Well, it’s been a week since you set those amazing New Year’s resolutions. And how’s it going? If you are like most of us, these promises to exercise, lose weight, look for a new job or learn a foreign language have slowly disintegrated into the same fog of excessive work and exhaustion they rose from.
But not for me. This year I made the same resolutions I have made for several years, but I have had different results.
This year I made resolutions to do three things every morning when I woke up and before I started my work day: write, meditate and practice at least 20 minutes of yoga.
What was different? It started with a meeting in a crowded apartment in downtown San Francisco with about 30 millennials the first week of January, 2015. It was the home of Jessica Semaan, founder of the Passion Co. The topic? What is the key to making and keeping commitments? On this night I learned a few things about myself and how to rethink my goals, rewards and penalties.
First you have to understand what is at work in the brain when we set goals for ourselves. Often, we are trying to overcome challenging problems like saving money or learning to speak in public. But just as often, the reward is very far in the future, such retirement or your Broadway debut. The brain separates these two realities as if they were actually two different people inside us….the present self and the future self. Research in the brain and cognitive psychology have found that we often will make very poor decisions in the present because the impact on the future self feels as if it is happening to a completely different person. And the decision making model that comes into play nearly all the time is called hyperbolic discounting.
For instance, if I ask you to choose between $100 today and $110 in 30 days, most people will take $100 today. But if I ask you to choose between $100 in 29 days and $110 in 30 days, most people will choose the $110. That is because the brain tends to discount the value of rewards far in the future in favor of immediate gratification. This same tendency also explains why people reject lifestyle changes that would improve their health in the long term in favor of comfort in the short term. My sister used to say, “Yes, I know that will take years off my life, but frankly, it’s on the bad end.”
How then do we overcome this tendency in our behavior?
One approach is called reward substitution. Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Ariely explains this in a TED Talk which he gave at Duke .
“We have all of these desires for ourselves in the long-term—we want to be fit, financially secure, successful, and so on—but in the short-term we fail to take the action that will lead us to those results.”
Dan had a specific situation in his life where he contracted liver disease from a bad blood transfusion. He was told to enter into a clinical trial with painful daily injections to reduce his risk of cirrhosis later in life. The medication would make him sick every day for months. The only way he was able to stick with it was to go to the video store every morning and select movies he wanted to see. He would carry them around all day anticipating watching them that evening. Then he would go home, take the injections and watch the movies. He substituted the movies as a near term reward for the shots.
So one approach would be to reward yourself immediately for executing your actions.
Another approach takes reward substitution and implements its opposite…the penalty.
RadioLab told a story a few years ago of a woman who had tried to quit smoking for decades. Finally she declared that if she smoked one more cigarette, she would write a donation check to the Ku Klux Klan for $5,000. This was an elderly retired woman, and needless to say she neither had the means nor desire to write that check. This powerful penalty was partnered with another strong tool.
She spoke her commitment out loud to her friend.
The Ulysses Contract
Everyone knows the story of poor Ulysses and his pact with the sailors of his ship. He wanted to hear the songs of the Sirens and made his men promise not to untie him from the mast of the ship under any circumstances.
Well, a good example of this would be to give $500 to a friend and tell them not to return the money to you unless you have successfully ….lost the weight….completed the French Language course….run a marathon….
The method of engaging a “witness” in your pact has much proof in practice. The November Project started out as two men promising to work out together in the morning for a month. They exchanged text messages every night about where and what kind of workout they would do and met at 6:30am each morning. The November Project is now a nationwide movement of thousands of people meeting up for all types of morning fitness activities in support of each other. It’s free and organized spontaneously. Recently, after a snowstorm, they were even seen shoveling sidewalks and stoops in one of the steepest neighborhoods in Boston. Oh BTW, if you don’t show up, your buddy will post a “we missed you” picture on the website and social media.
So back in that apartment in San Francisco? What were some of the things I heard? Someone was going to forego the cheap drip coffee at home and reward himself some fancy Blue Bottle coffee every time he did his morning workout.
Another fellow was going to book the flight and pay for the admission to a Hackathon in three months. And if he didn’t learn the necessary programming language in time? His friend would make him wear a dunce cap.
Another woman needed to take a break from dating and concentrate on her career. She decided that if she went out on any dates in the next 6 weeks, she would pick up the tab!
So enough about you….what about me? How did I make my pact and move forward with my goals?
One of my greatest joys at the end of the day is my glass of red wine either before or with dinner. We lived both in northern California and France, and have developed a strong appreciation for a big, bold red.
If I don’t awaken early and write, meditate and practice even a small amount of yoga….on that day, I not only cannot drink my wine, but I will pour the wine into one of my favorite oversized glasses….and empty it down the drain. Even writing that sounds painful….doing it is even more so.
Let us know your keys to commitment.