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Atomic Accountability

Post image for Atomic Accountability

People who know they’re serious procrastinators should always have a “nuclear option” at their disposal.

By that I mean a button, a switch, a no-turning-back phone call that will put into motion an unstoppable force capable of smashing through your usual hesitations when nothing else works. You definitely want one of these buttons, and it’s easy enough to set up.

If I can’t bring myself to get around to an important task, such as filing a tax thing or making a doctor’s appointment, I invoke my nuclear option: I give my best friend three hundred dollars in cash and tell her to spend it if I don’t prove to her that I’ve done the thing by a certain date and time.

This sets into motion several unstoppable forces that make the outcome inevitable:

  • There is no way I would pay $300 just to avoid the thing a little longer
  • There is no way she would give me the $300 if I don’t do the task, despite my excuses
  • There is no way I would pretend to have done the task just to get the $300 back

Essentially, my nuclear option traps me in a box, where the only side with any viable way through is the one where I do the task. Being in this box is uncomfortable, but it guarantees the thing will soon be behind me.

When you’re not in such a tightly constructed box, there are too many options that are more appealing than doing the thing, at least in the short term.

Normal situation

This is the procrastinator’s natural habitat. You should be doing X, but alas, more attractive options abound right now. Why do the thing when you could just get a muffin and do it later?

With the nuclear option invoked, the wheels are in motion, and the usually-infinite supply of “later” is now quickly running out:

Nuclear option invoked

In my head I’ve referred to this sort of move as “atomic accountability,” because it feels like I’m invoking some sort of immense, forbidden power that makes things suddenly much more serious, but which can move mountains if need be. (The nuclear bomb analogy ends there — don’t take it too far.)

We already know “accountability” is helpful for getting yourself to do things you’ve been avoiding. You’re supposed to involve other people in your promises to yourself, so that you’re not only letting yourself down. Accountability is a broad concept, however, and a career procrastinator can always get around its weaker forms. Implementing “accountability” could mean anything from offhandedly telling someone you intend to start working out this fall — which they will never remember and would never get on your case about it anyway — to hiring a hitman who is contract-bound to kill you if you can’t bench 225 lbs by December 31 at midnight.

If you tend to procrastinate on important things, you want some form of the hard stuff available when needed. It doesn’t need to be on-peril-of-your-life hard, but it does need to involve unacceptable consequences for not getting the thing done. Your little box of limited options needs to be constructed such that it traps you between some truly unyielding surfaces, the softest of which is to simply do the damn thing.

Dares you to say “later” again

Only you can decide how much force is needed to get you to act. Losing $300 may not be enough of a threat. You have infinite room to raise the stakes, of course.

You may have heard of an anecdote, popular in self-help books, about a man who was desperate to stop smoking. He rented a billboard advertisement with his picture on it, along with a promise that he will give $10,000 to anyone who catches him smoking.

I have no idea if that story is true, but it is an example of a well-deployed nuclear option. The man needed to force the issue, and so he put himself into a reinforced box whose easiest escape route was to quit smoking.

Essentially, his options were:

  • Quit smoking
  • Don’t quit, but give some stranger $10,000, and still have the same problem
  • Don’t quit, don’t give anyone $10,000, but be mocked and harangued your whole life and never enjoy a cigarette freely again

The nuclear option for procrastination can take many forms, but giving a friend cash to be returned only under certain conditions has always worked for me. If you don’t have such a trustworthy person available to you, there are online services that do the same thing, called “commitment contract” services. Some of them allow you to pledge a donation to a charity antithetical to your values, to be sent off on a certain date if you don’t verify you did the thing. There was even a service (now defunct) that would post embarrassing pictures of you on Facebook if you didn’t meet your goal.

You get the idea. Once you invoke The Option, you can only avert disaster by doing the thing you know deep down you can do — when you have the right incentives.

If you’re a career procrastinator, you need to set up some atomic accountability. You already know the pain of perpetual avoidance and shame. Imagine having a lever you can pull that can effectively make you get serious and put a long-avoided thing behind you. Give yourself the option.


Phone photo by Charlota Blunarova. Drawings by David Cain.

Anne August 2, 2023 at 5:36 am

This post made me laugh at first. Then, I found myself thinking that my friend Mary would be the perfect Nuclear Option Friend to Hold the Money. Of all the opinions out there on how to avoid procrastination, this offers such a simple, funny, effective solution. Thanks.

David Cain August 2, 2023 at 8:01 am

Having the right person is pretty important. They can’t be a pushover or they’ll refuse to keep the money and undermine the whole thing.

Amy August 2, 2023 at 6:58 am

I am so glad I’m not a procrastinator. This sounds awful to have to do.

Maria August 2, 2023 at 7:27 am

David, I’ve tried to apply this concept many times, but the problem is that I procrastinate on setting up the nuclear accountability

David Cain August 2, 2023 at 8:03 am

Use all of the anti-procrastination tools you have to get this one thing done, and then it’s on your side. Basically you need to get the cash in hand, choose a person to ask, and bring it with you when you see them. Once you complete the first nuclear-mode task, you can set up another, because they already have the money.

Aditya August 2, 2023 at 9:20 am

I use a tool called Beeminder.
You can set any kind of goal or habit and how often you will do it (daily, x times a week etc) and also how much money you will pay the site every time you fail to do what you said you would.
The tool is user friendly and I have found it incredibly helpful in following through and getting things done and not procrastinating ..

David Cain August 2, 2023 at 10:40 am

I have used Beeminder and it’s a great application. The problem for me is that I will game the system if it depends on self-reporting so it has to involve some sort of automatic integration. What kinds of things did you track with Beeminder, and how did you make sure it enforced the standard?

Aditya August 2, 2023 at 8:45 pm

I have used it to track workouts, yesterbox (clear all emails till yesterday), learning projects, tasks (you specify 1 day in advance what you will do the next day (https://blog.beeminder.com/mustdo/)), keeping in touch with friends..etc..
I try to be very clear about what constitutes whether I did what I had promised to do – I put that in the “fine print”. That, I have found, keeps me honest.

Markos August 12, 2023 at 3:29 pm

There are tons of integrations which allow one to close the loophole of manually entering data (and being prone to cheat). I used it for learning (Duolingo), fitness goals (Strava) and productivity (Rescuetime).

Chris August 2, 2023 at 9:22 am

I am a procrastinator about a few things, but not a lot. My other half….. Interesting motivational option. I prefer the “clear your list and enjoy” method but can understand where that 10K option would kick ass. Hope never to need the Nuclear Option. Thanks David for your writings!

David Cain August 2, 2023 at 10:43 am

Ideally, you never have to break the glass and use it, but in that case it’s doing its job anyway :)

Louise August 2, 2023 at 9:55 am

I finally finished a long drawn out thesis by giving a counsellor post-dated cheques (it was a few years ago!) to donate to an unsavoury (to me) political party if I didn’t hit my chapter deadlines. At the time I felt embarrassed that I needed to do this as I hadn’t heard of anyone else doing such a thing. These days I’m impressed that I came up with this idea – and finished the thesis!

David Cain August 2, 2023 at 10:42 am

Nice work! We shouldn’t feel embarrassed about this, or at least we shouldn’t feel alone. Congrats on finding a way to get it done.

David August 2, 2023 at 1:59 pm

It’s definitely an interesting phenomenon that if I make an external commitment to doing something (sign a contract, setup a call, promise something on social media etc.) I will *always* deliver. It might be an anxiety-fuelled race against the clock, but I always succeed. I’ve struggled to simulate this without creating an external dependency – if my brain knows I don’t reeeeeally have to do something by X date, it won’t get done. I haven’t tried giving someone my money to keep, that’s an interesting one.

David August 3, 2023 at 10:19 am

It completely changes the game somehow. Renegitiating our commitments with ourselves provides virtually no resistance, only relief, but when someone else is involved all of these other factors come into play.

Mel August 2, 2023 at 3:17 pm

I really like what Dr. K has to talk about the subject. It helped me a lot to explain why bad things can help motivate you but it also seems like not the best way to get me to do things. There’s a lot of pain involved and not really that sustainable.


David August 3, 2023 at 10:19 am

I like this guy. I will watch these.

Chris August 5, 2023 at 12:52 am

I like the “nuclear option” phrasing. Wish I’d read this two days ago when talking with a friend about how he does this—actually, we were debating. Because this approach can dangerously reinforce your “procrastinator” identity, don’t you think? Sure, in case of true emergency, it’s better than nothing. But do you think there’s a way to proactively strengthen your anti-procrastination muscle? Or do you think those people who don’t need a nuclear option are lucky to be endowed with extra high levels of the conscientiousness personality trait, and if you’re low on it, you’ve gotta live with nuclear?

David August 5, 2023 at 10:41 am

Good question. It’s hard to say because I have only been this one person with this set of traits.

Chronic procrastination comes with a host of problems, one of which is the identity problem: you come to believe you can’t do things on time, or at all. The fundamental problem, though, is that you struggle to get things done, for whatever reason, and this is something that can help you get things done.

In my experience, I think it helps to dissolve the procrastinator identity more than reify it, because the result is that you do things, and you realize you always had the capability to do it, even if the incentives were muddled.

Chris August 7, 2023 at 9:02 am

Makes sense, thanks! Have you succeeded at dissolving your procrastinator identity and are you using nuclear options a lot less than before?

Calen August 10, 2023 at 5:09 pm


I discovered this trick years ago thanks to a book by Ian Ayers. I forget the title, but his website StickK.com exists purely to facilitate exactly the type of accountability you talk about here. You set up a contract, put up stakes, and choose a referee (mine is my brother).

My favorite trick with it is to put up $100 per week to enforce daily accountability. So, at the beginning of the day, I’ll send my brother a list of things I commit to doing by the end of the day. If I don’t, I lose the $100.

It works well. One thing I’d encourage anyone who tries this method to do is to treat their incentive scheme like a horse. Every horse has a limit to what it can carry. It’s the same with incentives; their motivational power has a stopping point, beyond which you’d rather break honesty or lose the money. The load limit varies too, so you just have to be cognizant of it and either use the technique sparingly or load it lightly.

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