Here’s How You Can Artificially Manufacture Commitment

Keeping promises in the modern age.

I am an eternal optimist. When other people see the downs, I only see the ups. This can be a great way to go through life, but it comes with its downfalls.

I always believe, truly, this time I’ll manage to get there early. The traffic will be good. The tasks will get done.

I am perenially late.

I am confident to the point of foolishness that even though I don’t feel like going to that social event now, I definitely will in two weeks’ time.

I constantly flake on get-togethers.

I am so sure that I’ll be able to force myself to go for a run later, so I go back to sleep.

I tend to stay in and read a book instead of going for a run.

It’s my New Year’s resolution to be more committed to the promises I keep to myself and to others. True to form, I’m confident I will manage.

Photo by Asdrubal luna on Unsplash

Humans are funny. Even when we know things are good for us, we resist them. Even when we know things are bad for us, we succumb.

When I cancel last minute on plans I knew I was never going to follow through on, I feel really crappy. This kind of mood makes me less likely to follow through on other promises or resolutions. It’s a spiral, and it’s hard to get off. For me, at least, commitment is one of the best ways to avoid this shame spiral.

Take this example: I agree to go to a costume party, even though I feel low, because I believe that when the party comes around, I’ll want to go.

Sure enough, the time comes, and I don’t feel like going. I don’t want to tell my friends, because I feel guilty, so I avoid cancelling until the very last minute.

This is really rude and inconsiderate of me, but I wanted to use this (real-life) example to show how failing to commit can lead to worse behavior.


Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

So how can we create commitment when we don’t have any naturally? Many people might already practice the best solution: committing beforehand.

“Commitment devices attempt to enforce people’s voluntarily imposed restrictions until they have accomplished their goals, or their voluntarily imposed penalties for failing to accomplish their goals.” — Todd Rogers, PhD at Harvard

This means you pay for a gym membership up front. It means you buy groceries online to avoid being tempted by goodies in person. It means you get a running buddy so you avoid specifically letting a person down, when you’re arranged to get together.

It can mean any kind of ritual by which you set up some limits for yourself, either for success or for failure.

When you invest in something, your brain automatically considers it to be of higher value and gives you more reason to go, because it assumes that you’d only spend money or time or social capital to do something if it were truly important.

Use this trick in reverse: if there’s something you want to do, like commit to attending events you say you’re going to, find some way to invest in them beforehand, to stop getting cold feet.

Yesterday, I was invited to a Cher costume party. I know what I’m like, and even as I enthusiastically clicked “Going” on the Facebook invite, I realistically knew I’d drop out at the last minute.

Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

But not this time. I took steps to ensure I had a reason to go. I went online and bought myself a Cher wig and outfit, scheduled to arrive a week before the party.

Now I’d literally invested money, there was no way I’d not go.

But you don’t have to spend actual money (although this works really well). If you tell a friend you’ll give them a ride, or go with them specifically to the party, it’s a lot harder to cancel on one person than it is to cancel on a whole group. If you spend a lot of time baking a snack for the party, you’ll be much more inclined to go as you’ve just invested your free time doing something for it.

How can you do this?

People are extraordinary in the way that we need to incentivize ourselves to do things we know will be good, or we know we’ll enjoy. But when you know the trick and can apply it, it’s not so hard to start living the way you want to, building healthy habits committing to the things you choose.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Along with the examples listed above, you can also use a commitment device known as “temptation bundling.” What this means is you pair a “tempting” activity or item that gives you instant rewards, like a really nice glass of wine, with an unappealing activity that will reap long-term rewards, like filing your tax return.

Your brain associates the short-term reward with the long-term activity, making it a lot easier to “reward” yourself for doing things you already know will be good.

At the end of the day, all you need to do to create commitment is give yourself a good reason. If you know yourself well, you’ll know the kinds of factors and motivators which will and won’t work — try out a couple and see which are the best for you.

For me? I’m going to attend my Cher party and look incredible. I know I’ll have a good time, and I’m glad I’ve made the choice to invest in my future fun.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love: