How to Do That Thing You Keep Putting Off

by Jess Whittlestone
Originally Published: 
An open notebook with pluses, minuses, and slashes written on the pages

Zelda Gamson was a serious smoker—a 40-a-day, “I’d smoke in the shower if I could” kind of smoker. She knew it was bad for her, and she wanted to give it up—but whenever she tried, she always gave in to the urge sooner or later.

Finally, determined to quit her bad habit once and for all, she did something drastic. She was talking to a friend and suddenly, before she’d even had a chance to properly think it through, blurted out, “If I ever smoke another cigarette, I’ll donate $5000 to the Ku Klux Klan!”

Zelda never smoked again.

When Willpower Fails

As we saw in part one of this series, it can be very difficult to motivate oneself based on consequences that are far in the future. Present-Zelda’s struggle to quit smoking is a classic example. A cigarette (or 40) wasn’t going to do her any harm right in the short term (at least not as far as she could tell); instead, it was only future-Zelda who might get lung cancer. In the battle between doing what she wanted right now and doing what she knew was best in the long run, instant gratification always won out.

But as soon as she made that drastic commitment to her friend—to donate $5000 to the KKK if she ever smoked again—her choice was very different. Now it was a choice between smoking right now and immediately losing a large amount of money to an organization she despised. Because the negative consequences of smoking were no longer in the distant future, it was much harder for Zelda to ignore them. Every time she reached for her cigarettes, she pictured the KKK doing horrible things.


Controlling Your Future Self

What Zelda did demonstrates something pretty powerful: how to control how you’ll act in the future. By changing the options in front of you and making the consequences of those actions more immediate, you can make sure future-you does what now-you really wants to do.

The idea of ensuring you’ll act in a certain way in the future is known as “precommitment,” and it goes back to Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling. In his paper, “Self-Command in Practice, in Policy, and in a Theory of Rational Choice,” Schelling opens with the example of many women who, prior to going into labor, ask their doctors not to offer them anesthetic later. These women know that once they are in pain, if anesthetic is available they will use it, but they would rather not be able to. By making sure it’s not available, these women are restricting their later options, to ensure they won’t later regret having “given in to the pain.”

We see simple cases of precommitment all over the place: “Please don’t let me have any cigarettes, even when I ask for them.” “If I try to text my ex when I get drunk, please stop me—no matter what I say.” “I’m not going to buy ice cream, because if I do I’ll eat the whole liter tub in one go.”

Schelling suggests several different ways you might get your future self to do what you want. Here are five key strategies:

1. Relinquish control to someone else: Give someone else your car keys or phone if you don’t want to use them but know you will be tempted.

2. Commit or contract: Commit to paying money to someone you know, or like Zelda, to an organization you despise, if you fail to do what you promise.

3. Remove tempting resources: Don’t keep ice cream in the house if you’re on a diet, or use an app like Self Control to block the Internet when you’re working.

4. Incarcerate yourself: Have someone drive you to a secluded location with no distractions or Internet, and only have them pick you up once you’ve done eight solid hours of work.

5. Reschedule your life: Always do food shopping just after you’ve eaten and are feeling too full to be tempted by unhealthy treats.

What if you always did what you wanted?

While these strategies are all different, they essentially all do the same thing. They change the decision you will face in the future so that you will naturally choose the thing that you know, all things considered, is best for you.


The best way to go running later is to ensure that, when later comes around, you’d rather go running than any of the available alternatives. You could do this by rescheduling your life—if you know that you often feel like running in the morning but not in the evening, then only plan to run in the mornings. Or you could do it by setting up a contract with negative consequences if you don’t run—if the choice is between going for a run and losing $100, I know what I would choose.

Which of these you use will depend on the kind of thing you want to do and what you find works well for you. Personally, I’ve experimented with a few. I find the “commit or contract” strategy particularly effective and versatile—I wager money that I’ll lose if I fail to do what I set out to, and this works for pretty much any goal. For this, I use an app called Beeminder to keep track of various goals and habits—from running regularly to meditating on a daily basis—which charges me money if I fall off track. Putting money on the line doesn’t work for everyone, but for those it does suit, it can be transformative. I’ve yet to try the incarceration strategy, but I have a feeling it could be pretty effective!

How to do that thing you keep putting off

To sum up: In order to do anything, we need motivation. But it can be hard to be motivated to do something if the consequences are far off in the future, especially if there are much more immediately rewarding options available. The best way to solve this problem is to somehow make the benefits of doing that thing—or the costs of not doing it—more immediate. The most effective way to do this is to somehow limit yourself in the future: make it such that the thing you want to do will be what your future self wants, too.

Photo: Tysh/flickr

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