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Katy Perry and Elmo saying yes/no to each other

Here are two handy wisdom nuggets:

  1. Adam Wolf’s trick of committing now to start doing something in 30 days (i.e., create a goal with a 30-day initial buffer) to overcome the mental friction of getting yourself on the hook.
  2. Tim Harford’s heuristic of only committing to something in the future if you’d be willing to commit to doing it today, to overcome the common delusion in which you think “next week I’ll be less busy”.

Do those conflict?

Harford’s trick might seem anti-Beeminder-y. Only commit if you’d be ok with doing it now, within your akrasia horizon? That’s exactly what Beeminder assumes you won’t do, not without re-engineered incentives!

But I actually agree with both of those wisdom nuggets and even think they’re instances of the same general principle.

The standard story of akrasia is that I delusionally think I can screw around now and be more productive tomorrow (or next week). I’m hyperbolically discounting and prioritizing immediate pleasure and deferring pain.

“For the exact same reason, I both procrastinate and overcommit”

Similarly, when someone asks me to commit to something, I have a strong immediate desire to make them happy and say yes. Disappointing people feels horrible. So, for the exact same reason, I both procrastinate and overcommit. I don’t overcommit to myself, just to other people. For self-originating commitments it’s the hassle of committing that’s most salient. Not bothering is easiest in the moment. I need to lock myself in. For other-originating commitments it’s the pain of disappointing someone that’s most salient. It’s easiest to say yes now and worry about the consequences in the future.

In short, I’m tempted to say no to my suggestions to myself of new commitments and I’m tempted to say yes to others.

Hence Adam Wolf’s trick for overcoming that immediate ugh-reaction and getting myself on the hook for things I want to commit to. And hence also Tim Harford’s heuristic for defending against the temptation to say yes in the moment (and avoid the pain of saying no) to all those potential commitments to others that future-me will have to worry about making good on.

PS: Caveats and Advice-Reversal

As with most advice given blindly, some people may do better to reverse this advice. You know who you are. Creating a Beeminder goal every time the whim strikes could be a recipe for Beeminder Burnout for some folks. (Presumably some people should apply Scott Alexander’s advice-reversing advice to Tim Harford’s heuristic as well.) But I think it’s possible to get the best of both worlds. As we explain in our old blog post about it, beating Beeminder burnout doesn’t have to mean beeminding fewer things, just beeminding less so. Follow Adam’s advice and create every Beeminder goal that pops into your head, with the 30 days’ buffer, and also do calendialing. That way you can beemind All The Things, but very gradually and nonstressfully (or at whatever stress level you may thrive on).