Commitment Debt

Commiting to cool things is great. Dreaming of standing on that TED stage is exciting, but we rarely work on it until the pain of not having worked on it is too high.

The recent daily beemail quotes Tim Harford:

Only commit to doing something in the future if you’d be willing to commit to doing it today. Don’t delude yourself that next week you’ll be less busy; it’s a recipe for flaking out on people!

A sentiment that I previously heard mentioned on “The effort report”, which talks about life in academia. Academics are good at writing papers, submitting to conferences, saying yes to invited talks, sitting on panels and study sections, etc pp. Students are no stranger to massive over-commitment either, mostly involuntary-ish in forms of term papers and exams. These are all future commitments. Moist people deal with it by working on preparation the week before, despite there being so much time in between now and the event. Mostly this is (semi-)voluntary commitment, but just as much procrastination ensues.

I work on my projects, like I budget things. Back in the day I bought YNAB and one particular paradigm stuck out: People always complain about putting all of Christmas on credit cards. Every. Year. And their car having a thing and putting that on the credit card. The thing will happen eventually and predictably, as someone who subscribed to Christmas gifts or has a car you are pre-committed to debt. YNAB deals with this by setting aside an appropriate amount of money each month to build a budget for future Christmases and car incidents.

Switch to commitments. We all sign up for future commitments. So I set up Beeminder to gradually work on future commitments, to deal with them. Considering we all have 24h a day, we have to budget for the commitment debt we sign up for. That way we don’t have to prepare 5 talks in a week, but can hold 5 talks. We can do cool things and realistically gauge if this fits into our life, as every commitment debt is budgeted for. No (ok let’s be honest, less) crunch nights and no flaking out. It’s a debt we owe and there will be collection.

That’s the idea of commitment debt and using Beeminder to get out of commitment debt and not biting off more than we can chew. I think Tim Harford is right, but it doesn’t mean we cannot work around the fact that we always have things to do. And it does not consider commitment devices, which I guess we all do.


That’s pretty interesting, especially that I also use the debt metaphor - though in a slightly different way.

Assume that I beemind writing a book, for 40 minutes per day. Assume that I have an eep day and must write for 15 minutes today.

If I write for 15 minutes, I’d say that I’m “in the black”, but not in a “sustainable” way. IOW, I incurred more debt (I guess this is like paying the minimum on a credit card - I don’t know, I don’t have one), though I avoided the guys with baseball bats knocking on my door.

If I write for 40 minutes, I’d say that I’ve paid the today’s portion of my debt - no more, no less.

If I write for 48 minutes, I’d say that I’ve paid the today’s portion of my debt, together with the interest (20% daily). This means that If I do that on a regular basis, I can have a day off every 6 days (this should really be a week, but 20% is easier to calculate than 16.7%).


Considering we all have 24h a day, we have to budget for the commitment debt we sign up for.

This approach has changed the game for me. Recently, I committed to a high-priority, 80-hour project. Because I didn’t realize that the project was 80 hours’ worth of work, I allotted one week to work on it while accepting meetings and other tasks. Of course, I paid for it, making up for the debt by putting in 17-hour days to make the deadline.

The next time the project came along, I learned to quantify the hours it would take, blocked my calendar, and created a budget for the time – a very different experience.

This approach works.