Commitment

In this particular context we are referring to the act of making a commitment. If we make a promise to somebody we generally manage to keep it. In fact, if we break a promise we often experience uncomfortable emotions such as shame and guilt. The notion of keeping a promise seems to be deeply imbedded in who we are and, as young children, breaking a promise to your best friend would often be seen as the worst of crimes. When we marry we promise to care for our spouse and 'promissory notes' form the basis of our financial transactions.

A promise is a commitment to do something, or not to do something, and is a very powerful show of our intention to engage in some kind of behaviour. We might promise something to ourselves, yet we are more likely to make a promise to someone else. Committing to our goal is a promise we make to carry out certain behaviours so that we can reach our desired future outcome and, while this kind of promise can be effective, it's much more likely that we will reach our goal if we make our promise (or our commitment) public.

A promise binds our present self to our future self, a useful tactic seeing as immediate vices are often seen as preferable to immediate virtues. By this, I mean that our automatic responses are often based not only on poor decision making but also on immediate gratification. For example, we might reach for that unhealthy snack despite not being hungry and knowing full well what the outcomes might be. A student might shout out the answer to a question rather than raise their hand in order to receive immediate praise, even though they understand that shouting out isn't part of the classroom culture. This phenomenon is referred to as present bias and based on the observation that we prefer rewards today over bigger rewards tomorrow, making us delay effortful decisions and actions. If, however, we bind our present self into a decision in advance (by making a formal commitment) we are much more likely to achieve it. We can also see this play out it in the classroom: if we give students the option of an easy task or a challenging task, the majority will opt for the easy task. If we then say that both tasks need competing at some point in the future, they are still likely to opt for the easy task and delay the challenging one. They might then use delaying tactics in the future to avoid the challenging task. However, by insisting that they commit to completing the more challenging task at a later date, they are more likely to complete it and delay less. Of course, the easiest option is to offer no choice at all, and in many circumstances, this would be the logical move.

One example from the research literature involves the kinds of films we might choose to watch. We all have that film that we keep meaning to see, perhaps because it won lots of awards and is generally considered to be an artistic masterpiece. Given the choice however, we are more likely to pick a film that is guaranteed to be entertaining if not necessarily intellectually stimulating (think Schindler's List versus Guardians of the Galaxy). When people were asked in advance to select the films they plan to watch during the coming week, they tended to still place the lower-brow films first and the high-brow ones later, but the list represented a commitment to watch the high-brow film later on in the week and people generally stuck to this commitment (Read, Loewenstein & Kalyanaraman, 1999).

I recently decided to commit to writing in my journal every day. Since I was a teenager I have often written a diary or filled notebooks with my thoughts, desires and memories, yet I have never been able to commit to regular journaling. This is despite knowing that keeping a journal can greatly benefit wellbeing and help to organise people's thoughts so that they can better pursue their goals. Even now, I am an avid collector of notebooks, everything from school exercise books and spiral bound pads to more ornate and often beautifully designed journals, yet my entries are often random and I can go months without entering a single word into them. The first thing I did to commit to my new goal was to set a time and place, so I sit at my desk each evening at 10 o'clock and spend a few minutes downloading my thoughts. I then declared my intention on Twitter to my modest following; in other words, I made a public commitment. Feedback (discussed a little later) was immediate with a couple of my closest followers 'liking' my Tweet or briefly commenting or wishing me luck.

Environmental cues, such as time and place, can nudge us towards new habit formation, but so can alarms and other devices. Fitness trackers, for example, provide instant feedback, which can, in turn, encourage people to change their behaviour. Inventor Simone Giertz is perhaps better known for building rubbish robots than useful devices. One invention, however, might very well make a bigger impact on human behaviour than some of her other designs. Giertz's Every Day Calendar is reminiscent of a star chart, only with lights representing each day of every month rather than little coloured stickers. It was originally designed to encourage Giertz to meditate every day; each day, she would mediate and touch the appropriate day on the calendar, which would then illuminate. If the light is on, then the action has been executed on that day. This means that the user automatically knows if they have completed the action, but also if they haven't because there is an annoying gap in the long line of lights - feedback is immediate. The premise is simple yet fulfils many of the criteria required to form new habits that help people to reach their goals.

The way I chose to commit to my goal was personal to me and others find different ways to commit to their own goals. At the very least, our goals need to be written down, either as a statement of intent or a pledge that we sign to seal our commitment. Other methods that have proven successful have included 'commitment boards' where individuals within an organisation write their goal on a publicly available surface so that their colleagues can witness first hand their goal intentions. Another useful strategy is to appoint a goal referee who can oversee progress, or a goal partner, where individuals can draw on the commitment and motivation of another goal pursuer and vice versa. The latter method is similar to the role of the sponsor in programs aimed at overcoming drug and alcohol addiction. Those who appoint a commitment referee are up to 70 per cent more likely to achieve their goals than those who don't (Ayres, 2010).

How this would work in the classroom depends on individual teachers and cohorts and the ways in which leaders decide to embed goal pursuit into the culture of the school. Teachers might discover a reluctance by older children and teenagers to engage in overly public displays of commitment, so partnering or pledging might be preferable.

 
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