Walking with a friend one morning last December, we talked about habits and diets and health – and about her tendency to be an all-or-nothing sort of person when it comes to food. She’d recently lost access to a dietician food guru who helped her eat the way she wanted.
I told her about a system of “pre-commitment strategies” I’d read about, employed when people recognize they want to accomplish the kind of goals we set when we know something is good for us, but fear we lack the willpower to resist temptation. Research finds that people do best when they pre-commit to punishment if they fail. That’s right, not reward, but punishment.
Often this punishment is monetary. Websites like “StickK” help design a commitment, hold the money, and turn it over to a designated person or charity if slippage occurs. A list of goals people have committed to scrolls up the side of the website, along with the total dollar amount on the line (19 million a couple of weeks ago). A further twist, confirmed by research, finds the best compliance occurs when people stand to lose money to a despised cause.
We laughed about how counter-intuitive this is and about dreadful possible recipients. But when we reached her house, she told me to wait a minute, and came back out with a check written to me for $1200 – a year’s commitment!
I am to hold the check (pinned to my workroom wall), and she is to eat no dairy or sugar. Over the holidays we clarified our expectations, the possibility of unintended consequences: what were replacement sources of calcium and Vitamin D, how not annoy hosts as a dinner guest with food limitations, and how to travel and work long days with no easy availability to her chosen food.
Going whole months seemed dangerous. It would be easy to fall off the wagon in week one and say what the heck, I might as well eat whatever! So our contract agrees to a weekly check in, leaving $25.00 increments at risk.
In a draconian addendum to the contract, I will return her check and my friend will write another check to send her hard earned money away (and have her name registered as a donor). Given the designated recipient of the money (and both our tendencies to do what we say we will do), it will kill us if this fails.
For two weeks I happily put gold stars on a calendar at the end of each week. I heard great reports about the power of this strategy from her. She also said that rereading the article, (I had to ask her to send the link back), meant even more to her now that she was involved in the “program.”
And then, dinner out with risotto (parmesan cheese) happened. My friend confessed the transgression and ruefully admitted she’d have to write a check.
Painful. I couldn’t stand it – so offered an opportunity for redemption. Because another of her goals is to increase the two days a week she exercises without fail, I proposed that two weeks of daily exercise (five days without fail) could turn that black mark to gold star. Glad for the chance to exercise her way out of slippage, she accepted.
She’s back on track. And I love hearing from her every week – and drawing her gold stars in place!