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Commitment contracts: they really can help us achieve personally difficult goals

Four months ago I wrote a post entitled "Commitment contracts: another good way of helping us reach our goals" where I introduced some of the recent research on how helpful making a "commitment contract" can be when we're trying to attain particularly challenging personal goals.  I mentioned the website www.stickK.com and quoted a recent New York Times article which stated "The more you precommit, the better you do, according to stickK's analysis of 125,000 contracts over the past three years. The success rate for people who don't name a referee or set financial stakes is only 29 percent, but it rises to 59 percent when there's a referee and to 71.5 percent when there's money at stake. And when a contract includes a referee and financial stakes, the success rate is nearly 80 percent."  In a second post - "Commitment contracts: orientation, practicalities & use as therapeutic tools" - I said "In today's post I'd like to look a bit more at the practicalities of setting up and using commitment contracts. I'll illustrate this by talking about my own personal exploration of this area, but I'd also like to highlight that I think these ideas and the associated web resources are potentially very useful tools for psychotherapists, counsellors, life coaches and their clients." 

I went on to say "If I was a good fairy able to give just one gift to a new baby, high on my list would be "willpower" or "self-control". It's scary how crucial this is. Try clicking on Figure 2 in last year's study by Moffitt et al "A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth and public safety". Do look at the blog post "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion-regulation, willpower - whatever word you use, it's sure important to have it" and maybe go on to the rest of the series - see "Self-control ... more on the many benefits", "Self-control ... possible adverse effects", "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - the importance of training", "Building willpower: it's like strengthening & nourishing a muscle", "Building willpower: the eight pillars" and "Self-control ... how do you measure it?"So how do commitment contracts and websites like www.stickK.com fit into all this? Well I would argue that excellent willpower or self-control - at its heart - is all about achieving wanted longer term goals without being excessively pushed off course by short term distractions. As I wrote in the post "Self-control ... more on the many benefits" - "Self-control & self-discipline are at the foundation of what it takes to be an effective human being."  Don't get me wrong.  I like to party with the best of them, but "Dionysian" without the "Apollonian" gets pretty overweight, wheezy and self-indulgent fairly quickly, just as pure "discipline" without "dance" can become over-puritanical - I think we do best with both.

In a third post - "Commitment contracts: a personal example" - I used five goals that I set up for myself to illustrate some of the nitty-gritty issues around practical use of these tools.  If you're interested in using commitment contracts yourself (as a therapist/coach or more personally), do have a look at this post ... you're likely to find the details of some help.  I wrote "So for me with the five commitments I make below, these are all things I would genuinely like to do. I'm very good at achieving work-related and healthy lifestyle-related goals, but this more "administrative" cluster of tasks I have half-heartedly aimed for and failed to achieve on a whole series of occasions in the past."  And now it's four months later and how did the commitments go?  Bloody well, actually!  I'm really pleased with how this "psychological technology" helped me work with and succeed at a set of quite challenging personal goals.  Here's the record:

commitment contract record

And here are the nine poems I wrote from "Cold feet & sunlight in the spring" to "Walking with my brother".  Did I cheat?  No. I hurt my back quite badly in May and I needed to pee in a jamjar as I couldn't get out of bed to the loo for a couple of days. I "let myself off" completing the commitment contracts that week (although I did work on poetry).  There was also a slight blur with the poem "Reading the journals" where it was hard to draw a line between what was writing poetry and what was updating myself on recent research.  However I basically got through the four months hitting all the targets I'd set for myself.  These weren't easy targets for me.  Very encouraging.  Being really clear what I was committing too; writing it down; getting dear friends to support me; having a painfully large sum of money that I'd lose if I didn't make the targets each week.  It all helped.  Now I need to think more about how I take this forward.  It would be easy to let all these intentions slide.  I'll remake a series of these contracts, but simplifying them a bit, being a little less dependent on so many friends for support, checking in a little less frequently ... but taking care not to just to fall back into old patterns.  Commitment contracts clearly are a useful additional tool in our work helping ourselves & others achieve goals that are important to us.

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