Browsing the archives for the commitment tag.
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Still Not Getting to That Goal? Four Essential Factors



I started this blog about four and a half years ago and started doing energetic research into willpower and habit change two years before that. My belief when I started was that it would be possible to learn how to change nearly any habit, to summon far greater willpower, because it was clear that around the world, there are people who make these changes every day. So, is it true? Does learning about habits and willpower give you willpower and mastery of your habits? The answer is no … and yes.

The further I got into this subject, the more I kept wondering when I would break through. I lost weight, got much more fit, earned a black belt, finished writing books, eliminated some bad habits, improved my relationships, and otherwise made a lot of improvements in my life … but I would still sometimes waste time I needed for more important things, show up late now and then, make bad decisions, or otherwise demonstrate to myself that whatever willpower was, I hadn’t mastered it.

So I sat down the other day and pondered everything I’ve learned since 2007 or so. If learning all about habits and willpower doesn’t give you mastery over them, what does? As near as I can figure it, it comes down to four things that stand between us and change. I think when I describe them, you’ll see why learning alone doesn’t cover it (other than the facts that habit change takes time and that just knowing about something won’t automatically change our behavior).

1. Tools and Knowledge
Here’s an area where what I’ve learned and written about here has been powerful. Mental and emotional tools can cut through a lot of habit difficulties and get us on the right path. For example, we can learn to generate confidence and enthusiasm in place of depression and hopelessness with idea repair; we can clear our minds and let go of things that bother us through meditation; and understanding mental schemas can let us get to some of the root causes of our worst behaviors.

2. Thinking
How we think, what we tell ourselves, and where we put our focus make a huge difference in how we feel and what our lives are like. We can often change our thinking using tools like the ones I mentioned, but whether it occurs naturally or has help through mental tools, our thinking itself is crucial in determining our actions and decisions.

3. Lifestyle
Nutrition, sleep, exercise, friends, social contacts, activity, surroundings, physical tools, responsibilities, family, and many more external factors can influence our internal state. Here too, I’ve learned about many useful improvements through researching and writing about the psychology of habits on this blog, whether it’s a quiet walk in green space, having just the right tool, or keeping company with people who help us become better.

4. Commitment
Here’s the tough one: we have to care. Knowing how to do something or having a theoretical goal generally doesn’t carry us very far unless we’re strongly and consistently motivated by our own emotions.

I’m not just using “commitment” as a substitute for “willpower” here, creating a circular argument. What I’m talking about isn’t making the right decisions or doing the right things, but rather consistently caring about our decisions and what the right ones are.

Commitment can come from many different places, so fortunately we can influence it. It can come from our own emotional difficulties: for instance, a person who craves attention might use that to drive excellence in music, or a person who hates conflict may learn how to be a consummate peacemaker. It can come from thinking and understanding, when we get to know ourselves better and make important connections. (It’s one thing for me to know that doughnuts aren’t good for me, but it helps me more to realize how foods like that contribute to atherosclerosis, drain my energy, and give me a headache). It can be inspired by a role model or a clear picture of the future, be shocked into us through a tragedy, be nurtured by helpful surroundings, or rest on support from friends and family. Commitment is an emotional state in which we yearn toward a goal or state of being. Without it, it doesn’t matter how we can act, because commitment directs how we do act.

Which matters … why?
The point of bringing up these four aspects of willpower or habit change is to create a simple way to look at our goals and see what’s missing.

For example, why did I lose 60 pounds or so and then stop about 15 pounds heavier than my ideal weight? After all, I have the mental tools to lose weight and know how to direct my thinking, and my lifestyle is compatible with fitness and weight loss. What happened, I believe, is that my commitment dried up. Having reached this point, I’m fairly happy (though not ecstatic) with how fit I am, and my health is very good. Losing more weight would make me look better, which would be a fine thing both in terms of my self-image and my romantic relationship, but there’s nothing about it that would affect my life expectancy or my ability to be in my relationship in the first place, whereas my old weight years ago really could affect those kinds of things. To lose more weight, I’d have to find reasons to really, really care. This might involve hanging around with extremely fit people, finding more reasons to lose the extra pounds, or working on increasing my enjoyment of fitness.

In the same way, any of the four things above can be missing in a person’s quest to change. For example, a person might passionately want to quit smoking, might live in an environment that discourages smoking, and might be beautifully focused on the problem, but if that person doesn’t have a good working approach–that is, doesn’t have the right tools–then quitting may fail time and time again.

So I invite you to do in your life what I’m doing in mine these days: if you have an important goal that you’re having trouble reaching, look at it in terms of these four factors. Do you have all the tools and knowledge you need to succeed? Are you thinking thoughts that move you toward your goal? Is your environment helping or hurting you (or both)? Are you deeply and emotionally commited, and does that commitment stay strong even when trouble comes?

So, will I ever master willpower and habits? Somehow I suspect not, but it continues to be worth trying, and I continue to push hard. Maybe in another six and a half years. Who knows? It could happen. Check back with me then.

Photo by foxypar4

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Don’t Know, Don’t Believe, or Just Don’t Care?

Strategies and goals

hanging onWhy do we so often have trouble following through with the way we want to be and act? Unfortunately for me, I face this question all the time. Having made a study of habits and motivation, I have an almost endless supply of tools and tricks to get myself out of a bad mood, figure out what to do next, or get on track–yet even though these tools and tricks have made a huge positive impact in my life, I still manage to be far from perfect. Sometimes I’m late despite knowing exactly how not to be late; sometimes I become disorganized despite having terrific organizational systems at my disposal; and sometimes I fall short on goals or fail to change in the way I’d like to. Why? It seems to come down to three kinds of problems: not knowing, not believing, or not caring.

Here’s an example: recently I’ve been doing some reading that brings me to believe that the advice we’ve been given for decades about how to fend off heart attacks and strokes and all of that is completely wrong (see my recent article “Wait–Eating Lots of Fat Is GOOD for Your Heart?“). Once I’ve decided that what I’ve read is compelling enough to act on, why wouldn’t I become instantly and completely compliant with all of the new guidelines I’ve learned? After all, it could be literally a matter of life and death.

Don’t know: Before I started reading up on the “fats good, sugars bad” perspective, I had lots of misinformation that was fed to me–and that continues to be fed to me–by mostly well-meaning nutritionists, government officials, and doctors. If I don’t have good information, I can’t very well act on it. It’s very hard to change a habit, for instance, without knowing how habits work (by the way, this site has a number of clear, specific, and carefully researched articles on that subject).

Don’t believe: There are different versions of the belief problem, but one example is plain old doubt. For instance, I might find Dr. Peter Attia’s posts about fat very compelling, but still be nervous to switch to a fat-driven diet because I have a hard time believing that almost all of the information I’d received on the subject in the past was wrong.

Worse, and perhaps even more common, is lack of belief in ourselves. If I don’t believe I can make a change in my life, then all of my efforts in that direction will begin to seem pointless, and it will be very hard to keep myself going.

My belief might be from old information I’m having trouble letting go of, or new and conflicting information, even if it’s from the same old sources or if I know the information I already have is better. Maybe I have friends, family members, coworkers, teachers, colleagues, or role models who don’t believe what I believe, and that’s making sticking to my guns harder.

Don’t care: Perhaps worst of all is when I know what to do and I believe it will make a difference, but I just don’t care at that point. Maybe I’ve had a rough day or a bad night’s sleep and don’t feel as though I can put the effort into one more thing. Maybe I’m concentrating on the things I don’t like about what I’m doing or on things that I can’t or shouldn’t do if I want to pursue that goal instead of on what I can be doing next or on what inspires me. Sometimes I might just not be able to get up any enthusiasm for working on a goal that might never be realized, or that would only have an effect in the distant future. Or it could be that I’m just distracted, preoccupied with other things and not able to spare the attention and interest.

Regardless of which of these problems I have, realizing that I’m faced with a problem in knowledge, belief, or caring makes an instant improvement. Asking myself what I don’t know can lead me to the information I need, and realizing I’m having trouble believing or caring can lead me back to whatever inspired me to believe or care in the first place. When these kinds of obstacles are addressed, then the problem vanishes as if by magic, and suddenly I’m back on track.

Photo by Sharon Morrow.

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Overcommitted: Not Enough Time


The problem of overcommitment is the same whether we’re talking about not having enough time to write, not having enough time to exercise, or any other shortage of time. It’s a matter of deciding to take on more than you can reasonably do, and it’s a perennial problem for me.

One of my character flaws
My own experience of overcommitment seems pretty simple: there’s a lot of stuff I’m excited about, and I can’t walk three feet without running into another cool opportunity of some kind. I realize that there should be a non-fiction book about a particular topic, or get a story idea, or come up with an idea for a Web site to help do something that’s hard to do, or think about how I can help a cause that matters to me or improve our house or organize better.

Most of the time, thankfully, I ignore these impulses. I’ve probably thrown away a number of ideas that would have changed my life if I pursued them, but I’ve also thrown away a lot of just-OK or actually-pretty-awful ideas, and I’ve pursued some ideas that have changed my life (like starting intensive reading research about self-motivation or applying to study at Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp back in 2001). The root of the thing is that there will never be enough time to do all the cool things that could be done in the world. In a way, this justifies the fact that we’re all individuals. True, it means we sometimes feel alone and tend to repeat each other’s mistakes over and over, but on the bright side, by each pursuing our separate passions we can collectively do most of the cool things there are to do. If I can’t do all the cool things myself, it’s reassuring to me that someone can.

Just trying to do better doesn’t cut it
In a sense, it occurs to me, overcommitment is a bit like being over-motivated. Unfortunately, the results aren’t all good. Whenever I take on more than I really have time to do, I’m really giving up some of the things I think I’m taking on, because in the end not all of it will get done.

One thing I can do to deal with overcommitment is to become more efficient: to organize my time, focus my efforts, and learn good habits for getting things done, but this doesn’t do anything to address the underlying problem, because when I have more usable time at my disposal, I tend to take on more things to do. Even doing the things I’ve already got on my list tends to lead to me finding new things to do. For instance, I might work on getting the word out about my latest book and in the course of doing that find several new places on the Web where I could get involved and learn something or connect with new people. It’s true that I’m on my guard about that, but I don’t seem to have pared things down to anywhere near a fully manageable level yet. I get a lot done, but I also leave things undone.

Prioritization helps–somewhat
One partly successful way to approach this–and this is an approach I’ve been using a bit–is to get really good at prioritizing. If you prioritize well, then even though you don’t get everything done, at least you get the most important things done, which is great.

Unfortunately, if I take this approach I’ll still have put some effort and attention into the lower-priority things that I never got to, so it’s still wasteful. Also, I won’t be able to say for certain what I will and won’t get done. It’s not very satisfying to have someone say “Can you do this?” and for me to respond “I don’t know: let’s see whether I get to it or not.” I can address that in part by bumping anything I’ve promised anyone to the top, but that means sometimes doing things that aren’t as important just because I talked to someone about them. That’s not the worst fate in the world, but it’s hardly ideal.

Letting go
So really the solution to overcommitment is figuring out what to let go of and consciously letting go of it–keeping the workload down to a manageable level. This has a lot of benefits: you know what you will and won’t be able to do; you can make promises and keep them; you have a lot fewer things to worry about; and you concentrate your efforts on things you’re actually going to finish.

Sadly, this is much easier said than done. Even putting things in priority order is hard, because priorities change over time. Putting things in priority order and then hacking off the bottom of the list seems too painful and destructive to be borne–and yet it also seems like the required behavior. So I’d love to hear your thoughts: how would you change an overcommitted life so that you’d be doing less?

Photo by timailius


The Two Ways to Strengthen Willpower: Focus and Ease


The idea of willpower is certainly appealing: I imagine how I want to be; compare that to how I am; plot a course between the two; and somehow have the strength to follow it.

Since virtually everyone (I’m tempted to say “everyone,” but since I haven’t been introduced to everyone I’m thinking that would be presumptuous) has problems with willpower sometimes, I suspect that we can all agree that the idea of a reservoir of strength is neither very attractive or very useful. After all, if willpower is just something we have or don’t, then clearly all of us (or at least, everyone I know) doesn’t have enough. If, on the other hand, it has to do with actions we can easily take, then we’re in luck: we can have more of it. As you can guess, I don’t think much of the “reservoir” theory.

As to actions, most willpower seems to come from two kinds of those: focusing attention and making good choices easier.

There are any number of ways to use focus to make progress: we can envision goals (see “Motivation through visualization: the power of daydreams“), create feedback loops (see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation“), pay attention to the attractive aspects of things we want to do or unattractive aspects of things we want to avoid (see “Tools for Immediate Motivation: Attraction and Distraction“), moderate our moods through tools like meditation (see “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation“) and idea repair (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“), schedule, note on task lists, or mentally picture ourselves doing behaviors that will help us.

The array of tools we have to build willpower, actually, is enormous. All these tools that deal with focus, however, come down to the same kinds of things: raising our own awareness about what we want to do and/or putting ourselves in a mindset to be more inclined to do them.

The other major category of tools for building willpower has to do with making constructive action easier. For example, scheduling time to go running three days a week after work so that there will be no conflicts, setting out running clothes in the morning, getting good running shoes, and having a treadmill to use in bad weather all contribute to making running easier. If I want to make running a habit, then any barrier I remove to running means less effort I have to put in to run, which in turn means that I’ll be able to successfully run more of the time.

Ease often has to do with preparation and planning. Often we’re a lot less likely to tackle things we want to do if we find we don’t have what we need or if we’re having trouble blocking out the time. Preparation and planning get these complications out of the way and lessen the amount of focus and effort needed to stay the course.

Commitment is another way to encourage ease in building habits. By commitment, I mean reconciling ourselves to the consequences of what we need to do, then thinking, talking, and acting accordingly. Some examples: telling people (firmly) when we won’t be available because our goal requires us to be doing something, reminding ourselves that it’s all right to use time or resources in pursuit of a goal, associating with other people who have the same or similar goals, and not letting ourselves foster broken ideas about what we need to do to make progress.

The short question
The short question, then, that helps us align with our own goals, is this: “What can I do to focus better or make things easier?” Even if a particular approach isn’t working out, this kind of question can often point to other approaches that will. Or, as a last resort, you could always come here and start digging into past posts. Reading things here can be used to procrastinate, but if you find anything that helps you as you go forward, you get to chalk it up to “useful research” instead.

Photo by Anirudh Koul

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Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution

Strategies and goals

In an article last week (“Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?“) I talked about New Year’s Resolutions and how to tell whether or not it’s worth it for you to make one. In this post I’d like to touch on a related subject, which is the value of New Year’s as a time to commit to a goal–that is, to make a resolution.

I’ll say first that the New Year certainly isn’t the only good time to commit to a goal. Almost any time, even when things are at their worst, can be a good time to change things for the better (see “Why the Worst Time to Change Things Can Be the Best Time to Change Things“).

Even so, the New Year offers some special advantages:

  • With the winter holidays over, for many of us the New Year is a great chance to incorporate something different into our normal routine without having to worry about the interruptions of vacations, holidays, or most other unusual circumstances. While it’s essential to find ways to continue to pursue our goals even when we’re pulled out of our routine, it’s easiest to get a habit rolling when things are at their most normal
  • There’s an emotional advantage to getting a new start, and even though on some level a new year is just a change in numbers, it does a real feeling of something new beginning that we can harness to our advantage.
  • Maintaining a winning streak can give extra durability to habits we’re trying to build (see “Harnessing a Winning Streak“), and January 1st is a convenient and effective date on which to start a new winning streak.
  • In a very real sense, it’s never a bad time to improve our lives. Even without its special advantages, January 1 is still a good date to start something positive.

I would offer a few cautions about starting a new goal, though:

  • Don’t start something new that will disrupt a good habit you’re already working on or that will sap too much time or attention from other priorities.
  • As tempting as it may sometimes be to try to remake our entire lives, choose only one goal to work on energetically at a time: choosing two or more almost always results in overstretching our time and attention, leading to failure. And be sure to choose the one thing that’s really most important to you.
  • Choose a set of behaviors (something you can control) and not an outcome (something you can’t control). For example, you might resolve to eat healthily and exercise (two ways to pursue a single fitness goal), not to get skinny; resolve to adopt good task management practices, not to “be more organized”; or resolve to work on your business idea, not to “get rich.”
  • Prepare first. It’s often hard to give proper support to a spur-of-the-moment resolution. By planning in advance you can make schedules, enlist help, read books, join groups, or do whatever else you need to give yourself the best chance of success.
  • Don’t give yourself a “bad habit bachelor party”: that is, don’t behave badly as a last gasp, as this will make it harder and more jarring to behave well. Making good choices is a reward to yourself, not a punishment, something that it will make you happy to embrace, not avoid.

This series will continue next time with a suggestion of a good way to review an entire life and take stock of what one goal is most worth pursuing for a particular person.

Photo by legalnonresident

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Good Intentions Are Fine, But They’re Not the Same as Commitment

States of mind

Over time I’ve noticed a clear difference between the goals I consistently follow through on and the ones I don’t: commitment. I might have the same intention to repot my long-suffering ficus as I do to wash the dishes, for instance, but my dishes get washed while my ficus languishes uncomplainingly (though if potted plants could talk, I imagine I’d get quite an earful). The difference is that I’ve faced the question of living in a house full of filthy dishes and decided absolutely that I don’t want to do it, while I haven’t made the same commitment to my ficus.

Here’s what I mean by committing to something instead of just intending to do it:

  • If I’m committed to something, I’m willing to hold off on other things in order to get it done. Many of us have a lot more we’d like to do in a day than 24 hours can actually hold, so if we don’t make a special effort not to try to do everything, then the things that are most important to us can be lost in the shuffle.
  • If I’m committed to something that isn’t a habit yet, I’ll think about it practically every day and find time to work on it regularly–not just in big pushes every once in a while.
  • Being committed to a goal means that I’ve decided to look for ways to do more toward that goal rather than excuses to not do it. For instance, if I’m committed to exercising, then when I go on vacation I’ll think “What are some special opportunities I’ll have to exercise?” and not “Well, this is going to totally disrupt my exercise routine–I guess I’ll just start up again when I get back.”
  • Being committed means that I’ll want to pay attention when it’s time to make choices about my goal. If an opportunity to make a choice comes up, I’ll want to take the extra time to be mindful of what’s going on and to use all of the abilities at my disposal to make a good choice.
  • If I’m committed to building a habit, then that means I’ve decided ahead of time that I’m OK working on that habit virtually every day for a couple of months or longer. Factors like how complicated the behavior is and whether I’ll be doing it in about same environment every day can make the period of time longer or shorter until the habit develops. (See How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?)
  • Finally, a commitment means that I’m willing to at least some of the time to prioritize my goal over things like relaxation, entertainment, and less important tasks (even if those less important tasks are right in my face and insisting on being done right away). I don’t have to give up all enjoyment, but I do have to get comfortable with the idea that pursuing my goal may not always be convenient.

These thoughts and practices aren’t all that complicated, but it’s easy to come up with an intention and not think through what it would really mean to commit to it. Pursuing a goal takes time, effort, and attention. Yes following through in this way with a well-chosen goal can make an enormous difference in our happiness, self-confidence, and success.

Photo by darkmatter

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part I: Plausibility

Strategies and goals

This is the first in a set of Willpower Engine articles on focus and enthusiasm.

Distraction or Enthusiasm?
If you’re having trouble focusing on a goal, there are at least two possible problems. One is that you’re getting distracted. If this is the real issue, then handling the distractions is all that’s needed to get on track. I’ve had a chance to talk about distractions in depth in the following four articles, so if that’s the subject of most interest to you, try these out:

The other possibility when it gets difficult to focus is that there isn’t enough enthusiasm, drive, or commitment toward the goal. For instance, someone who wants to learn Spanish but doesn’t take out the materials very often and isn’t very energetic about studying might not have the short-term enthusiasm about learning Spanish that would be needed to really make it happen–but at the same time, it might be honestly important to that person to learn Spanish. Unfortunately, importance doesn’t always translate to a sense of urgency and enthusiasm. Bridging that gap is what this and the articles that come after it are about.

Can it be done?
If you find yourself wanting to do something but not driven or enthusiastic to do it, a good approach early on is to ask yourself a few frank questions. There have been some very useful psychological studies in recent years that spell out some of the things a person needs in order to feel committed to a goal.

If your goal doesn’t feel realistic, or if it feels realistic for someone else but not for you, then it’s very difficult to feel enthusiastic about chasing it. After all, if you don’t believe you can do it then on some level you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re wasting your effort and heading for failure and disappointment.

It may seem like simple common sense to make sure a goal feels possible before pursuing it, but realistically, many of the best goals really don’t seem like they’ll ever happen until they do. For instance, a person who has received dozens of rejections on novels may not have much confidence about sending out a new book, but statistically is much more likely to succeed than someone who has never tried. Someone who wants to lose 100 pounds may be completely incapable of imagining a body that much fitter, yet every pound that comes off is proof that it is possible to lose the weight.

Convincing yourself
If you have a goal that logically seems like it should be possible but that doesn’t feel possible, the first thing to do is to make sure that you believe in that goal for good reasons. For instance, when I was a teenager I had a goal of becoming conversant in enough languages to speak at least a little to the majority of the world’s population. Learning those dozen or more languages might be possible in theory, but not unless I devoted all my efforts to it–and while I like languages, I wouldn’t want to do nothing but learn languages day in and day out!

If you conclude that your goal is realistic, the next thing is to prove it to yourself in a way you can understand on a gut level. Calculating that something can be done doesn’t always translate to confidence that we’ll really do that thing. Here are some ways to get from here to there:

  • Think about things you’ve achieved in your life so far. Is any of them similar in important ways to what you’re trying to achieve? If so, go back and remind yourself of that experience in detail.
  • Find role models, whether through magazine articles, documentaries, interviews, news reports, blogs, looking among the people you already know, or elsewhere. My conviction that I could lose weight and get fit came in large part from seeing my sister do just that (60 pounds later, my conviction proved to be right).
  • Look at the exact requirements and think about how you’ll tackle each one. If your goal is to get a much better job, research job descriptions for those positions and even ask companies that hire for them what they look for in a candidate. Then map out a specific plan to getting as many of those qualifications as possible. When you have a very precise plan and know what you need to achieve, it’s much easier to feel confident.
  • Plan or do your first step. If the end goal is hard to picture, just picture what it would look like to move a little bit toward that. For instance, if you want to get your whole house organized, concentrate on only one very small area and organize that. If you can do that effectively, then organizing the rest of the house is mainly a matter of repeating something you’ve already done successfully.
  • Visualize what it will be like to accomplish your goal. Get a very clear, vivid picture in your mind of what you want to achieve, and daydream about that situation often–daily or more if you can, the more often the better!

The next article in these series will pick up with more questions that are important to ask if you want to be fully committed to a goal.

Photo by Omara Enero


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