Mindset

Commitment Contracts: The Key to Unleashed Freelance Productivity?

Commitment Contracts
John Clancy
Written by John Clancy

As of this article (May 2020), a global health pandemic has turned the working landscape on its head. People have gone from commuting to the office to working from home almost overnight, with many struggling to adapt.

But little has changed for freelancers.

We still set our own hours.

We’ve still got to meet our deadlines.

We’ve still got bills to pay!

With any upheaval comes uncertainty – and that can be bad for productivity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some days recently where I thought I was primed for peak performance… and 12 hours later, realised I had gotten absolutely nothing done.

This is an article about procrastination – about learning to overcome a problem that affects approximately 97.3676% of freelancers worldwide in some way or another (note: not a real statistic).

You might already be thinking “another productivity article? What is he going to talk about next? Making a To-Do list? Not checking my email?

Nope. Not even close.

Just for the sake of inclusiveness, let’s quickly talk tactics:

Eat properly. Sleep enough. Exercise. Set up an ergonomic work environment. Use a Pomodoro timer. Plan your day the night before. Find your optimal work time. Buy noise-canceling headphones. Meditate, find your “Why”, lock your phone in a dungeon, delete your social media accounts, banishing distractions to another room, and – most importantly – stay hydrated. Can’t forget to stay hydrated.

All of the above is solid advice. But you’ve heard it all before. So why don’t you… you know, do any of it?

Tactics are only 20% of success.
The other 80% is your psychology.

And at the core of our psychology lie our thoughts & feelings about the things we do.

The Two Forces That Drive Us – Pain & Pleasure

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” – Jeremy Bentham, philosopher
World-famous speaker and peak performance coach Tony Robbins frequently returns to this universal truth of human behaviour: We do things because they bring us pleasure or help us to avoid pain. We abstain from doing things because they take pleasure from us or bring us pain.

These two short sentences give us insight into why we do the things we do. They may seem oversimplified, but fundamentally, we chase pleasure and run from pain. Pain and pleasure inform the things we do, the choices we make, and the people we become. As a lifelong procrastinator, I know this to be true.

Whether you’re delaying cleaning out the garage, updating your Upwork profile or sinking your teeth into that tough client project, inaction arises from the pain associated with the task. Choosing alternatives (scrolling through social media, watching Netflix, or even taking care of some other random task that “feels” productive) lets you avoid that pain…for a little while. And that’s all that matters in the moment.

More often than not, your brain defaults to the path of least resistance. Whatever’s easiest (i.e. most pleasure & least pain attached) takes precedence. So you’ll delay and delay on that important task until:

  • You’ve got enough motivation to take care of it
  • There’s a scary deadline looming large, and taking action is suddenly less painful than delaying any further

Cast your mind back to high school, college, or the last time you had a big assignment due at work. Deadlines can do wonders for your motivation. No matter how tough the task seems two weeks out, your impending doom being less than 72 (24? 12? 2??) hours away makes taking action much more attractive.

But eventually, we all leave those formal environments behind. Without a boss breathing down your neck, your success depends wholly on your ability to meet self-imposed deadlines…and that can be hard. Miss enough due dates, disappoint enough clients, and you soon could find that your vision of a successful freelance career becomes little more than a pipe dream.

Tactics only take you so far.

You should think about how you can optimize your environment for performance. By all means, do all those things we mentioned at the start of the article – but know they’re just icing on the cake.

Tactics only take you so far.
And yes: if you’re struggling with long-term motivation issues, you should take the time to reflect on your path. Determine if you’re truly committed to achieving your goals. Decide if you like the idea of success more than the process required to attain it, or if you’re ready to put in the work.

And once you’re clear that this is what you want?

There’s one technique you can use to effortlessly “hack” your motivation for good. It’s something that I – as a lifelong procrastinator – used in college to turn assignments in three weeks ahead of their deadline. It’s something I used just this week to start making headway with a big, scary client project. And it even helped me to write the article you’re reading right now.

So, what is this technique?

It goes by many names. The one I like is “commitment contract”.

Commitment Contracts – Your Secret Weapon

A commitment contract is a binding agreement you make with yourself (or with a third party) that you will:

  • Complete a specific task
  • Engage in a specific behaviour
  • Abstain from a particular behaviour

Failure to do what you have agreed to results in an immediate financial penalty.

Confused?

Think of it like a bet you’d make with a friend, just a lot more serious 🙂

Commitment contracts work because people are more motivated to avoid losing what they already have than to earn bigger rewards. This is a psychological principle known as loss aversion. Most people would prefer to keep the $5 they have in their pocket than risk it all to earn $5 more. And the same is true when it comes to work or self-improvement.

Oftentimes, we’re not sure if the work we’re procrastinating on now is worth doing. Because we don’t see short-term gains, we undervalue the long-term impact.

For example, going to the gym, sleeping enough and eating right – these activities don’t pay off immediately. Likewise with diligently meeting client deadlines and honing your technical skills. They help you win in the long run…but what if you learned about Forex trading? You’ve seen tons of guys on Twitter making money from that!

A commitment contract is a binding agreement you make with yourself that you will: complete a specific task, engage in or abstain from a particular behaviour

This causes us to avoid taking action. If you’ve ever had a freelance project that seems to be stuck in endless revision hell…you know that it’s easy to feel as if what you’re doing is pointless. That client is going to come back with more changes to be made. Maybe you should just bite the bullet and write it off as a bad experience?

We’d rather not waste (read: lose) our time on things we’re not certain will work out. Unless there’s a clear, tangible, and predictable reward waiting for us, our motivation plummets. At least, that’s how it usually goes…

But if there’s a clear, tangible, and predictable loss associated with failing to do something, then our motivation to take action suddenly skyrockets.

  • When your grades for the semester are on the line, you somehow find the energy to pull an all-nighter and get that crucial paper finished.
  •  

  • When your job is on the line, you manage to put together a “good-enough” presentation in no time flat that actually impresses your colleagues.

When the stakes are high, motivation matters less. The gravity of the situation demands that you rise to the occasion. The loss associated with failing to do so spurs you on…

And therein lies the secret to supercharged freelance productivity:

Raise the stakes, and you won’t struggle with motivation.

When you can attach a clear, tangible, and predictable penalty to your failure to do something, you’ll be much more likely to do it.

Commitment Contracts in Action

Consider the following three scenarios:

  1. Sarah is a smoker. She’s tried to quit a dozen times before & failed every time. But this time is different. With her boyfriend as referee, she’s pledged that for every cigarette she smokes, she’s going to donate $100 to a cause she hates (e.g. a political candidate she doesn’t support, a non-profit she doesn’t respect, etc.). Every time she’s tempted to light up, she remembers that those few minutes of sweet cigarette smoke are going to cost her $100…so she decides she’ll hold off.
  2.  

  3. James has been trying to lose weight for years. But this time is different. He’s given his brother $1000 in cash for safekeeping. For the next 12 weeks, he’s committed to completing all his scheduled workouts. If he misses a single session, his brother gets to keep the money – no questions asked. Every time James feels like skipping out on the gym, he’s reminded that a night of loafing around on the sofa is going to cost him four figures. Suddenly, he’s motivated to get out the door.
  4.  

  5. Bryce has been talking about becoming a freelance writer for months on end… but every time he wins a trial assignment from a promising client, he procrastinates on delivering the work, misses his deadline, and loses to more disciplined freelancers. But this time is different. He pledges that he’ll pay his friend Nick $500 if he fails to meet his next deadline. And when he wins another freelance job, he’s reminded that failing to complete the work in time is going to cost him $500. Suddenly, wasting hours on Youtube or gaming during his peak productive time doesn’t seem so appealing.

In each of the above (fictitious) examples, our procrastination-prone heroes did three things in common.

For starters, they each clearly defined what they had been struggling with, and what they wanted to do instead.

Next, they identified someone that could support them in changing their behaviour – someone to act as a third-party referee. They can be the direct recipient of the penalty money, or they can just oversee your efforts.

Regardless of their financial interest in the matter, being accountable to someone apart from yourself is key here. You can do this alone…but it’s much easier to do it effectively with another person.

Make sure that person is someone who won’t let you off the hook if you’re just lazy but will cut you some slack in the event of a genuine excuse (e.g. health issues or real emergencies).

You can scale this amount up or down depending on your financial situation & the action in question. Make sure it’s [the amount you risk] big enough to prevent you from failing to abide by the contract. For instance, you might deem that $10 is “worth it” to smoke a cigarette… but you probably wouldn’t pay $1000 for the same privilege!

Conclusion

At its core, a commitment contract is simply a promise you make to yourself. Another person can act as a referee, but ultimately, it’s about holding yourself to a higher standard.

So often, we fail to take action like we know we should. There are many reasons why this happens, but I’d argue that it’s usually because we fail to understand the long-term cost of our inaction. By creating a commitment contract, we impose an immediate, tangible cost to failure. Sometimes, that’s all we need to get things moving in the right direction.

There are many tools you can use to aid this process. Beeminder and Stickk are two popular ones, so check those out if you’re interested. However, something as simple as an email or a handwritten note can be enough to trigger that sense of commitment we’re looking for.

Remember the sample scenarios above. All you need to create a rock-solid commitment contract are these three ingredients:

  1. A clearly defined promise (to do something, to achieve something, to not do something)
  2.  

  3. A referee to keep you accountable (can be yourself, but should be a trusted third party)
  4.  

  5. A tangible, significant penalty attached to failure

You can use a commitment contract to help you do anything. Sure, as freelancers, we want to get more work done. But we also want to build good habits, destroy bad ones, cultivate deep relationships with our loved ones, and become better people. Learning to leverage the twin forces of pain and pleasure is a key part of doing all that. 

Procrastination is a problem that plagues us all – and like all bad habits, it grows stronger for the longer it has a hold on you. But remember, whatever it is that you’re struggling with: you can get better. Procrastination is not a death sentence. Learning to handle it is just part of your journey.

In the battle against procrastination, commitment contracts have helped me more than anything else I’ve tried. I hope you get as much benefit from them as I have.

About the author

John Clancy

John Clancy

John Clancy is a copywriter and content writer with 5 years professional experience. From his home in the scenic Irish countryside, he's helped dozens of coaches, consultants, agencies and busy entrepreneurs find the perfect words to share their message with the world. Books, articles, ads, or just some advice - whatever you need, he's here to help. To get in touch with John, visit his website below.

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