Girding one’s loins against the possibility of future bad behavior isn’t a new concept (think chastity belt), but the burgeoning field of behavioral economics has put a name to one particular method for bolstering self-control—the commitment device, a decision or behavior you make now that restricts your options later, usually in the interest of long-term goals over short-term gratification. For instance, a commitment device might come in the form of you giving your car keys to a friend at the beginning of a night of debauchery, thus limiting your drunk-driving options.
I’ve unwittingly utilized commitment devices for years, and you probably have, too. For instance, I rarely keep sweet treats in the house (a decision I make now), not even the healthy ones I make, because the temptation would wear me down sooner or later (I’m protected from future willpower lapses).
Once a week, though, I make a small cakelette (ingredients: beans, oats, applesauce, carrots, raw nuts, and dates) for me and my BFFs. I generate this concoction a day ahead of time, and usually the presence of this delectable morsel isn’t troublesome, but recently, I felt weak. I could tell I was at risk of eating the cake—all of it, all by myself.
Since that option would be tremendously embarrassing and weight-inducing, I needed to conceive a commitment device, a sort of temporary cake vaccine. Recalling the $20 bill in my wallet, I marched over to my neighbor’s, handed her the twenty, and explained my situation. I requested that she return my money under only one condition—she would ask me the next night, “Did you eat any of the cake?” If I replied, “No,” the twenty was mine again.
Since my neighbor is one of the weekly cake recipients, she was more than happy to comply.
Not only did this little gamble insure we had cake to munch, but it also served to release me from the temptation. No way in hell would I risk losing that $20, so I went about the next 24 hours free from obsessing about the carrot loaf.
I can hear some of you thinking, “That’s way too much trouble. I should learn to manage my own cravings. Besides, it’s humiliating!”
Yes, it is awkward, especially considering that my dear friend and neighbor is at least 75 pounds overweight. Nevertheless, I’m over worrying what others think and more concerned about my health and happiness, so she routinely harbors foods for me that are too enticing to keep in my house but that I want to have occasional access to—like dried fruit and peanut butter.
My boyfriend, on the other hand, refuses to assist me in this manner—he claims I should learn to resist temptation. (Did I mention that he is 50 pounds overweight?)
Another Type of Commitment Device
A few years ago I purchased a lockbox with a timer, a handy little commitment device I discovered while researching this concept online. It’s the size of a large kitchen canister, and I used it regularly for a while to sequester overly-tempting food items like dark chocolate and macadamia nuts.
I’d just stow away my comestibles and set the timer for a however many days I wanted, and presto, temptation temporarily disabled! Now if I wanted said items sooner, I’d either have to go out and get them or better yet, wait a little while until the craving passed—and it always did.
The purpose of a commitment device is to help you achieve your long term goals. Our strength of determination in the moment is rarely the same as at some point in the future, so the commitment device sort of picks up the slack in willpower when you most need it. This helpful self-control booster can be applied to a multitude of situations—all you have to do is get creative. So the next time you anticipate a potential breach of your healthy eating, employ a commitment device. As always, the more you use this strategy, the better you’ll get at it.
To learn more about commitment devices that can help you stick with a healthy diet, talk with one of our health coaches! Sign up for a free 30 minute session.