Is Responsibility Debt Ruining Your Progress?

By Aadam | Last Updated: July 23rd, 2020

Yesterday I woke up to the fact that I’d run out of coffee.

And as I sullenly trudged to the store at 6 am in the goddamn cold to pick up more, I berated myself because I knew this was going to happen. 

You see, the day before I walked past the grocery store and told myself I’d pick up coffee on the way back from the gym. Fast forward to me walking past the grocery store on the way back from the gym, and I told myself I’d handle it tomorrow because I was hungry and tired and just wanted to get home. 


Even as I walked past the grocery store that was RIGHT.FREAKIN’.THERE. I knew that tomorrow would come and I’d have to walk through the cold to get more coffee. 

I call this Responsibility Debt.

Responsibility Debt is when your past/present self abdicates responsibility to your future self. 

But see, there’s a problem. Your future self already has preexisting responsibilities and now you’ve just thrown a ton more onto him or her.

For example, let’s say you decide you’re not going to the gym today because Gosh darn it, it’s been a long day and you’re tired. And as you snuggle up on the oh-so-warm couch while turning on Netflix you promise yourself that you’ll go to the gym tomorrow. Definitely. No doubt about it. Tomorrow, you are most definitely going to the gym. 

But then tomorrow rolls around and OH DAMMIT, YOU FORGOT YOU PROMISED TO PICKUP YOUR NIECE FROM SCHOOL. Welp. I guess I’ll just have to go to the gym tomorrow. And then that tomorrow comes and something else pops up. And you keep abdicating your gym-going to your future selves like a hot potato. 

The reason we do this is what psychologists call an empathy gap

The inability to empathise with your future self in the moment when you’re driven by your present desires, causing you to choose immediate gratification over your long-term goal.

It’s hard to be empathetic to something like your future self––you hardly even know it. 

I mean, if you were walking home and found a dude sprawled out on the street bleeding his face off because he’d been hit by a car, you’d obviously help because you can see him, the experience is palpable, and thus, it’s easy to have empathy: Holy cow balls, this dude is dying, I should probably call an ambulance. 

But, who the hell is your future self? It’s just some random guy/girl way off in the future. Fuck that guy/girl, anyway. They can handle this shit tomorrow. 

Sooo…uh, Aadam, what can we do about this?

Oh, I thought you’d never ask. A few things, actually. 

1. Empathise with your future self

Remember how I said you hardly know your future self? Well, it’s because you don’t. So, before you offload responsibility to him/her: stop and put yourself in his/her shoes.

Imagine your future self as a completely different person to you; maybe a close friend. Now, would it be fair to put all your own responsibilities on this person? Or, should you handle it yourself? 

Taking a second to stop and think about this removes the impulse and allows you to be rational. “Oh, I have to go to that thing tomorrow which means I won’t be able to go to the gym. I should go today.”

And yes, I know it’s not always as clear-cut as this but that isn’t the point. The point of this is to get you to stop and think about your choices and their consequences. Something people don’t do. Hence, Responsibility Debt.

2. Schedule the important things in your diary.

There are three things, above all else, that I don’t negotiate on. Writing (creating), reading, and the gym.

I plan time for each into my day regardless of how busy I am. If you don’t schedule the important things into your day, you won’t do them, and physically putting something into your diary marks it as important and makes it palpable, in turn, you’re more likely to do it.  

3. Do the hardest thing first 

Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

If you know you’re not likely to go to the gym after work; go in the morning before work. Of course it’s hard, it’s supposed to be––have you ever tried eating frogs?

Doing this means you have it out of the way but also, it’s a ‘win’ for the day and works as a positive psychological boost. 

4. “Do it now”

This is a little something I’ve found to be super effective. Whenever I’m procrastinating or find myself abdicating responsibility to my future self, I tell myself to “do it now.”

And I keep repeating this to myself until I get sick of my bullshit (and voice) and do it. Word of advice: best not to do this in public unless you want people to think you’re an A-rank weirdo.

Ok, that’s all. Now please excuse me, I have some frogs in the oven I need to eat.