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The most effective way to implement a behavior change

Is it better to make our goals public, or keep them to ourselves?

The most effective way to implement a behavior change
[Photo: Clement Peiffer/iStock]

We all have goals we want to achieve, behaviors we want to change, and habits we want to build (or break). Finding things we want to accomplish is the easy part. But putting in the work to actually hit them? That’s where things usually fall apart.

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One of the oldest arguments around behavior change comes down to this: Should we make our ambitions public or keep them inside?

As it turns out, the answer isn’t a simple one.

So what does it take to commit to real behavior change? Let’s look at two of the most popular methods: social pressure and commitment devices.

The 5 reasons most behavior change fails

Anyone who’s been on a crash diet or stuck to a new schedule for a week knows it’s pretty easy to make short-term changes to our behaviors. It’s when we try for long-term, sustained changes where things become difficult.

Psychologists have been studying our inability to make big changes for years and have uncovered five primary reasons why your efforts fall short:

  • We’re motivated by negative emotions. You might think negative emotions like fear or regret would inspire you to make a change, but the opposite is actually true. One review of 129 studies found that the least effective behavior change strategies were consistently ones that focused on fear and regret.
  • We get trapped in “all or nothing” thinking. There are plenty of cognitive biases that get in the way of making any change, but one of the worst is all-or-nothing thinking. This is where we rely on a sudden jolt of motivation, and then give up the second we hit a snag.
  • We start too big and too vague. Changing any behavior takes time. But most of us try to change too much at once. We focus on huge changes (like “get six-pack abs”) instead of realistic steps (like “do five sit-ups”). Behavior change needs specific and realistic actions to take hold.
  • We forget that failure is a part of the process. Too many times, we focus on the end goal and not the process. Failure during behavior change isn’t the end of the road. It’s a street sign pointing you toward what you need to focus on.
  • We don’t make a commitment. Any major change requires some commitment—whether public or private—to keep you dedicated to seeing it through.

While we’ve covered some of the most impactful of these issues in previous blog posts (like our Guide to Effective Goal Setting, Why you Should be Setting Smaller Goals, and Understanding Motivation: How to harness the power of consistent productivity), what about the final one?

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When it comes to behavior change, what’s the best strategy for sticking to our commitments? Should we make them in public? Or keep them to ourselves?

Social pressure vs. commitment devices: Which strategy is better for behavior change?

Once you’ve decided on a change you want to make, broken it down into actionable steps, and defined your process for making a change, how should you keep yourself accountable?

There are two popular methods that psychologists and behavioral scientists have been studying for years: social pressure and commitment devices.

But is one better than the other?

Social pressure: Is it better to fail in public?

We’ve all been in those situations where we’ve stuck with a behavior out of fear of public ridicule. And while social pressure might have helped you change your fashion choices in middle school, can it also help you change your work habits?

Let’s think of a common scenario: New Year’s Resolutions.

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Imagine you set a resolution to change your morning routine and time block an hour every morning for writing instead of jumping straight into emails. To keep you committed, you tell your coworkers what you’re doing and post publicly about it.

This might seem like a good idea, however, the research says otherwise. Studies have found we’re less likely to keep up with our goals after we publicize them. Here’s why:

First, our brain confuses talking about your goal with actually working toward it. This gap between intention and implementation only widens when people get excited about our goals. Excitement about your potential changes provides a rush of dopamine—the feel-good chemical that powers many of our behaviors.

Going public with our goals also makes us more likely to celebrate our success prematurely. Instead of focusing on making daily progress, we talk openly about hitting a week of different behaviors. All this leads our brain to assume we’ve hit our goal and then revert back to old behaviors.

Lastly, social pressure usually relies on fear to motivate. We’re afraid of seeming incompetent, which, as we saw before, doesn’t lead to sustained change.

Commitment devices: Are we more motivated when we keep things to ourselves?

If sharing our goals leads us to become complacent and give up too early, then what are our other options?

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One of the most powerful options is to use what’s called a commitment device. A commitment device is a way to lock yourself into behavior change by linking it to a reward or punishment.

One of the oldest (albeit fictional) examples of a commitment device is the story of Odysseus who tied himself to his ship’s mast so he wouldn’t be entranced by the siren’s song.

But no one’s tying themselves to a ship’s mast these days. So what sort of commitment devices can you use to promote behavior change?

Let’s go back to our first example: writing every morning for an hour. There are all sorts of commitment devices you could use for keeping up with this change.

Here are a few ideas:

  • $1 donated to your favorite charity when you hit your goal and $10 donated to a charity you hate when you miss it.
  • 30 minutes of TV per night when you hit your goal and none if you miss it.
  • Blocking distracting websites like social media for the rest of the day if you don’t hit your goal.

The most powerful commitment device

While most of the commitment devices listed above rely on clearly defined rewards and punishments, that isn’t always the best approach.

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Remember how we said that behavior change fails when we focus on the negative? If you’re only relying on a negative consequence to keep you committed, you’re probably not going to last for long.

Instead, the most powerful commitment devices act more like gentle reminders rather than hard-set rules.

A few years ago, RescueTime teamed up with Cornell researcher Richard Patterson to understand how to keep people committed to something many drop out of: Online courses (or, MOOCs).

The biggest issue with MOOCs is that they’re self-paced and usually free, meaning they rely entirely on students managing their own time with little penalty for dropping out or giving up.

In fact, The Washington Post reports that most online classes have a completion rate of less than 10%. This makes them a perfect candidate for research into commitment devices.

In Patterson’s study, he broke a group of 650 students down into four groups:

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  1. A control group.
  2. Those who received a RescueTime Alert after each 30-minute period spent on distracting websites like social media, news, and entertainment.
  3. They could choose to use RescueTime to block distracting websites for 15 60-minute periods while logged into the online course.
  4. They were given daily time limits for distracting websites, after which RescueTime would block them.

The study’s results found that the only group to see a significant increase in completion was group four. Rather than try to stick to some self-imposed limit or actively change their behavior, this group were able to define limits and then let RescueTime keep them accountable.

In the end, this group received higher grades, experienced a 24% increase in time spent working, and was 40% more likely to finish the course!

If you want to use this strategy yourself, you can use RescueTime Alerts.

First, choose the activity you want to limit your time on—for example, social media or news. Then, set up a RescueTime Alert for when you hit that limit and have it automatically set a FocusTime session to block that activity for however long you want.

Now, whenever I spend more than an hour on social media during work hours, I get put in an hour FocusTime session and see my custom message: “Too much time spent on social media. Focus on what matters!”


This article originally appeared on RescueTime and is reprinted permission. 

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