The importance of stakes

William Liao
2 min readAug 18, 2022

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

In other words — work tends to take exactly how long you give yourself to do it.

Merely being aware of this law sometimes isn’t enough to get things done faster, though.

For example, you might impose a personal deadline of one week to accomplish something. But if you happen to be the kind of person for whom a personal deadline doesn’t really raise the stakes — if you’re not inclined to take such a personal commitment seriously — then you’re unlikely to actually change your behavior or meet the deadline.

This is where introducing stakes in the form of what Wharton Professor, Dr. Katy Milkman, calls commitment devices can be helpful.

A commitment device has two features: 1) it’s something you voluntarily do and 2) it involves introducing meaningful consequences if you fail to achieve your goal.

For example, you could tell a friend or coworker you will do something by a certain date. If you miss the deadline, there are social consequences.

If you’re on an engineering team that uses a sprint schedule, social and professional consequences are baked into the methodology because your effectiveness can be quantified at the end of each sprint.

Another popular device is agreeing to pay someone money if you fail to accomplish something; in this case, the consequences are monetary. (Yes, someone built an app for this:

Commitment devices are very effective when deployed, yet most people don’t voluntarily use them because raising the stakes isn’t very appealing — after all, wouldn’t it be safer to not have consequences?

Nevertheless, if you want to accomplish something — in particular something that’s especially challenging or that you’ve been stalling on — actively raising the stakes is a brilliant forcing function that ensures you actually get it done or at least make progress.



William Liao

Taiwanese American, daily blogger of ideas about impactful work in service of others, photographer (