If you give your future self a carrot

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to be productive. How can I fit more work, sleep, exercise, and leisure into my day? How can I overcome procrastination? How can I focus on a task for longer periods of time? For a long time, my strategy was something like the one illustrated in the following (brilliant) comic:


Commitment devices like StickK received a lot of press when it was mentioned in Freakonomics – the premise was basically that people would commit to achieving a goal, like exercising, and pay a penalty when they didn’t stick to the task (the money could go to a person of their choice, a random charity, or an anti-charity – one whose cause the user opposes.) Users lost more weight when there was money on the line.

StickK gets its name from the carrot-or-stick analogy. The idea is that people might respond better to sticks (punishments) than to carrots (rewards), because they are loss averse: assuming that the income effect is negligible, losing $5 hurts a lot more than winning $5 is pleasurable.  So, when I create a StickK account and set a goal, I’m playing a game with my future self.  I commit to, for instance, working out every day, and if I don’t succeed that day, I have to give my roommate a $5. The commitment is self-executing – say my roommate wants those $5, so she’s definitely going to come and get the money from me if I deserve to lose it. Then, when my future self is debating whether to go to dance class, I’ll have to think, “Would I rather go to the class, or would I rather lose $5?” Of course, I’d rather not have to make the commitment at all, but Future Me won’t stick to the task if I don’t.

One problem is that I might value the time I would get back from being lazy far above $5. I might have to set the penalty at a price > the most I would be willing to give up to get that chunk of time back at the time that Future Me is making the decision (and that might be a pretty high number). Another issue is that for many people, succeeding in something like “not procrastinating” might feel like an even bigger loss than the procrastination itself – what if you don’t do as well as you would like at the task? What if you fail at it? Maybe you’d rather not find out – procrastinate instead. (In that particular case, the solution isn’t to penalize yourself with five pushups, punching yourself in the nose, and giving $1 to the NRA. You should probably figure out how to change how you evaluate your payoffs so that failing doesn’t hurt so much.)