commitment / accountability

In Dedicated Pete Davis talks about how we live in “Infinite Browsing Culture,” where we’re presented with the illusion of endless optionality for each choice: content, romantic partners, jobs, side gigs and creative projects.

You’ve probably had this experience: It’s late at night and you start browsing Netflix, looking for something to watch. You scroll through different titles, you watch a couple of trailers, you even read a few reviews—but you just can’t commit to watching any given movie. Suddenly it’s been thirty minutes and you’re still stuck in Infinite Browsing Mode, so you just give up.

It’s so easy to keep browsing in every part of our lives. Most people my age who work at tech companies don’t stay for longer than a couple years (unless they’re heavily incentivized). We’re getting married in our early 30s instead of our early 20s. We start reading books and toss them aside, start writing projects and toss them aside. There’s always something that seems like it could be better, infinite possibility right on the other side of the fence.

Davis refers to a concept pioneered by Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman called liquid modernity:

We never want to commit to any one identity or place or community, Bauman explains, so we remain like liquid, in a state that can adapt to fit any future shape. And it’s not just us—the world around us remains like liquid, too. We can’t rely on any job or role, idea or cause, group or institution to stick around in the same form for long—and they can’t rely on us to do so, either. That’s liquid modernity: It’s Infinite Browsing Mode, but for everything in our lives.

I’ve written before about how it seems like everyone I know has ADHD, and one trademark quality of ADHD is hopping from project to project without being able to fully commit. You could say that Infinite Browsing Mode is a cultural attention disorder: it’s hard to focus on anything for long when the distractions are ever-present and overwhelming.

Davis argues that the people we truly admire commit instead of browse:

But when you look at what we have real affection for—whom we admire, what we respect, and what we remember—it’s rarely the institutions and people who come from the Culture of Open Options. It’s the master committers we love. In our own lives, we keep swiping through potential partners, but when there’s a story online about an elderly couple celebrating their seventieth anniversary, we eat it up. In our own lives, we uproot often, but we line up to get into those famous corner pizza joints and legendary diners that have been around for fifty years. We like our tweets and videos short, yet we also listen to three-hour interview podcasts, binge eight-season fantasy shows, and read long-form articles that comprehensively explain how, say, shipping containers or bird migration works.

But if we love dedication and commitment, why do so many of us keep browsing? Davis:

What accounts for this hesitation? Why do we love committers but act like browsers? I think it’s because of three fears. First, we have a fear of regret: we worry that if we commit to something, we will later regret having not committed to something else. Second, we have a fear of association: we think that if we commit to something, we will be vulnerable to the chaos that that commitment brings to our identity, our reputation, and our sense of control. Third, we have a fear of missing out: we feel that if we commit to something, the responsibilities that come with it will prevent us from being everything, everywhere, to everyone.

It takes a long time and intense commitment to repetition in order for small changes to become visible. I’ve always liked something Rachel Cusk said in an interview:

“I’ll celebrate my fiftieth birthday in the air,” she noted. When I asked what the milestone meant to her, she paraphrased D. H. Lawrence: “Some people have a lot farther to go from where they begin to get where they want to be—a long way up the mountain, and that is how it has been for me. I don’t feel I am getting older; I feel I am getting closer.”

Closer instead of older strikes me as a wonderful way to think about aging. I like the idea of mastery as a destination that you gradually approach over time.

It’s hard to commit, but it’s also impossible to make something you’re really proud of if you don’t. But how do we stick to something when there are so many distractions? How do we resist Infinite Browsing Culture?

Personally, I’ve noticed that the two things that help me stick with a project is 1) constrained habits + 2) commitment devices/social accountability.

On the first: I think it’s really really important to set a goal you know you can adhere to. As in, don’t try to work out twice a day if you currently work out twice a month. I know that some people (me!!) are insane and want to go all-in on every new resolution, but it helps me to focus on good consistency instead of absolute intensity.

On the second: I find it really helpful to have someone to check in with. Personal trainer, therapist, book club, whatever. Personally, I’m pretty easily motivated by the desire to not let other people down. But shouldn’t you worry about not letting yourself down first, Ava? you may ask. Well yes, but a little bit of external pressure can help me not let myself down.

On Twitter I suggested doing a creative accountability group, and a lot of you guys were excited about it. The way I first started writing regularly was just by committing to writing a thousand words every day. I think setting a goal like that when you have a community of people to support you is a great commitment device.

THE BASIC IDEA

Make some kind of weekly *creative* resolution (let’s say you want to write 500 words a day). It can also be combined with a couple non-creative tasks. Mine, for instance, might be something like

  • two Substack posts a week

  • go to the gym 4x a week

  • bike with D once a week

WEEKLY CHECK-INS

I’ll check in with you guys every week and tell you about how well I’m adhering to my goals, progress on my work, what’s going wrong and what’s going right. You guys can give your updates in the comments!!

TIMELINE

I’m going to suggest we do this for 8 weeks starting next Monday. I’m excited to hear about you guys’ progress and talk about what we’re working on every week!

Let me know if you’re interested through 1) commenting on this post or 2) emailing me. I’ll make a thread on Monday listing my goals for the next two months and you can comment on yours.

TL;DR LET’S SET WEEKLY GOALS AND BE ACCOUNTABLE TO EACH OTHER.