How to Stick to Any Goal Despite Temptation

At one point in your life, there’s a high chance you’ve wanted to stick to any of these goals:

  • Keep a consistent study or work schedule
  • Eat healthier
  • Learn a new skill
  • Learn a new language
  • Build a better body

After that decisive moment, you start off bursting with enthusiasm.

You think to yourself, “This time, it’s going to be different. No, I’ve said that before, but I swear it’s going to be different.”

You start your perfect routine on a perfect Monday morning. After a week, you felt something feels wrong.

What could it be?

It turns out you can’t resist temptation anymore.

Next thing you know, you’re procrastinating on your goals despite your best intentions! You’d tell yourself excuses like “It doesn’t have a deadline, anyway” or “I’m too stressed!”

You noticed you got burned out trying to make it work. Despite not making any real progress at all.

You tried watching motivational videos, transformations, and everything in between to make sure you work harder.

The sad part is, it seems like your hard work doesn’t work anymore.

After all of the hardship, you felt defeated.

You felt like it’s no use trying again despite what the motivational speakers say. You’ve tried everything in your power and still failed to create change.

Does that sound familiar?

Have you ever felt so desperate for results that you thought some successful guy has a secret they’d never tell?

Have you ever felt like your massive, courageous actions don’t work anymore?

Have you ever felt like you don’t have control over your actions?

If so, let me show you the way out: the truth behind sticking to your goals.

Massive actions often fail to create lasting change

Whenever we want massive change, the most common approach is to take massive action.

After all, if you have a 3-meter hole in your yard, you’d fill it with something identical in size; so, it does make sense.

This logic doesn’t apply to behavior change—for three reasons we’ll discuss later.

The truth is, massive actions rarely give massive results.

Small, but consistent action does.

And it’s difficult to be consistent if you need to muster up a huge amount of motivation every time you have to show up. That’s why I’m not a huge fan of big goals.

A better approach is to standardize before you optimize. 1

Imagine tying a single loop of rope around your body.

No matter how big the rope is, you’ll get out of it. Also, because of the size, the number of times you can loop it around your body will be limited.

But take a small string and loop it around your body 300 times.

Don’t you think it’s harder to break free from that loop compared to the thick, single loop earlier?

Consistency works this way.

Starting as small as possible allows you to build the strength of your habits over time. And it becomes even harder to break it. Progress, then, becomes effortless.

It’s kinda like a consistency foundation you can build your future actions on.

Let’s talk about what derails you from setting up this foundation.

Reason #1. Temptations are everywhere

When temptations are everywhere, it’s often a bad idea to rely on our willpower to do all the work. If we do, we’re going to burn out and make worse decisions.2

It’s like going on a diet and then walking in the middle of a free buffet every time you get hungry.

We need a strategy that allows us to stick to what we intend to do despite being in such a defenseless state.

Reason #2. Abrupt changes are impractically hard

Change is a process; not an event.

If one day of deciding “you’re going to be a healthy person” worked, then everybody would have the body of their dreams. But that’s not what you’re seeing.

Setting goals bigger than yourself causes you to think more about the results rather than the process. And that’s a recipe for demotivation.

Unlike a tangible goal, change isn’t something you “get”; it’s something you become through a series of consistent actions.

And that’s why commitment is so critical. Without commitment, there’s always a possibility of turning back and not pursuing what we really want.

Thus, we need a strategy that supercharges our commitment to change.

Reason #3. There’s no visible cost in skipping out

When a deadline isn’t visible, the consequence of inconsistency is unlikely to have a powerful impact.

After all, you’re not losing anything, are you? (Except you are.)

What would you lose now in skipping a day at the gym? What would you lose now in putting off that project for one more day? What would you lose now in eating a single cheat meal?

The answer to all of these questions: None.

Or at least, there aren’t any visible losses. Unfortunately, the emotional brain perceives this as “okay”. That’s because we are loss averse, meaning they’d rather prevent an immediate loss than pursue a future gain. 3

For this reason, we want a strategy that provides an instant perceived loss whenever we get derailed from our goals.

Precommitment: The Best Way to Stick to Any Goal Regardless of Your Emotions

On April 22, 1519, Hernán Cortés landed on the beach of Chalchihuecan to begin his conquest.

The beach he landed on was a part of a Mexican state, which Cortés then named “Vera Cruz” in Spanish; which means “True Cross”. 

He discovered, however, that five Aztec emissaries arrived on Vera Cruz—it made him so anxious to continue his conquest. But his resolve was stronger than his emotions. So, he thought of a grand idea.

Cortés burned down all of their ships. Or at least, that’s what everybody says.

Some say he destroyed all ships except one which he sent back to Spain.4

Either way, the fact remains: He created a point of no return.

Whether Cortés felt anxious, guilty, afraid, angry, or sad, the only way out is to continue his conquest. His strategy is what psychologists would call Precommitment.

Now, we don’t have to burn restaurants to stop getting tempted to eat out, but at least we can make points of no return for our intended goals.

By doing this, we make it a little easier for our future selves to make the right decision.

This is important because we tend to overestimate how rational we are in the face of temptation; Psychologists call this bounded rationality.5

Precommitment, basically, hacks the brain out of this bounded rationality.

Here are examples of the precommitment strategy:

  • Buying an expensive gym membership
  • Going to the nearest coffee shop to study or work
  • Use time-restricting distraction blockers like StayFocusd (Chrome only) or Freedom (All devices)
  • Signing up for a Psychology class in advance
  • Buying 7 pcs. of shirts one size below your current
  • Leaving your phone in another room before starting to work
  • Making an event out of the most boring tasks. Tell other people you’re going to finish them before you meet them.6

Apply the Precommitment strategy and you’ll find that it’s way easier to stick to your good intentions.

In my perspective, the beauty of it lies in the required amount of willpower—zero.

It’s self-accountability at its finest.

Commitment Escalation Strategy: The Psychological Trick to Increase Your Commitment

Think of Commitment Escalation as the amplifier for your Precommitments. If you want to sum it up in one catchy idea, it should be:

The more you escalate, the less you’ll hesitate.

This strategy takes advantage of the psychological bias called the sunk cost fallacy.7

Psychologists have found that the more time, money, or effort you spend into something, the less likely you’ll abandon it. 8

In other words, we can definitely use the sunk cost fallacy to our own advantage.

Three ways to implement commitment escalation

The more time, money, or effort you spend into something, the less likely you’ll abandon it. For this reason, our strategies must fall into these three criteria. 

Spending more time. This happens organically as you become consistent with your actions. (Using the other strategies labeled here!) And it’s more powerful if you chose your commitment over something equally valuable.

For example, spending half a decade being so invested in a relationship makes you less likely to abandon it—even if it’s obvious that relationship doesn’t work anymore.

Another example would be choosing to go to the gym and skip on hanging out with your friends. The time you’ll spend in the gym will make your commitment stronger.

As a result, you’d rationalize the biased decision to commit to the workout by telling yourself, “I chose this over my friends, so I really have to finish this workout.”

On the other hand, you have more control over the other two; time and money.

Spending more money is perhaps the easiest way to increase your commitment. But there’s one caveat. That is, the amount you spend must be a significant amount relative to your income. 

If you’re earning $200 per day, then spending $10 would mean little. However, if you invested $3000 into a new pillow and started investing more and more in your sleep, then you’re more likely to take your sleep seriously.

Now, I’m not telling you to do exactly that, but if you’re going to spend your money on something else, you might want to consider investing in your goals, too.

Personally, I like to invest in books because it makes me more committed to reading. And reading is essential to bringing you guys the best information possible.

Spending more effort happens both organically and intentionally. There’s really no need for an explanation on this one.

In my opinion, this is the best place to focus your willpower on aside from managing relationships and controlling your reactions.

Also, acknowledging that you’ve already put a lot of time and effort into something makes your commitment stronger. As an example, I’ve written several blog posts on the blog and have spent most of my daily energy doing research, writing, and editing.

For this reason, I noticed I’ve become more consistent and more motivated to write articles despite not having a constant stream of validation. Heck, I’m not even running ads on my website. That tells a LOT about my self-motivation.

By the way, I noticed I spend more time on writing than studying for my Master’s degree.

But that’s another story for another day. (Studying smart sure has its perks!)

Let’s move on to the last one.

Hack the Brain’s Reward System: Two Ways to Exploit Hyperbolic Discounting

Hyperbolic Discounting is the human tendency to value smaller, immediate rewards and devalue larger, later ones. It’s the total opposite of delayed gratification.

That said, we can definitely use this property to our advantage, as we’ll see later in this guide. Let’s start with some relevant facts to prove my point.

Speeding, as the World Health Organization has found, is the cause of 1 in 3 of car traffic fatalities in car accidents.9

Considering 1.25 million people worldwide die in car crashes every year, and a third of that is approximately 420 thousand people, speeding is actually causing 18X more deaths than terrorism. 10

While speeding fines are good for regulating speeding behaviors, there’s no denying that people with higher income can easily brush them off. So, Finland came up with a brand-new strategy: income-relative fines.

It was so brutal that former Nokia director Anssi Vanjoki was fined $106,000 after running on 75kph on a 50kph road in Finland. 11

Finland’s strategy was brilliant because regardless of your income, committing bad behavior will undoubtedly cause in a large, perceived loss—exactly what the emotional brain hates. A $100 fine would be shrugged off by someone earning $1000 a day, but not if you earn only $80 per day.

Now, Hyperbolic discounting motivates us to act in two ways—pursuing the immediate reward and preventing immediate losses.

Our two strategies, therefore, will use these two properties to our advantage.

Exploit #1. Destination postcards

They’re not actually postcards per se, but they’re more like “mini-finish lines.” Destination postcards accomplish two things at once:

  1. It makes your goal more accessible and easy-to-reach
  2. You can actually see progress immediately with little effort

As an example, say you want to write 1000 words per day. When starting out, it’s intimidating to write 1000 words at once.

One way to approach it would be to write a paragraph each hour, and just continue when you feel like doing so.

Writing a paragraph seems much, much smaller compared to writing a 1000-word essay right away, and that’s exactly what the emotional brain wants.

The bigger your desired change, the larger the needed self-control.

Similarly, the smaller your desired change, the smaller the needed self-control.

In short, you want to shrink the change12 into something so easy you can’t not do it.

Exploit #2. Accountability Contracts

Despite the Precommitment strategy being an effective motivator in itself, it leaves a little wiggle room. This is where your Accountability Contracts will come in. 13

For example, you’ve committed to an expensive gym membership because you’ve wanted to start going to the gym. That’s great; you’re going to start going to the gym more often.

But simply going to the gym isn’t going to give the results–you have to be consistent with your exercise program to actually get results. (Assuming you have a solid exercise program like Starting Strength)

Once you’re in the gym, it’s rather easy to abandon a hard exercise routine just because you find it taxing or intimidating. Your brain then tells you, “What’s the cost of not doing that program, anyway?”

Accountability Contracts solve this problem entirely. It literally puts your money where your mouth is.

You can set it up by signing a contract with a friend telling you’ll pay him $300 for skipping your exercise routine or giving him something you value if you don’t study for at least 1 hour per day.

You can also use Beeminder for the same purpose if you don’t have (or don’t want) someone else checking your attendance.

It’s an online service that allows you to pledge on a specific goal and charges you exponentially increasing amounts of money whenever you get derailed.

For example, for the 1st derail, you pledge $5. However, for the 7th time you don’t stick to your goal, you pledge $2430.14

The point is to create an artificial loss for not sticking to your goals.

Note, however, that your artificial loss must be realistic that you can actually pledge. So don’t go and give your car in exchange for not doing 5 minutes of meditation later.

Footnotes

  1. Props to James Clear for this sticky idea.
  2. Decision Fatigue on Wikipedia
  3. Loss Aversion on Wikipedia
  4. Reynolds, Winston A. (September 1959). “The Burning Ships of Hernán Cortés”. Hispania. 42 (3): 317–324. doi:10.2307/335707.
  5. Gigerenzer, Gerd; Selten, Reinhard (2002). Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-57164-7.
  6. This is an actual technique used by Straight-A students featured in How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport
  7. Arkes, Hal R; Blumer, Catherine (1985). “The psychology of sunk cost”. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 35 (1): 124–140. doi:10.1016/0749-5978(85)90049-4. ISSN 0749-5978.
  8. Arkes, Hal R.; Ayton, Peter (1999). “The sunk cost and Concorde effects: Are humans less rational than lower animals?”. Psychological Bulletin. 125 (5): 591–600. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.125.5.591. ISSN 1939-1455.
  9. Speed management key to saving lives, making cities more liveable
  10. Number of terrorist incidents by country on Wikipedia
  11. In Finland, speeding tickets are linked to your income
  12. I learned this strategy from the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.
  13. This is my adaptation of James Clear’s Habit Contracts; I use it after the Precommitment Strategy
  14. According to an article on Beeminder Blog, Pledge Short-Circuiting

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