Want to ensure that you’ll finish a marathon? Sign up for one, and when you do, share it on Facebook, tweet about it, and post it on Reddit.
It's that simple. And yes, it's that powerful.
The “commitment and consistency principle” is one of the oldest and most effective behavioral science brain-hacks. In short, once you commit to doing something, your chances of being consistent with that commitment (i.e., following through) increase dramatically.
The effect is especially powerful if you write down your commitment and share it publicly. This is rooted in our innate desire to have our actions be in harmony with our words and public image, a need that can compel us to accomplish activities and ambitions that we might otherwise abandon.
In the words of Robert Cialdini, perhaps the nation’s top expert on persuasion, “The drive to be (and look) consistent constitutes a highly potent weapon of influence.”
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How the Commitment and Consistency Principle Works
When our actions conflict with our written goals and public image, we experience a type of mental distress that often proves harder to deal with than running 26 miles (or losing 20 pounds, giving up added sugar, etc.). A written declaration of your audacious health or fitness goal makes it unforgettable and undeniable.
Sharing this goal publicly only raises the stakes by further linking your social identity - which, let’s be honest, most of us care a lot about - to the accomplishment of your goal. In his best selling book, Influence, Cialdini writes that:
“Once an active commitment is made (publicly), then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure – a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us. And because others see us as believing what we have written, we will really experience a pull to bring self-image into line with the written statement.”
Examples of the power of commitment and consistency range from the Chinese forcing American POWs to write and share pro-communist essays in the Korean War (there is evidence that this helped turn American soldiers), to corporate employee goal-setting schemes (I bet that many of you may have been asked to write down your goals and discuss them with your team), to Weight Watchers and countless other weight loss programs that ask you to document and share goals with your friends.
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Using Commitment and Consistency to Accomplish Your Health and Fitness Goals
I am a competitive ultra-marathon runner, so to keep myself consistent I take the following steps. These can apply to any fitness goal you want to reach.
1. Sign up for the race and document this publicly (social media makes this very easy)
2. Buy all kinds of ultra-running gear
3. Start hanging out with crazy-fast runners
4. And, if you really want to ensure your commitment will be long-lasting, go get some tattoos that only look cool if you’re a lean, fast, trail-running machine. (You might want to ask your wife first; I learned this the hard way).
Although simply writing down and sharing your goal is quite strong in and of itself, the more that you can do to create your desired self and social image, the more likely you are to become it. And, especially in the case of tattoos, maintain it.