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From William the Conqueror it is said that he ordered to burn all ships after his armada has landed in England. By this he wanted to commit himself and (probably more so) his soldiers to just two options: to win or to die. Eventually he won the battle of Hastings and became the King of England. Maybe this is just a myth, but it serves as a illustrative example of a strong commitment.

In daily life at university these commitments are softer. Nobody has to fear to die if he or she does not succeed. However if students struggle for some while with their research papers and postpone their own deadlines, I am offering them the possibility to voluntarily commit themselves. They would tell me a deadline and I would take them seriously. In other words, if they do not keep the deadline I would fail them. Not many students are willing to engage in such a contract, but in those two cases I had so far the threat seemed to be credible. Both handed in right on time.

Commitment gets more difficult with my own work, because for many of my tasks there is no one who would fail me. And since I am a notorious procrastinator, quite some of my projects have the status "almost finished" since years. Recently a PhD student who is struggling with finishing a paper pointed me to a possible solution: This is how it works:

  1. State a goal and a deadline of when to accomplish it.
  2. State an amount of money, a potential recipient, and your credit card data.
  3. State the name of a referee who is empowered to judge whether you reached your goal or not.
  4. If the referee after the deadline does not confirm that you reached the goal, then the predetermined amount of money is drawn from your credit card and donated to the predetermined recipient.
The PhD student intended to donate $1000 if she would not have a first draft of the paper by Christmas and she asked me whether I could be the referee. I agreed. The next day I had an email invitation to act as a referee. First I was shocked. In case of failure the donation would go to the National Rifle Association (something difficult to digest for most Europeans); but soon I suspected that she did it on purpose. The less you like the recipient of the money, the stronger the commitment. When asking her about this she confirmed and grumbled "I'll make sure they do not get a penny."

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