How to Commit to the Things You Start

One of the most important skills you can cultivate is the ability to plan, execute and finish your projects. Unfortunately, most people are spectacularly bad at this skill.

I’ve witnessed this firsthand. Over the lifetime of this blog, I’ve ran several small-scale courses where I’ve tried to help people one-on-one. Because I usually have more applicants than slots, I try to be extremely strict about getting people to commit. I’ve done pre-class interviews to identify the most committed people, made people sign agreements signalling their commitment and taken other draconian steps to enforce commitment.

Invariably, however, at least half of the people I’ve hand-picked fall off the wagon. This is true, even when the plans I’ve asked people to commit to are of their own design. In other words, I’m only asking them to commit to what they themselves find reasonable, not my own notions about what they should do.

I’m tempted to blame myself as a lousy instructor. There’s some truth to this. I’m a better writer than a coach, so I deserve some of the blame for my inability to push people across the finish line. However, when I see people around me attempt their own projects, I see similar failure rates, so my lack of talent as a coach certainly isn’t the full explanation.

I think most people will agree with me that being able to commit to the projects you start would be a fantastically useful skill. Why, then, are people so bad at it? And, if they are, is there anything you can do to avoid being in the majority of failures?

Why People are Bad at Committing to Things

I’d like to make the case that people are bad at committing to things because, for the most part, it’s a skill we rarely use.

This might seem strange at first—don’t people commit to going to their jobs, maintaining relationships with their spouses, and taking care of their kids?

In all of the usual cases of successful commitment, however, there are usually strong social and cultural pressures to stay committed. When you don’t show up for work, you get fired. This has a negative impact on your life, but, more importantly, it has an immediate and visceral negative emotion. Being dismissed by your employer is devastatingly painful. To dismiss your own goals feels like, well, nothing really.

Other goals, such as graduating from school, may seem completely personal, but this isn’t true either. If the goal is a socially mandated behavior from your cultural group, then there is tacit social pressure even if it doesn’t manifest itself directly. The difficulty, therefore, isn’t in doing all goals, but simply in doing the ones where social pressures to conform are absent.

Many other thinkers have already recognized this social component of our usual commitments and advised taking steps to translate our current goals into social goals to get the benefit of extra commitment. Tell people about your goals, so they’ll punish you when you slack. Force people to hold you accountable.

Unfortunately, this commitment-through-socialization strategy has two major drawbacks.

The first drawback is that, just as we avoid social costs from commitment failures, we also avoid creating situations where this is a possible consequence. Telling your friends and family to punish you for failure to reach a personal goal is itself unpleasant. So you have a catch-22 situation: you need enough motivation to overcome the unpleasantness of social commitments, yet this is supposed to solve the problem of not having enough motivation in the first place.

The second weakness of this approach is that it usually doesn’t work. In most cases, what we punish others for is violating norms and cultural expectations. If your personal project is to fit in with societal expectations, that’s great. But if your project is do something not mandated by your culture, few people in your social group will punish you for failing at it. Indeed, if your project is above baseline expectations, the opposite may happen: people will console you in your failures, making the sting of abandoned commitment feel less bad, not worse!

To summarize: most people suck at committing to their personal goals because, for the most part, nobody does this. Typical commitments are enforced socially, but that only works for the kinds of things your culture and group expect you to commit to.

An Alternative: View Commitment to Personal Goals as a Skill

Does this mean we’re doomed to failure at our personal goals, if those goals don’t happen to align well with the social environment that pushes us to more conformist types of commitments?

I don’t think so. The reason I’m claiming people are bad at committing to things is that, despite appearances to the contrary, it’s a skill most people rarely use. This means people haven’t trained in themselves the habits, self-knowledge and control structures to ensure they act on their plans and goals. However, if you learn how to do this, the potential for achievement is much greater than you might imagine at first.

How do you get better at committing to things? The short answer is simple: practice.

The longer answer is more complex. Commitment, unlike a lot of skills, cannot be practiced on its own. It must be practiced in conjunction with some other goal. This is unfortunate, because if your skill of commitment to non-socially mandated projects is weak, then the added complication of trying to achieve whatever you’re striving after will make the combined project much harder.

In my own life, I found the practice that worked best was to start by committing to projects where the highest goal was commitment itself. That means, you stick through with the goal, even if it doesn’t make sense anymore, you’ve changed your mind about completing it or you’ve found something better to do. These commitment goals tend to work best when the time window is relatively short, to start, so committing to a bad project incurs few sizeable costs.

I remember when I was in my senior year of high-school, and had stumbled upon this approach to building commitment skills, I was working on an exercise habit: 30 minutes of running, first thing every morning. Yet, I didn’t realize that this one-month commitment period overlapped with my high school prom. In my hometown, this was an all-night affair (they would keep the kids at the event to prevent drunk driving), so the event didn’t end until 6am and I was exhausted. So, naturally, I went running for half an hour after having stayed up the entire previous night.

Running that morning wasn’t about exercise. It was about commitment. I wasn’t trying to run to build some exercise habit, or to be healthy, but to strengthen my general skill of sticking to things I’ve committed to.

When I’ve talked to people about these kinds of incidents, many people react with displeasure. That sounds awful, why push yourself in such a situation when it doesn’t matter? The truth is, however, that most people have pushed through a lot worse situations when there were social consequences. I know people who have showed up to work after an all-nighter, and barely shrugged about it. The skill of commitment is to be able to condition yourself to treat your personal goals not as something far less important than social ones, but as something more important.

The truth is, running after all-nighters is rare. Most times, sticking to things is only mildly unpleasant, and even then, it’s only for a brief moment. When you consider the feelings of guilt and depression that come from chronically failing at one’s goals, I’d say that sticking to things feels a lot better.

How to Improve Your Ability to Stick to Things

Learning this skill isn’t something that happens overnight. My best guess is that it takes, at minimum, months before you really get the hang of it. To get it to the point where it is completely automatic, however, may take several years.

Given that this skill underlies virtually every other self-improvement effort, I think it’s worth cultivating, no matter the difficulty.

Here’s my advice for building this skill:

  1. Start with projects that should be, in theory, easy to commit to. They must be short. One month is usually good, but if you’re really bad at this, then one week might be better. Don’t start with projects of 3-6 months if you don’t have a strong track-record of one-month successes behind you.
  2. Start becoming more sensitive about what you commit to. People without this skill tend to make bold proclamations about what they want to do, since they know from experience that this isn’t a binding constraint. However, to really develop this skill you must also be cautious about overcommitting since you know that foolishly committing to a stupid plan will cause future difficulties.
  3. Stop analyzing the costs and benefits of individual acts of commitment. Once you commit, you will try to think of reasons to wiggle out of it. Exercising doesn’t make sense now because you have a cold. Sticking to learning Python programming isn’t good because you should really learn JavaScript. These are tricks—stop it. Once you commit, you’re stuck. If you need future flexibility, bake it into your initial commitment, don’t try to wiggle it in later.
  4. Raise the bar on what counts as a valid excuse. Most excuses are just that, excuses. They aren’t actually situations where commitment is impossible, just ones in which the short-term benefits of following through are less than the costs. But if you view commitment as a long-term skill-building project, you should really question this more carefully. A failure to follow a commitment may have little costs to an individual project but enormous costs to your long-term goal of being the kind of person who can commit to their goals.

This may sound overly strict, but this misses a fundamental feature of the human mind: that we are extremely adaptable. Someone who has never heard of the concept of a normal job would find the concept so alien and punishing that they couldn’t imagine that huge swaths of humanity toil at them all day. How can you stay in one place for eight hours? What if you feel really tired, you can’t even sleep? What if you have something else you’d rather do?

Yet, I’d argue, for most people who work jobs, that’s just their life. They show up and it’s not so bad because they’re molded to the social constraints that make showing up to work not so bad.

Committing to your own goals and projects is, in many ways, a much less onerous condition to adapt yourself to, with much higher possible rewards. The difficulty is only in the transition of becoming the kind of person who commits to things, not in being such a person. Once you become such a person, following through on every project, achieving every goal you set is what is ordinary. It’s the general failure for most people to do so which is baffling.

Book Club: Tao Te Ching (March 2018)

This month we read Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

About the book: the book is comprised of eighty-one short chapters which cover the ways of the “Way” and lay out all the main ideas of one, Taoism (also known as Daoism) of the world’s oldest philosophies.

The main attraction to this way of thinking is the Tao itself, which is the idea of great flow of everything. The Tao is that mysterious, unnamable process through which everything in the universe happens. Throughout the book, the great Tao is held up as an example of how we all should live our lives.

What is the Tao? It is humble, non-judgmental, generous, flexible, and peaceful. The Tao is also the master at wu wei, or “unattached action,” and if a person practices this as well, they can effortlessly succeed in life. It is only through personal discipline and by releasing desire that we can find these virtues and reach enlightenment in oneness with the Tao.

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud

One of the most enigmatic Chinese texts is Tao Te Ching, which opens with the following paradox: “The way that can be explained, is not the eternal way. The name which can be named, is not the eternal name.”

Lao Tzu opens us by essentially explaining that the subject of his book, the Tao, or the Way, the eternal essence of all things that motivates their actions, that moves the universe, is not something he can talk about. It’s not something that can explain to other people and yet, he writes the whole book about it. What is the import of a book like this? I think that there is a very important message within this book that has a lot of relevance today; I’m going to try to argue that, far from being something you can dismiss as Eastern mysticism or something that’s irrelevant in our modern lives… there’s a source of wisdom in these ideas.

Let’s first look at the context of this book:

There’s ambiguity about the authorship of this book but what we do think is that this book was written sometime during the Warring States period in China and this was a period of intense political turmoil. It’s important to recognize that the context from which the book was written was really Lao Tzu addressing the ruling classes. Most people can’t read classical Chinese. This is a situation where there is quite a bit of chaos, quite a bit of turmoil, and maim and slaughter, Lao Tzu is seeing all this and he sees it as being out of sync with how we views the natural world.

There are three main ideas in this book that I think a modern person could maintain and appreciate in their life today:

The first is wu wei which essentially translates into non-action or non-doing. This is what Lao Tzu holds in the highest esteem. The people who can act without doing, the people who can lead without leading, teach without speaking, and manage affairs without having them trouble them.

The second is the Tao itself. Now, what does this Tao mean metaphysically? Is it a principle of physics? Is it compatible with out modern scientific understanding of things? Or, is it something that we can dismiss by being disproven by later science? I tend to lean on the scientific view of things. I think it’s a way of reconciling what is essentially a view that’s quite different of how we see things, but yet, potentially quite compatible.

Finally I want to talk about De or virtue. In particular, what does Lao Tzu have to say about being a good person? He has a lot to say about virtue that almost seems paradoxical. But I think this is interesting especially in light of our last book, The Elephant In The Brain, that Lao Tzu is very suspicious of moral signaling and of people who pretend at virtue or have the pretension of doing good things.

What is the main takeaway from this prolific book?

Our brains are always trying to create relative contrast and what Lao Tzu is saying is that many of our desires are an urge to get more of one thing and less or something else (e.g. more wealth, less famine or more praise and less shame) and he’s saying that while this desire might have a certain truth in a relative sense, ultimately it has to be self-defeating. For example, in order to make every single person happy we’d have to redefine what happiness is. So it’s from this idea of a relative contrast that he gets this idea of the Tao and gets this idea of how we should operate.

Lao Tzu also talks about self-cultivation which is taken in the meditative view of diminishing one’s desire, diminishing one’s reckless and greedy attitude, and as Lao Tzu says, if one acts in this way, one will be alright in the end.

Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book with you there. For April, we’ll be reading The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.