Commitment Devices and Habits
On a TED Radio Hour podcast episode, I listened to an interview with Dan Goldstein, who studies economic behavior and decision making. He talked about something he calls Commitment Devices. The ideas he shared resonated with me because they related to making changes that stick.
As we all know, resisting temptation is hard. Goldstein explained why: When we try to resist temptations we are fighting an unequal battle between our present self, which is in control right now, and our future self, which is not around to be able to put up a fight. (Our present self may choose to put unhealthy sweets into our mouth, to use one example.)
Goldstein went on to say how easy it is for people to ignore the future. Most people do not think about the long run and are unwilling to believe actions today will impact their future selves, especially because there are countless ways our life can turn out and we can’t think through every possible future.
In order to win the fight against our present selves, we need to find ways to make the desired behaviors easier. Commitment devices are one way to help—for example, betting someone you can lose a certain amount of weight, or that you won’t gain weight, over a certain amount of time.
Saving money, Goldstein explains, is a classic “two-selves” problem. Most of us have a present self that wants to consume, making it hard for the future self, which wants the present self to save. He described an experiment in which people were shown computer-enhanced images of themselves, aging them to appear to be 70 or 80. The people who looked at pictures of their future selves chose to save 50% more than those who were shown pictures of their present selves.
That reminded me of a young man I know. During his early teens, he weighed more than he wanted. When he arrived at sleepaway camp for his age-17 summer, he was surprised to see a one-year-older friend of his had lost a very significant amount of weight. He asked how the friend had done it. The friend explained he had taken up running and had made changes to his eating habits. “But, what motivated you to do it in the first place,” he asked? The friend replied, “I am going to college next year and I said to myself, I don’t want to be fat when I get to college, or any more after that.”
While that sounds simplistic, it seems this young man was engaging in the behavior Goldstein described. Like those would-be money-savers who looked at pictures of their future selves, he envisioned his future self arriving for his freshman year in college. He liked what he saw when he pictured a healthier-weight self. And that inspired his behavior changes.
That summer, the second young man changed his eating habits, took up running with his older friend, and returned home seven weeks later very happy with his healthier body. That was a year ago and now he’s a freshman in college. The eating and exercise habits are ingrained, and seem likely to stick for life.
Another commitment device I have used effectively is thinking about catchphrases. As I wrote in my book, I had once heard the saying “Mind over mattress,” which helped me get out of bed for early-morning exercise sessions when I was adopting the habit of daily. I have also written about the phrase “Eat the Big Frog First,” which has helped me to avoid procrastinating.
Another commitment device I recently heard: It’s much harder to skip a workout when someone else is waiting for you. Planning to meet a friend at the gym at a specific time increases the chance we follow through.
I don’t meet people at the gym, but I do participate in yoga and aerial yoga classes where sign-up is usually required to avoid being shut out of the classes that often fill up. Once I pay to sign up, it’s almost certain I will attend.
Another device that helps me to exercise is reading or watching TV shows on my DVR when I use my treadmill or my stationary bike. Doing so makes the workouts more enjoyable, and also helps me to be motivated to exercise each morning because it’s hard for me to otherwise make time for books and TV.
Do you have commitment devices that have helped you maintain desired behaviors? Please join the conversation with your comments…