There’s an old quote that says, “If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to heaven is paved with executed contracts.”
Nobody likes change. It’s painful. That’s why so few people succeed at weight loss, smoking cessation, or anything else that requires altering behavior. You mean well, you really do want things to be different this time. But after a while, you give up—and no one cares or even notices that, once again, you’ve failed to follow through on your goals. I’ve found that the only way to guarantee success is this: Make the pain of not following through greater than the pain of changing.
Let’s take a habit many would like to break—cigarette smoking. Imagine you are a smoker, but now a burly chap is following you around for three weeks with a baseball bat. His instructions are to hit you hard in the back of the head if you take one puff of a cigarette. Are you going to light up and take the knock on the head? Not likely.
Since burly guys with baseball bats are hard to come by, you have to find a different mechanism to inflict the pain of not living up to your promise to yourself. Here’s how you do it.
1. First, decide on the specific behavior(s) you want to change. If you want to lose weight, don’t commit to losing X number of pounds. Pledge instead to not eat breads and desserts and to take a 30-minute walk four days a week for the next three weeks. Of course you’ll be aiming at a target weight, but if you focus on your behavior—what you eat and how much you exercise—weight loss will naturally follow.
2. Second, get a guy with a baseball bat. Not literally, obviously, but come up with some disincentive that hits you where it really hurts—and for most people, that’s the wallet. Pledge a significant sum of money to your least favorite charity, payable if you renege on your commitment. I’ve seen some great contracts over the years. Mike, an avid hunter, pledged to stop eating desserts for three weeks and, if he failed, he agreed to give $1,000 to PETA, an anti-hunting organization. Charlie, a staunch Republican, vowed to stop smoking for three weeks. If he smoked, he promised to give $100 to the Democratic National Party.
3. Third, write down the details of your commitment including what you agree to do, when you’re going to start, and how much you’re going to give to your least favorite charity if you don’t follow through. Sign it, date it, have it witnessed, and then—and this step is very important—make it public. Tell everybody, family, friends, and co-workers about your commitment and its consequences, and keep them abreast of your progress.
Now it’s your turn: In the comments section, I invite you to list the behavior you want to change, whether it’s stopping smoking, exercising more regularly, losing weight, or whatever you decide. Will you step up and make a commitment to change?
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