Please welcome Sylvia Liu, a 12 x 12 in 2012 participant and illustrator.  She gives us advice on how to overcome a challenge I know we all face – procrastination.  Thanks Sylvia!

Do you struggle with procrastination? I do. Once I sit down to write or paint, I’m fine, but getting myself to my work space without detouring is extremely difficult. I also have trouble deciding what to work on first if I have several projects, and I find myself spinning my wheels. Other people in the same boat who have a goal to achieve — whether it’s exercising more or finishing a manuscript — have turned to commitment devices.

What is a commitment device? A commitment device is a term economists use for a self-imposed mechanism to achieve one’s goals. Commitment devices are based on the idea that there are two selves, a rational one who knows what’s good for herself (I’ve got to work every day to get my picture book done), and a less rational self who decides she has better things to do (I really need to check Twitter and Facebook, and look, a really cute video of singing cats). A commitment device lets the present rational self constrain the choices of the future irrational one.

So how would a commitment device work for picture book writers doing the 12x12x12?  Here are 4 options, starting from the least “commitment-y” to the most:

1. Publicly commit to the goal. By signing up for 12x12x12, you have already taken this first step. You have proclaimed to the world that you intend to write 12 picture book manuscripts in 12 months. Signing up for online challenges like this motivates you to stick to a schedule and to report back to your peers when you have accomplished the goal. Unfortunately, this is a pretty soft commitment, because there’s no downside to failing other than disappointing yourself. It also may backfire. As founder of CD Baby Derek Sivers explained in his TED video, psychology researchers have discovered that telling someone about a goal will make it less likely to happen. It turns out that the act of getting affirmation from others tricks your brain into thinking you’re well on your way to accomplishing your goal.

2. Bribe yourself. As any parent with a toddler knows, bribes can work wonders for getting something done (anyone give out M&Ms for successful potty training activities?). You can promise yourself a small reward at the end of each month when you have completed a manuscript. Take yourself out to a nice lunch or put $20 away for an end-of-the-year $240 splurge.

3. Get a partner. Another commitment device is to make yourself accountable to someone else. I am a really fair-weather runner, only going out when it’s pleasant. I have found, however, that I will run in cold and windy conditions when I have a weekly standing appointment with my friend. One way for you to make sure you stick to the 12x12x12 schedule is to pick a writing partner who is also doing this challenge. Report back to each other once a month, or swap manuscripts at the end of each month.

4. Set up a contract with yourself. You can do it yourself or use websites to help you commit to a goal with a consequence if you don’t meet it. For example, you can decide that if you don’t finish a manuscript each month, you will donate $10 to a designated charity. Websites like help you do this by helpfully taking your credit card number and setting up a system (including designating referees) to enforce your goals. (Using similar principles, Gympact is an iPhone app that lets you decide how often you will go to the gym. You get paid each time you meet your goals and penalized each time you fail; the money comes from the pool of people who participate.)

If you really want to give yourself further incentive, you can set up the payments to go to a charity that is antithetical to what you believe in. A recent Freakonomics podcast about commitment devices reported how one man committed to living healthfully for a month, and when he failed, he sent a $750 check to someone his girlfriend liked but he really didn’t, Oprah Winfrey.

Have you ever used a commitment device? What kind of commitment device might help you achieve your goals in the 12x12x12 challenge? Is mere will power and the satisfaction of accomplishment enough? 

Sylvia Liu was an environmental attorney working on protecting the oceans for a decade. Now she has gone back to her first love, art and illustration, and is working on several projects, including writing and illustrating picture books. She blogs about ebooks, tools for writers/illustrators, and other fun stuff at:, and can be found many other places on the web: Twitter:, Facebook:, Portfolio:, Google+, and Pinterest:

Categories: 12 x 12 in 2012, Children's Books, Goals, Picture Books, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , ,



  1. Thanks, Sylvia, for sharing your tips. I’d never heard of commitment devices before. I think I use #2 a lot. Even today, I told myself I could have ice cream if I got my plot outlined. (It worked) I liked your portfolio and bio on your web site. Protecting the oceans sound like a cool job. And my husband eats all those cephalopods you’re not drawing!

    • oops. error on last line…meant to say My husband eats all those cephalopods you ARE drawing! Sorry!

  2. These are really great motivation things you suggested! Thanks 🙂

  3. Yes thankyou for sharing your tips and your blog looks very interesting. Thanks for introducing Sylvia to me, Julie.

  4. Excellent post. I have set myself a goal of posting my art once a week on my blog and it keeps me motivated. It just wouldn’t be good to post the same old painting every week!

  5. Sylvia, this was very insightful. I’ve always found accountability groups to be helpful no matter what the goal. This could be one person — a workout partner or a critique group. This year, I’ve declared my intention via 12 x 12 and gotten into a critique group. Oh, and bribes? I normally write at naptime with some Girl Scout cookies or chocolate chips.

  6. Great advice! I have a hard time getting going, but once I do everything is fine! It’s getting the BIC that is hard for me. I love all of your tips. Especially number two. Thanks so much for sharing them. *waving and smiling*

  7. Thank you for the excellent tips and reminders.

  8. Thank you, Sylvia, for taking the time to motivate and encourage us. These are great tips – and yes I did use M&M motivation for my toddlers-it worked 🙂 and I use it for myself – I have the hips to prove it! My oldest daughter is my coach. She writes and has a successful blog and is a great help as is the 12×12 group. Oh – I love your lionfish –awesome and your sea turtle. I painted a sea turtle too for my daughter’s baby shower invite – but not near as stunning. I love the placement of your turtle – looks like he’s swimming right up to me. I’ve added you to my list of links on my blog. Blessings

  9. Terrific insight! I particularly love Sylvia’s suggestion of setting up a contract with oneself…and for charity—such a fantastic idea.

  10. I hadn’t thought of some of these options, Sylvia…thanks for the post! I will put one of them to use soon…

  11. Very interesting, Sylvia. Thank you for sharing. I haven’t (intentionally) tried commitment devices, but I do use a kitchen timer 🙂

  12. Hard to believe you suffer from procrastination being such an accomplished woman! Great interview and interesting advice gives me lots to think about – thanks!

  13. Thank you, Sylvia…great insights and tips! My husband would say I need an “uncommitment” device and he even got me a kitchen timer to help me to take a break and walk away from the computer and my writing. 🙂 But I love the idea of donating to charity when we don’t reach certain goals. And I do need to stay focused and not get distracted by blog posts that appear in my inbox that I feel compelled to read and comment on. 🙂 Like this one. 🙂
    Thanks so much, Julie, for having such a great guest poster!

  14. Thanks Julie and Sylvia for a great post. When I wake up early I like to get all my writing done. I love the idea of using commitment devices. I need a timer to make me ‘time’ my time on social media. Excuse the pun.

  15. Commitment Device. I love that! I haven’t heard of that term until today. I especially love the “bribe yourself” device. That’ll get me going! Thanks Sylvia!

  16. Great tips. I do some of the self bribes (or treats!). I sort of set up a contract with myself this year. I’m working through my list one by one.

  17. Thank you all for your wonderful comments! Another way to break our procrastination habits is to avoid the triggers of procrastination (for me, it’s, “I’ll just check my email,” and before I know it, an hour has gone by on the computer). The other thing I learned recently is that I can get work done even in small chunks of time. I used to tell myself,”I only have 40 minutes left until I have to pick up the kids; that’s not enough time to get work done.” I have found to my surprise that I can get little things done, whether it’s writing a blog post or sketching an idea or painting one character in an illustration.

  18. such a help! thanks for all the suggestions.

  19. Nice to meet you Sylvia. Your idea of using a commitment device is excellent. I find having a critique group keeps me motivated to write. Rewarding myself is something I need to start doing. When I’m on project that I don’t want to do I set a timer for an hour and force myself to work on it until that time goes off. It usually works.

  20. Love this post. I think I need to tell my internet provider to unplug the modem every day except for a few hours at night when my brain is too tired to write well. That way I’ll get my writing done first! Many thanks!

  21. There’s also which is like for data nerds: graph your progress along a “yellow brick road” to your goal and if you have a data point off track, you cough up a pledge (which starts at $0 but gets exponentially steeper each time).

    Danny of Beeminder

  22. I love this term. I will be so much more aware of commitment devices now. I also am bad about letting myself pull those procrastination triggers (check that email, pay that bill on line, file those papers real quick). Thanks for the insight Sylvia. You were right on target for me.

  23. I have no problem working on things I like doing.
    I’ve found someone who, for $10 an hour, will sit and help facilitate my getting task done—bills, cleaning, balancing checkbook, etc. I do the work that I normally resist. I let her do things I’m already competent at.
    It’s helping me get in the habit of doing those things weekly. It’s cheaper than bouncing checks and having bad credit and living in a pit.
    However, to do this, I had to find someone I felt comfortable with.


  24. I have no idea how I missed this post until now. I’d never heard the term “commitment device”, but I really need one to get me off the computer and dealing with the housework some days! Hmmm…

  25. This was a great post & very timely! Thanks for sharing about commitment devices. I commit to put this post to good use.

  26. Great post. I never heard about commitment devices before either, and the idea of sending money to Oprah made me laugh out loud.

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