GoalsOnTrack Blog

A systematic approach to achieving goals and getting results.

The Research-Backed Strategy That Keeps You on the Path to Your Goals

By Samantha Boardman, M.D.

Before his voyage home, Ulysses is warned about the irresistible and deadly call of the Sirens. Countless sailors before him had fallen prey to their seductive song and drowned as a result. Recognizing he won’t be able to control himself in the face of such temptation, Ulysses instructs his men to bind him to the mast of the ship.

Behavioral science research suggests that Ulysses was onto something. By tying himself to the mast, he was utilizing what researchers call a “commitment device.” A commitment device is something that prevents one from making impulsive decisions when temptation beckons.

Commitment devices require an awareness that behavior and goals do not always go hand in hand. For example, even though I may wake up with the best intention to eat healthy, I know I cannot resist buying a croissant as I pass the bakery on the way to work. I can channel Ulysses by deciding to take a different route and avoid the temptation altogether.

Studies show that taking steps now to limit choices in the future is an effective strategy. Best of all, it bypasses the need to use self-control which is in limited supply anyway.

Commitment devices are powerful tools. They can help people quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and save money.

Here are a few examples of ways to use commitment devices to your advantage:

Use Small Plates

If the goal is to eat less, eating off of smaller plates will reduce how much you eat.

Schedule Workouts With An Exercise Partner

If the goal is to exercise more, knowing a friend is waiting for you will get you out the door.

Direct Deposit Into Savings Account

If the goal is to save money, designate a fixed amount of your paycheck for savings so it happens automatically. You will be less tempted to spend it.

Order Groceries Online

If the goal is to eat healthier, avoid the temptation of going to the supermarket.

Place Money In A Deposit Contract

If the goal is to quit smoking or lose weight in the next two months, commit to forfeiting the money if you don’t reach it. Block Internet Access: If the goal is to block digital distractions, download a program like Freedom, which disables Internet access for up to eight hours.

Turning my phone off and placing it in the bottom of my bag is a strategy is a commitment device that prevents me from becoming a texting zombie. Knowing it is off and out of reach prevents me from succumbing to the temptation to check it while walking around. So that is my version of binding myself to the mast. What is yours?

Samantha Boardman MD, a clinical Instructor in Psychiatry, Public Health and Assistant Attending Psychiatrist at Weill-Cornell Medical College, is the founder of PositivePrescription.com, a website that shares insights and explores the way that psychiatry, psychology, culture and science intersect. She cares more about what is right with people then what is wrong, and is always looking for the tweaks and changes that make a difference.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!