Making Public Commitments

How often do you set a goal only to let it slip by because it seems less important as time goes on? How often do you look back and wish you’d persisted in your pursuit of some end? Think of the goal that seems most important to you right now, today, in this place and time. If you could press a button that would guarantee your continued motivation to achieve that goal, would you press it? If you’re anything like me, the answer is a resounding YES!

Well, such a button is actually not as far-fetched as it sounds. No, I’m not talking about actually altering your brain or mood alteration through technology, though those are interesting topics for future posts. I’m talking about the psychology of making public commitments. It turns out that claiming to your friends, colleagues, parents, and teachers that you will achieve a particular goal can increase your ongoing motivation to achieve that goal because you have the desire to live up to your word or risk losing respect in the eyes of those whose respect you value. The original desire to achieve the stated goal is still there, but now you have added further independent motivations in a form that will persist over time.

Make no mistake, however: there is no free lunch here. By leveraging the psychology of public commitments you expose yourself to additional risk; namely, that there are now even worse consequences of not achieving what you set out to achieve. You must choose this approach for goals that are so important that they are worth this additional exposure.

I experimented with this approach when I was planning a cycling trip from Oxford to Amsterdam over the summer. This was my first experience planning an international cycling trip, and there was no short supply of organisational difficulties: preparing the bicycles, planning the routes, booking accommodation, learning to navigate the Dutch cycle network, and recruiting others to join me. But this was something I was determined to achieve so starting in March I began spreading the word as widely as possible that I would absolutely positively be undertaking this trip. Though internally I was somewhat less confident of following through than I acted, I recognised that it was the very act of making this public commitment that would help me maintain the motivation to follow through.

The trip was planned for early September, but, sure enough, come August I was engaged with a plethora of seemingly more pressing concerns. Finding time to organise the trip seemed impossible since at every moment there was something in the much more immediate future that threatened to monopolize my attention. Every so often I would spare just a moment to consider the possibility of not going on the trip, so had I not had the synthetic-but-real motivation of living up to the plan that I had proudly declared over the past months, I do not think I would have ended up following through with the trip.

You have already guessed the end to this story. The public commitment I made did give me that in-the-instant motivation and I did follow through with the trip and it was a wonderful experience that I will treasure forever. It was the perfect storm of blissful cycling: beautiful countryside, wonderful company (my good friend Christo), perfect weather, and the exhilaration of a physical feat.

In retrospect, of course, it was obviously a good idea to do the trip despite the pressing deadlines of my PhD transfer of status. As it happened, the transfer went smoothly regardless, but the point is that the cycling trip is something I will look back on with pride and happiness, whereas the transfer of status will fade into all the obscurity of distant memories. In March, when I started planning the trip, I knew that; and now, looking back, I can see the same truth. In the middle, though, there was always going to be a point of teetering motivation and that is the part where manipulating one’s own set of motivations through public commitments can work wonders.

I recommend this technique as one tool your self-manipulation toolbox, to use if and when appropriate for achieving your goals.

Further reading: How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker, and Doctor Strangelove,a 1964 film by Stanley Kubrik.

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~ by alexflint on October 27, 2009.

3 Responses to “Making Public Commitments”

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article, keep up writing such interesting posts!

  2. […] topic of conversation more often than not. I soon realised the power of what Alex kept saying about making public pledges. Quite simply, once people knew what I was doing this, I had more will power to keep doing it. […]

  3. […] back in our favour. After taking the plunge, the fear of not being able to deliver could be channeled into a motivation for action. So that separation of risk and fear, once achieved, can mean access […]

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