Hyperbolic discounting isn’t the only reason you can’t see/feel all the relevant concerns at all times. Binding all your ability to act to the concerns of the one subset of your goals manifested by one kind of timeslice of you is wasting potential, even if that’s an above-average kind of timeslice.

If you’re not feeling motivated to do what your thesis advisor told you to do, it may be because you only understand that your advisor (and maybe grad school) is bad for you and not worth it when it is directly and immediately your problem. This is what happened to me. But I classified it as procrastination out of “akrasia”.

I knew someone in grad school whose advisor had been out of contact for about a year. Far overdue for a PhD, they kept taking classes they didn’t need to graduate, so that they’d have structure to make them keep doing things. Not even auditing them. That way there was a reason to continue. They kept working a TA job which paid terribly compared to industry. This was in a field where a PhD is dubiously useful. If they had audited the classes, and had only had curiosity driving them to study, then perhaps the terrible realization that they needed a change of strategy would not have been kept in its cage.

Doing the right thing with your life is much more important than efficiency in the thing you’ve chosen. It’s better to limp in the right direction than run in the wrong one.

There are types of adulting that you can’t learn until you have no other recourse, and once learned, are far more powerful than crutches like commitment mechanisms. Learn to dialogue between versions of yourself, and do it well enough that you want to understand other selves’ concerns, or lose access to knowledge that just might be selected to be the thing you most need to know.

I am lucky that my universal commitment mechanism was badly engineered, that the clever fool versions of me who built it did not have outside help to wield even more cleverly designed power they did not have the wisdom not to.

These days there’s Beeminder. It’s a far better designed commitment mechanism. At the core of typical use is the same threat by self fulfilling prophecy. If you lie to Beeminder about having accomplished the thing you committed to, you either prove Beeminder has no power over you, or prove that lying to Beeminder will not break its power over you, which means it has no consequences, which means Beeminder has no power over you.

But Beeminder lets you buy back into its service.

It’s worse than a crutch, because it doesn’t just weaken you through lack of forced practice. You are practicing squashing down your capacity to act on “What do I want?, What do I have?, and How can I best use the latter to get the former?” in the moment. When you set your future self up to lose money if they don’t do what you say, you are practicing being blackmailed.

You’re practicing outsourcing and attributing the functions Freud would call superego to something external. Look at any smart fundamentalist who sincerely believes that without God they’d have no morality to see the long term effects of that. I have heard a Beeminder user say they’d become “a terrible person” if they lost Beeminder. They were probably exaggerating, but that sounds to me like the exaggeration you’d make because you sort of believed it.

This does not mean that giving up on commitment devices will not damage you. That would be uncharacteristically fair of reality. Often you have to break things to make them better though.

Little Free Anarchive


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