Boosting productivity with a babysitter

On his tour in Australia last year, Start with Why author Simon Sinek confessed a strange productivity hack he had adopted: A babysitter. As a fully functioning adult male, Simon has employed someone to come to his apartment and babysit him while he works.

While this may seem extreme, Simon has realised that the presence of another person helps moderate his behaviour. Less surfing the net, watching TV and staring into the fridge.

But an adult’s babysitter is nothing compared with the lengths a famously quirky Icelandic singer-songwriter went to to write her album. In a story recounted by Oliver Sacks’ partner Bill Hayes, Bjork chose to write her album in a lighthouse. Free from distraction, she had no opportunity to leave until the tide changed each evening.

Commitment devices

What we are talking about here are commitment devices; strategies we can employ to save us from ourselves.  Commitment devices are recognition that we are good at weaseling out of promises we make to ourselves – like not snacking after dinner or fiddling with our phone when we should be writing a blog (ahem), for example.

The weaseling pattern arises because we typically make a commitment in a ‘cold state’, using our System 2, rational thinking to set a goal that will impact us sometime in the future.  When the time comes to act on that commitment however, we are often in a ‘hot state’, using System 1 emotional, impulsive thinking to guide our behaviour. If we feel differently about our goal in that moment we tend to rationalise it away, convincing ourselves that it was a dumb idea in the first place.

To force ourselves to follow through on our commitment we sometimes need a little help. That means removing options to behave in ways counter to our objective. Simon is using the social pressure of a babysitter to stop him from getting distracted and Bjork is removing herself quite literally from the ability to do anything other than write.

If you can’t afford a babysitter or lighthouse, don’t worry. An everyday commitment device that is becoming increasingly popular is a timed lockable container called kSafe. A plastic storage tub, you can lock your smartphone, tablet or snacks away for a designated period of time, with access only granted once the timer reaches zero.

Other commitment devices include:

  • Pledging money to a charity if you fail to do what you say you’ll do (stickK helps people do this)
  • Joining the military to get fit (!)
  • Freezing your credit card in a block of ice
  • Buying single serve snacks so you are less inclined to binge the lot
  • Paying superannuation now so you have money in the future
  • Going to a café without internet to focus on your work
  • Using an old style piggy bank that needs to be smashed open
  • Selling your car if you want to ride to work

Implications for you

Commitment devices offer obvious personal advantages. You can improve your productivity and health by removing the temptation to behave otherwise.

But don’t overlook the opportunity for you to be the commitment device for your customers (or staff) too. What might they need help sticking to? Can you support them by being their accountability corner?  Talk with them about what they want to achieve and what self-created distractions might derail their attempt. Who knows? They may even be willing to pay a premium for your help in keeping them on track.


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