March 26, 2014

Using a “Commitment Device” for Professional Development

Do you have the guilty feeling that you should be reading more books, networking with successful peers, or attending webinars and workshops to keep your professional focus tight…while the truth is that there is just no time or energy for it? You are not alone in the struggle with this immovable contradiction.

When it comes to great business books to boost your knowledge, a major cause of this is the challenge of just picking a few. As simple as that seems, it really is hard to sift through the clutter to find the professional development resources that will be worth your time and hold your curiosity enough to make room for them in your busy life.

Problem solved: there are organizations that did the heavy lifting to take the guess work out of what will be worth your time. For example, Metro just did a roundup of business books, Strategy + Business has their Best Books of the Year list, and The Conference Board released their Winter 2014 Best Business Book You Read This Year list. Now that the problem of starting is solved, you need to consider the pitfalls of staying the course. If you are ready to “pay yourself” with an investment in your own career growth, you may need a commitment device to stay the course.

A commitment device is a mechanism that you install to outsmart your (busy, lazy, and uncommitted) future self in order to hold onto the conviction that your current self values. According to Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, it is “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.” For example, when Cortez gave the order to “burn the ships,” there was no greater commitment to stay the course in the expedition.

If you want the benefits of professional advancement, but don’t necessarily trust that your busy life will give you the space to put the time in, here are three steps to help you double down:

Step #1: Review the lists and pick four books. Not books that you think others would be impressed with, but titles that interest you. Buy them all at the same time you pick them–not tomorrow or next week– right now. Buy two copies of each book.

Step #2: Select the first book you will read (i.e. read one per quarter) and give the additional copy to someone you work with. Whether up, down, or across from you on the organization chart; this person is your commitment device and they will give you the accountability to stay on track. (“Hey, this year I’m reading a bit more and I thought I would invite you to read the book with me. Here’s your free copy; all you need to do is enjoy the book then go for a coffee to discuss the key takeaways with me. The only catch is that I need you to calendar the appointment now and send me a reminder…”)

Step #3: Repeat the process for the additional books, always using a different counterpart for the commitment device. This will allow you to strengthen connections with people you already know and make new ones with those you may need to know. This is not your own personal book club. It is your concentrated effort to reflect on your working life, take in the ideas and insights of great writers, and apply the takeaways to your own opportunities.

If you already feel yourself squirming out of the deal, think about the brutal facts of today’s hyper-competitive job market. So much of your ability to stand out and get ahead of the change curve is going to come from your effort to follow through on undefined goals like this. Because we are all charting a course to stay relevant at work, it will be those who go beyond the job description and discover ways to boost their learning and performance that will be Future-Proof.

This article was originally contributed to

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