How Precommitment Can Help Us Meet Our Goals

Meeting goals requires willpower, motivation, and commitment – but there is also a strategy called “precommitment” that can help. Read on to learn how.

If you have ever tried to lose weight, or put away a little money for a rainy day, you know how the story goes: You start with the best intentions, stoke your motivation, and tell yourself this time you will be successful, only to fall off the wagon a few days later. And you might ask yourself, what happened?

Meeting goals requires willpower, motivation, and commitment - but there is also a strategy called "precommitment" that can help. Read on to learn how.

The answer starts with the way we make decisions. According to Molly Crockett of the University of Cambridge, every decision we make requires a weighing of options. Some options may carry higher reward value than others, and some options require utilizing a little willpower, or employing what is known as a “precommitment.”

A precommitment is essentially an action we take to avoid facing temptations that may derail our goals. For example, we may avoiding purchasing unhealthy food to keep ourselves from eating it, or put money into savings accounts with hefty withdrawal fees to avoid the allure of using it to buy something we might not really need.

To test the effectiveness of precommitments, Crockett and her team recruited healthy male volunteers and gave them a series of choices: they had to decide between a tempting “small reward” available immediately, or a “large reward” available after a delay.

For some of the choices, the small reward was continuously available, and subjects had to exert willpower to resist choosing it until the large reward became available. But for other choices, subjects were given the opportunity to pre-commit: before the tempting option became available, they had the ability to prevent themselves from ever encountering the temptation.

So did using a precommitment strategy help subject resist the temptation of small rewards and hold out for larger ones?

Not just was a precommitment strategy more effective than using willpower alone, Crockett and her team also found that the most impulsive people (those with the weakest willpower) benefited the most from precommitment (Crockett et al., 2016).

“Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place” (Crockett, 2016, para 3)

And precommitment also appears to employ a different area of our brains. Precommitment specifically activates the frontopolar cortex, a region that is involved in thinking about the future. Additionally, when the frontopolar cortex is engaged during precommitment, it increases its communication with a region that plays an important role in willpower, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (Crockett et al., 2016).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that when we think about how we might respond to tempting options, we also think about the long term consequences of these options, and are better prepared to make better choices – perhaps by gaining a little leverage on ourselves.

Related Online Continuing Education (CE) Course:

Behavioral Strategies for Weight Loss is a 2-hour online continuing education (CE) course that exposes the many thought errors that confound the problem of weight loss and demonstrates how when we use behavioral strategies – known as commitment devices – we change the game of weight loss. While obesity is arguably the largest health problem our nation faces today, it is not a problem that is exclusive to those who suffer weight gain. For therapists and counselors who work with those who wish to lose weight, there is ample information about diet and exercise; however, one very large problem remains. How do therapists get their clients to use this information? Packed with exercises therapists can use with their clients to increase self-control, resist impulses, improve decision making and harness accountability, this course will not just provide therapists with the tools they need to help their clients change the way they think about weight loss, but ultimately, the outcome they arrive at. Course #21-13 | 2016 | 31 pages | 15 posttest questions

Professional Development Resources is approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. Professional Development Resources maintains responsibility for this program and its content. Professional Development Resources is also approved by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC ACEP #5590); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB Provider #1046, ACE Program); the Continuing Education Board of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA Provider #AAUM); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA Provider #3159); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR Provider #PR001); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Arizona Board of Occupational Therapy Examiners; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy (#BAP346), Psychology & School Psychology (#50-1635), Dietetics & Nutrition (#50-1635), and Occupational Therapy Practice (#34); the Georgia State Board of Occupational Therapy; the New York State Education Department’s State Board for Mental Health Practitioners as an approved provider of continuing education for licensed mental health counselors (#MHC-0135); the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board (#RCST100501); the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs (#193); the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists (#114) and State Board of Social Worker Examiners (#5678); and is CE Broker compliant (all courses are reported within a few days of completion).

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