“Cortés knew that when they faced their first battle, the crew would be tempted to retreat if they knew they had the option to sail away. So according to legend, he ordered his officers to set the ships on fire. The ships—Spanish galleons and caravels—were made entirely of wood and waterproofed with an extremely flammable pitch. Cortés lit the first torch, and as his men destroyed the ships, they burned to the water line and sank. This is one of history’s most notorious examples of committing one’s future self to a desired course of action. In sinking his ships, Cortés demonstrated an important insight into human nature. While we may feel brave and tireless when we embark on an adventure, our future selves may be derailed by fear and exhaustion. Cortés burned those ships to guarantee that his men didn’t act on their fear. He left the crew—and all their future selves—with no choice but to go forward. This is a favorite story of behavioral economists who believe that the best strategy for self-control is, essentially, to burn your ships. One of the first proponents of this strategy was Thomas Schelling, a behavioral economist who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his Cold War theory of how nuclear powers can manage conflict. Schelling believed that to reach our goals, we must limit our options. He called this precommitment.”

~ Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. from The Willpower Instinct

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