The Role of Commitment Devices in Behavior Change

Commitment Device, Behavior Change, MindBodyHealth, Denver, Psychologist Dr Justin Ross

At any given moment, a significant percentage of the population is working to change some form of behavior, often targeting health; with New Year’s resolutions, weight loss, smoking cessation, and stress reduction toping the list. When it comes to identifying positive behaviors, we mostly understand the general guidelines: get adequate levels of movement, stop eating junk food, manage stress proactively, and limit or eliminate smoking, alcohol, and/or drug use. Follow-through, especially consistent follow through with long term committed action often proves difficult. The lack of follow through can quickly turn into long standing beliefs that we are simply hopeless, or unmotivated, or doomed to failure creatures who will never be successful.

A workable solution lies in the Commitment Device. Now, the academic definition of a Commitment Device is loaded with jargon. Just type the words into Google and you get this definition: “A commitment device is a choice that an individual makes in the present which restricts his own set of choices in the future, often as a means of controlling future impulsive behavior and limiting choices to those that reflect long-term goals.” Clear as mud, right? Right.

A Commitment Device extends beyond simply establishing SMART Goals. The way I think about a commitment device in the context of behavior change, especially when it comes to the clients I’m seeing my office, is to first establish a desired sense of how you want to live. This vision needs to be as crisp and as clear as possible. Earlier today this included a client who identified wanting to having children within the next 5 years (but health problems from a chronic history of self-destructive behaviors was precluding) and another who wanted to attend college starting in January (but with chronic procrastination and self-doubt up to this point in his 23 years of life has impacted his ability to actually complete an admission application). 

Creating a clear vision of a future sense of self is paramount in beginning this process (ie. I want to have children. I want to attend college.). From there, one can address the second part of the definition, “…impulsive behavior and limiting choices to those that reflect long-term goals.” This part is more difficult. It requires a consistent stream of awareness for current behaviors and recognizing when they align with the identified goal, and when they align with something less valued, then re-targeting oneself back on the desired path. Establishing specific interventions to restrict the impulsive behavior is then necessary. This can include turning off your internet or wi-fi signal to avoid internet browsing to ensure completion of college essays, or leaving credit cards and money at home to restrict binge eating episodes and impulsive drug buys. (There are MANY specific examples online if you play around with searching this topic).

Whatever the target for desired behavior change may be, the path forward is relatively clear and starts by addressing these questions: What are you working towards? How do you want to live? How do your current behaviors align with that goal?

If you can answer these questions in as clear a manner as possible, you’re off to a good start. And if you need some help, I’d be happy to lend a hand.


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