Making self-discipline stick

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We’ve recently had our first baby, so balancing work life with family life is now more important than ever. To get that balance right, one key thing is self-discipline – something I have not been very consistent with through my life. However, last year I had a breakthrough when I started using the website (free to use for individuals!). It’s extraordinarily effective, or at least it has been for me.

Basically, when you go to the site, this is how it works:

1. Write your pledge (a “commitment contract”). I find it helpful to also write the reason I want to do it, e.g. “I will go running at least twice a week because it always makes me feel great” or “I will not check my email before 10.30am for the next month, so I can get on with my writing.”)

2. Choose a financial penalty which you will be charged if you fail (it has to be enough to hurt, so don’t put USD5, put USD50), and enter your credit card details.

3. Choose a charity or an anti-charity (if you are really serious! e.g. your least favourite political party) who will receive the money if you fail.

4. Nominate a referee (e.g. your spouse or a friend) who will turn you in if you fail.

5. Both you and your referee then receive a weekly email asking if you succeeded, and you have 48 hours to reply. If you admit you failed, or you don’t reply, you get charged.

It is remarkable, and kind of fun, and I have had an almost 100% success at my pledges since I started it (though I have to admit I have donated a couple of times to a particular political party I don’t like much – ouch!).

The founders of stickk (two economic and law professors at Yale) have based this approach on two scientifically tested principles, namely incentives and accountability.

Behavioural science, they write, “tells us is that we are loss-averse, social animals that make decisions in a time-inconsistent manner… Simply put, we hate losing things and often give into immediate gratification (e.g. eating a donut) at the expense of our long term goals (e.g. staying healthy).” They claim the stickk website triples your chances of success.

For me, it has far more than tripled my chance of success. After a month or two my original pledges became an automatic habit, and so since then I have built on them with new pledges.

All in all it has made life feel less stressful, and more satisfying.

If you are finding you have already broken your new year’s resolutions, as I always used to do, and you are serious about keeping them – then check it out:

Additional research for the keen reader

If you’re interested, there is a fascinating study from the research by Dr Gail Matthews at the Dominican University of California. It showed that when you don’t just think about your goals, but instead write them down, break them into action points, and have weekly accountability calls with a friend, your likelihood of making significant progress almost double:


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