How is it possible to feel incredibly resolved to do something one minute, only to find that your can-do attitude has evaporated by the next day?
It's a question social scientists have studied for years. They've pinpointed four key factors involved in fully committing to something: how rewarding and fulfilling you find an activity; how irksome or painful it may be; how much time, money, energy, effort, care and concern you invest in it; and how you manage choices.
As an associate professor in Boise State University's department of communication, I've been studying and teaching commitment for 15 years. I know firsthand that most of us rarely consider the power of dedication, even though that is what drives our long-term decisions and goals. Here, a helpful (and revealing) mini workshop to get you in commitment mode.
Define your commitment
Be as specific as possible so you can vividly imagine it. Use a notebook for this and the other exercises, or dedicate a note to it in your smartphone. I'll use a fitness example here and throughout, but these steps apply to all areas of life.
The what: I'm determined to commit to working out regularly by going to the gym at least three times a week for a minimum of 45 minutes.
The why: I want to have more energy and less stress, feel stronger and be leaner.
Make a good thing great
Compile a list of things both big and small that you treasure about this commitment, which you can refer to if your resolve begins to wane. For exercising, you might list these benefits:
Feeling invigorated and in shape after a workout
Fitting into the clothes I used to wear before I gained weight
Listening to really great music while working out
Connecting with others who care about their health
Now think about what could make this commitment more worthwhile, fun or valuable and note that down. For example:
I could do a few sessions with a trainer to stay motivated.
I could find some new songs through iTunes and purchase three of them today.
I could try a new activity that's really fun, like a kickboxing class at the gym.
Now it's time to list (and tackle!) the troubles that could hold you back, such as:
It costs $120 a month to belong to the gym, which is kind of expensive.
Everybody looks so fit that I feel uncomfortable.
The gym is huge and I feel lost.
The parking is horrible; I hate having to drive around.
Put a check mark next to issues you can live with. For the ones you'd like to change, brainstorm ways to deal. So to handle the challenge of feeling lost:
I could work out with a trainer.
I could consistently go to the same class so I get to know some of the regulars better.
I could join a smaller gym.
Identify one or two solutions that you are willing to try, and set a deadline. Even small adjustments can make you more satisfied—and satisfaction is a major predictor of commitment.
Invest more, more, more
Take inventory of what you've put into your commitment: time (days/years); talent (skills/creativity); tenderness (sharing yourself/emotional investment); and tangibles (money/material items). An exerciser's list might read:
I have been paying $30 a class in yoga fees for the past year.
I bought cross-training shoes.
I've put a lot of effort into learning those weight routines.
As you look at your list, you'll realize that in many ways this commitment is already a part of you. Give yourself props! Now consider what new contributions you can make to help increase your sense that you can't back out. Identify one or more you can do right away, and again give yourself a deadline. Like this:
I can sign up for the boot camp tomorrow and prepay.
I can post my goal on Facebook tonight and share follow-up posts about my progress.
Whenever I leave the club, I'll tell the woman at the front desk, see you tomorrow.
Control your choices
One reason people can't dedicate themselves as fully as they'd like is that they're overwhelmed by options competing for their attention. To keep the focus on your commitment, jot down distractions that tend to derail you. So someone who's trying to work out at the gym more regularly might note, Going out with friends instead. Now pinpoint solutions that will work for you, such as:
I can tell friends that I'm never available on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings so they won't even ask me to join them.
I can see if anyone wants to exercise with me instead of going out.
I can change the screen saver on my computer so I'm not constantly looking at a photo of the gang at happy hour.
These bits of self-reflection add up to major payoffs—you've just increased the likelihood of success. Of course, you won't be able to control everything, and sometimes you'll have to make tough choices. But when you're aware of both the payoffs and the challenges, and you influence them as much as you can, your commitment will be clarified and strengthened. A win!