Sometimes we are full of good intentions that amount to nothing. We have our goals, we have a clear idea of all the things that we want to achieve, and yet something holds us back. Shifting from the idea to the action is tricky, somehow. We get in our own way. We procrastinate and put things off, we let self-doubt set in. We struggle to get started and then we struggle to see it through. Our motivation seems to be this mysterious thing we have no control over that comes and goes like the wind.
So how do we really commit and get things done?
Usually, when we have something we want to achieve, there are elements of it we want (like the end result) and elements of it we don’t want (like the hard work that it’ll take to get there). An example is dieting. We want the body and health benefits, but we don’t necessarily want the sacrifice and hard work.
Let’s face it, if we want something wholeheartedly, when there’s no aspect of it we don’t want, then we pretty much get on and do it.
If we’re struggling to commit to our goals and see them through it’s likely due to this kind of inner conflict. So really, the question is how do we deal with ambivalence? How do we deal with I want and I don’t want so that the I don’t want bit doesn’t stop us being our best selves? That’s right, we commit!
But what do we even mean by commitment? When we commit to a goal, what are we actually saying?
Interestingly, the dictionary gives us two different forms of commitment which have quite different flavours.
This is the Oxford Dictionary definition of commitment:
The state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.
An engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action.
It would be wonderful if our commitments felt like the first one, then we wouldn’t have much problem fulfilling them. But often they feel like the second option, like obligations that require will and effort. Sometimes we move between the two. Our commitment to health for example can feel at times like an activity we are dedicated to when we are out riding our bikes in the sunshine, which happens to be our favourite way to spend the day. The part about not eating junk food can feel instead like a restriction. When we are committing we are doing both, dedicating ourselves to some purpose and within that, accepting the obligations that go with it. So how do we commit in such a way that we actually see it through?
Here are eight steps:
1. Set goals
Yes, when we commit to something – whether it's starting something or stopping something - there can be a problem with motivation. Sometimes our commitments can feel too much like restrictions rather than actions that arise from dedication to goals that mean something to us. One of the ways that goal-setting can help is by getting us very clear on the why we are doing what we are doing, helping us manage that restrictive element of our commitment which isn’t so appealing. When we know why we’re doing something, the benefits we will reap, the satisfaction we will get, and we keep this high in our minds, our commitment remains strong. It has more of the quality of a dedication, and at times of low motivation we can use this knowledge to keep us going. When we know what our goal is, we can take some time to ask ourselves what achieving that goal would mean to us. Each time we answer, we can ask the question again until we have a list of all the benefits of our goal including the ultimate goal behind the goal. That inner conversation might go something like:
‘I want to lose 20 lbs.’
‘And what will that mean for me?’
‘I’ll have more energy and be healthier.’
‘And what will that mean for me?’
‘I can play football with my daughter in the park.’
‘And what will that mean for me?’
‘A closer relationship with my daughter…’ and on and on until we arrive at the ultimate goal, which is probably something about happiness, fulfilment and being our best self. These are the kinds of goals that mean something and that if we keep in mind, are likely to keep us on track.
2. Commit to the process
Goal-setting involves more than the why, it also involves the how, the various processes that will help us get to our destination. It's actually these processes or component parts that we need to commit to, more so than the end result. We can commit to losing 20 lbs, but if we don’t know how we’re going to do that, our intentions might amount to nothing.
The process is about the things that will get us there (1). For example in a relationship we are not committing to happy ever after so much as the dedication of time, intimacy, listening, etc, it will take for that happy ever after to happen. When we commit to the process rather than the end result we give ourselves a better chance of arriving at the end result. The end result becomes a by-product of all the regular commitments we make along the way.
For whatever your goal is, break it down into the processes, and make a commitment to those.
Research shows that actually the simple act of planning when we are going to do the things we say we are going to do makes us much more likely to actually stick to those things. It’s the difference between saying we’re going to exercise more, and determining what exercise we’re going to do at what time and on what day. Setting these implementation intentions has been shown to dramatically increase our success at actually following through.
4. Let go of the need to feel like it
When we commit sometimes what we really mean is ‘I commit to doing this as long as I keep feeling like doing it.’ Which is kind of meaningless, because it’s not really a commitment as much as an expression of the fact that you are going to be doing as you feel like doing. Ideally of course, we feel like doing the things we are committing to, but often this simply isn’t the case. We may ‘commit’ to quit smoking, but then we have a stressful day and we really feel like a cigarette and we really don’t feel like depriving ourselves of something we want, so we go ahead and smoke. Our commitment is revealed to be pretty weak. It’s not an unshakeable force driving our behaviour. Instead it is contingent on how we feel in that moment. So how do we manage that? What we need to do is not let our decisions and behaviours be contingent on feeling like it (or not feeling like it, as the case may be). Too often we are in a mindset that our wants and desires must be obeyed. Instead, we have to change our relationship to our momentary desires. They are not orders, they are suggestions - that we can choose to ignore. So when we are suggesting to ourselves to eat a great big pizza even though we are on a diet, we can recognise that a want does not need to be satiated. Our success in achieving our goals does not have to be contingent on feeling like it. Feeling like it has nothing to do with it!
5. Just get on with it!
If only. So why don’t we? This can come down to the difference between our long-term and short-term thinking. Whilst the long view is all about the goals we set and the benefits success will yield, the short-term view is about what feels good right now, which let’s face it is unlikely to be anything that involves sacrifice or too much effort. So what do we do about that problem?
What helps is to reduce the effort required so that the short-term completion of our goal is not going to make us feel bad. Just like in the example above. Another way of reducing effort can be achieved by creating habits. Habits by definition are kind of an auto-pilot. We don’t get stuck in an internal debate about whether or not to brush our teeth in the morning, we just do it. Even things that aren’t very nice, if they are habitual don’t take much in the way of willpower. For example, turning up to work each day. Unless we loath our job, for most of us, it kind of just happens. We’re in the habit of turning up!
So, how do we make habits? The easiest way to make a habit is to link a new desired habit to an existing habit. So if you want to start a morning routine involving setting daily intentions you could do that whilst you brush your teeth. Once your desired behaviour is a habit, it doesn’t require much effort and there’s more chance you really will just get on with it!
6. Tell people….or not
There’s a mixed message about this. It makes sense that if we tell people what we are going to do, we are more likely to do it. That’s because we care what other people think. Although we tend to aspire to care less what other people think, let’s be honest, most of us still struggle with that. So let’s use that to our advantage. And research tells us that those who have what is termed ‘susceptibility to normative influence’ - in other words caring what others think - are more likely to follow through on their goals when they’ve told people about them (2).
This isn’t always the case though. Sometimes when we tell others our goal it can decrease our follow through (3). This seems to occur because we get some satisfaction from the telling and the act of telling leaves us feeling like we are progressing even if we haven’t actually made any tangible steps. This sense of progress can actually be demotivating. We think our goal is already in the bag so we don’t put the effort in.
So what do we make of this conflicting advice? It seems that we can still benefit from the social pressure that comes from others knowing our goal as long as we don’t put it in such a way that it gives us a sense of achievement!
‘I’m going to be a singer!’ We might feel all warm inside, like stating our aspiration is bringing us closer to its fulfilment. This is the kind of announcement to be avoided.
‘I’m going to take singing lessons in the hope of becoming a professional singer!’ This is a process goal rather than an outcome goal. The focus is on the component parts rather than the result. We may not get the same feeling of accomplishment from announcing this intention. This is a good thing. We will stay motivated and we’ll also be held to account about those singing lessons!
7. Get started
Often the problem starts right at the start, as in we can’t even get started. We say we’ll start tomorrow, then tomorrow comes and we put it off further. Often it we can get past that very first hurdle, the rest is easy! So what is so hard about getting started? Especially when most of us actually find being in that state of tension when we know we really should be doing something that we’re not doing, to be particularly unpleasant. A trick to getting started is to simply tell ourselves that we’re only going to do the thing we don’t want to do for a really short amount of time (if it’s time-based). Let’s say our goal is to write a novel and we’re not getting very far after the hours we spend whiling away time on the internet looking at nothing much. We don’t know where to begin so we don’t begin at all. But instead we can say, ‘I’ll start somewhere and just for ten minutes.’ Next thing we know it’s two hours later and we’ve got a whole chapter under our belts. Make it so easy that it doesn’t feel effortful and there’s a better chance we’ll get started!
8. Reward yourself
Ultimately all our commitments involve rewards inherent within them, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing them. Even something tough like giving up our time to help others is giving us a sense of fulfilment and purpose. But sometimes the rewards can be a little far in the future, or we don’t take time to focus on the rewards that are available to us immediately to feel good. Building in reward helps us stay on track and helps us handle that short-term instant gratification problem.
Think about what a reward would look like to you. If the reward is linked to the why of your commitment all the better. Imagine for example that you are committed to not smoking. You’ve gone a week already. While the real rewards come in the health benefits down the line, there are also immediate benefits if you turn your attention to them, for example not spending the money, not being out of breath when you go running. There is also the great sense of accomplishment. Dwell on it. Feel good about it, and yourself. Heap yourself with praise. Let this victory serve to remind you what you are capable of. Don’t let it happen without noticing. Give yourself reward whether it be internal in the form of feeling good about you or buying yourself something nice. If you can build some instant gratification in with your long-term goals then you’re less likely to sabotage yourself and you get to reduce some of that inner conflict that can mess it all up!
At the end of the day commitment is about what we do. We can talk about our intentions and goals all we want, but when we show commitment it’s when we follow through, when we move from talk to action. As Jean-Paul Satre tells us, ‘Commitment is an act not a word.’ So let your actions do the talking!
If you'd like further help with committing to your goals and having self discipline, check out my ebook available on Amazon here.