The Bizarre Strategy Victor Hugo Used to Write a Great Novel in Under 6 Months
And how you can use it to skyrocket your productivity
Victor Hugo wasn’t into nudism but he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame half-naked. In the summer of 1829, the French author promised his publisher to deliver a novel within a year.
Back then, Hugo was already an established writer recognized by the king and celebrated by his contemporaries as the poster child of Romantic Literature.
But that didn’t shield him from procrastination.
Instead of working on the promised book, Hugo devoted his time to gourmet dinners, poetry gatherings, and piano sessions. Days became weeks and weeks became months and monsieur Hugo hasn’t written a single word. Then, on a fateful morning, the publisher came banging at the door only to find Hugo empty-handed.
Still, the French author managed to talk it out and postpone the submission date. Unfortunately, however, the new deadline was only six months away. Pushed into a corner, Hugo knew he needed either a miracle or a crazy idea to pull this off — he went for the latter.
He asked his assistant to lock all of his clothes away in a large chest, except for a large cape. Without his elegant outfits, Hugo could no longer leave his flat. No more rendez-vous. No more soirées. No more je ne sais quoi. The funniest thing he could do was grab a pen and sit down to write.
Hugo was expected to deliver his book at the beginning of February 1831 but The Hunchback of Notre Dame reached the publisher’s desk on January 14, 1831. The procrastinating genius was two weeks early.
By locking away his clothes, Hugo set up what behavioral scientists call a commitment device. It’s a trick that goes back to Greek mythology and still fascinates modern experts.
What exactly are commitment devices?
In other words, they are tools to delay gratification and resist temptation. “You know the story of Ulysses tying himself to the mast so that he couldn’t be lured in by the song of the Sirens?” Beggs added. “You can think of that as the quintessential commitment device.”
For ancient Greeks, the tendency to act against our own best interest wasn’t just a piece of wisdom wrapped in some divine legend featuring heroic figures and sexy mermaids. Philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle saw it as a day-to-day challenge and even gave it a name: Akrasia.
Akrasia is a cocktail of lack of self-control, procrastination, and our vulnerability to instant gratification. It’s why you say yes to a cheesecake despite knowing that you’ll curse yourself for ruining your nutrition plans. Akrasia is also why you keep scrolling through social media even though you know better. The same goes for spending the money you wanted to invest on gadgets you don’t need and clothes you won’t wear.
In other words, Akrasia is the tendency to value your present self more than you value your future self — and commitment devices are one way to shift the balance slightly toward the latter, just like Hugo and Ulysses did.
Concrete examples of how to use commitment devices
You don’t have to strip naked or tie yourself up to a mat to leverage the power of commitment devices. Whether to scale your business, start a side-hustle, or acquire new skills, you can convince yourself to do the work without being a tyrant. All you need is to set up commitment devices that nudge you to the right direction.
Here are a few examples that may inspire you.
- Write a $500 check to a friend and tell them to cash it if you shut down your online shop, or fail to publish at least one piece of content every week.
- Pay a yearly subscription to a knowledge-sharing platform. The financial commitment will turn into an incentive that pushes you to seek a return on investment. Thus, you’ll spend more time on self-education.
- Invest in a quality chair and upgrade your mattress to reduce back pain and sleep better. Yes, these are also commitment devices. They will improve your health — and the healthier you are, the better you perform.
- Ban junk food from your shelves. This will force you to cook and eat healthier meals. Once or twice a week, treat yourself to calory bombs like cheesy pizzas, milkshakes, and candy — but get only one portion at a time.
- Leave your phone in another room before you sit down to work. For your computer, you can download apps that block distracting websites. You hear this piece of advice for a reason. It freaking works.
- Automate saving a slice of your income every month. Banking apps and platforms like Paypal allow you to do that. Before you know it, you’ll raise a handsome sum that you can invest however you want.
And if you want to write a book in less than six months, you know what to do. Thank you monsieur Hugo.
Was this useful? Join my email community and receive weekly insight on business, tech, and decision-making.
Business | Psychology | Marketing — What's your favorite quote? Mine is "True masters are eternal students."