Precommitment and Egonomics

The concept “egonomics” was introduced by Schelling in 1978, in his address to the American Economic Association. He was musing, in particular, on the ways in which people manage themselves either to do, or to avoid doing, particular activities or behaviors – the “tricks” they play on themselves in order to make unpleasant or difficult decisions unnecessary. Some of the examples he gave were to place the alarm clock at the other side of the room so it cannot be turned off without getting out of bed; to deliberately set watches a few minutes ahead of time to avoid being constantly late; to be committed to weekly payments into a Christmas Club to make saving easier and savings less readily accessible during the rest of the year and, at the extreme, to dieters having their jaws wired up in order to avoid the temptation of food. Putting things out of reach, or the self-promise of a small reward, or surrendering authority to a trustworthy friend, were all, Schelling suggested, means of policing or managing the self. Using cigarette smoking as an example, he went on to posit that addictive behaviors demonstrated an anomaly in consumer theory in that “consumers are getting negative satisfaction out of something they spend a lot of money to consume”. In other words, despite the known detrimental social, health and financial consequences, people continue to be hooked into the behavior. The way some of them can reverse the addiction is through, amongst other tactics, paying for support of professionals, drugs or behavior-aversive aids. The suggestion is that with both “positive” behaviors (regular saving, exercising, meeting deadlines) and “negative” behaviors such as cigarette smoking, the consumer will find ways of managing the self, whether through self-reward or self-intimidation.
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”
Precommitment is one way to address this tension. The basic idea is to increase your chances for success by doing things in advance to make it harder, if not impossible, for your future self to find a way to “back out”. It’s similar to an idea discussed in the context of the Getting Things Done system: Always assume your future self is lazy. But with precommitment, you’re perhaps taking it even further in that you’re not just presupposing laziness, you’re practically dragging your future self kicking and screaming toward the “right thing” by taking away his or her alternative options.
Precommitment is one of the many tools in our imaginary toolboxes as we work towards a balanced perspective of short-term pleasure vs. long-term advances. It’s a great “life hack”; one that you’ll find in almost every realm of personal development ranging from managing finances to improving your marriage to getting in shape. Now that you can identify it, you can start to be aware when you come across it – and you can explore ways to introduce precommitment into your own everyday life.
Here are some examples of precommitment:

  1. Don’t buy food at the grocery store you don’t want yourself eating at a later date.
  2. Don’t carry cigarettes around with you, put the burden on your future self to bum one from someone.
  3. Sign-up and pay in advance for a seminar, class, or a personal trainer.
  4. Arrange in advance to meet someone at the gym or the outdoor track (accountability!)
  5. Make your next dentist/doctor/hair appointment on your way out of one, noting the penalty you’ll pay for skipping.
  6. 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.
  7. Book and pay for time away from work or home in advance.
  8. Leave your laptop at work so you aren’t tempted to use it.
  9. Give friends and family a date they should expect something from you.

There are many more examples out there of how precommitment can help keep you moving forward.

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