Tagged: commitment contracts


A spot contract is a miniature commitment contract that you make on the spot and award to the first person willing to spot you.

Regret staying up too late last night? Resolved to go to bed earlier? Make it happen on the spot. Email your friends, asking them to spot you:

If I’m not in bed tonight by 11, I will buy the first person to email me back lunch. Who’s game?


Adjusting activation energy and enlisting referees and cheerleaders in commitment contracts will motivate, but they are unlikely to motivate as much as people who share your goals. As David Brooks writes:

[In the discussion of habit change through environmental design there is something that is] often lost in the larger advice culture. The important habitual neural networks are not formed by mere routine, nor can they be reversed by clever triggers. They are burned in by emotion and fortified by strong yearnings, like the yearnings for admiration and righteousness… As the Victorians understood (and the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous understand), if you want to change your life, don’t just look for a clever trigger. Commit to some larger global belief.

There is evidence that programs like Alcoholics Anonymous—in which people pursue goals together—work. The exact process is disputed, but their efficacy appears to stem from a combination of social support, social pressure, and “warehousing”, or distraction from alternative activities [Baumeister and Tierney].


Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Strength. Penguin

Brooks, David. 2012-03-01. The Machiavellian Temptation. NYT



A commitment contract is “a contract that binds you into achieving a personal goal.” You set a goal, decide the stakes, designate a referee, and engage supporters. Stakes include money and/or reputation. Recipients of the money include individuals, charities, and “anti-charities” (organizations you’d hate to donate to).

Commitment contracts are an effective way of spurring new habits. In just one example, a study of more than two thousand smokers found that “the smokers offered a commitment contract were nearly 40 percent more likely to be nicotine-free after a year” [Baumeister and Tierney].

The commitment contract was pioneered by the Yale economist Dean Karlan and his colleague the lawyer-economist Ian Ayres, both leading behavioralists. Together they founded stickK.com, a site for creating commitment contracts. While you can replicate many of the aspects of a commitment contract yourself, stickK offers you a legally enforceable agreement and the promise that, if you fail, your friends will find out and your card will be charged.


Ian Ayres. 2010. Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done. Bantam.

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin