I have a list of things that I know I should do, but I can’t seem to make them a habit, such as flossing, meditating, and doing yoga every day. I also have a list of things I want to stop doing, like late-night snacking. My lack of success in these areas results in my living in a constant state of frustration.
Then a few months ago I read Katy Milkman’s excellent book How to Change. It is chock full of science-backed strategies for making positive changes in our lives. One section focused on using “cash commitment devices” to create better behavior. The concept is simple: commit to a new behavior and then agree to pay money to a third party if you don’t stick with it. For example, if you knew that you’d lose $50 each day you didn’t meditate for at least 15 minutes you can see how this strategy works to create change.
Various apps will help you create and track your cash commitment. I’ve been using one called StickK that was mentioned by Dr. Milkman in her book. Once you sign up for StickK, you can select from some common commitments or create your own custom one. Then you set an amount you’ll forfeit if you break your commitment and where that money goes. You give StickK your credit card information and it automatically takes the money if you report you broke your commitment.
Here’s an example of how I’ve used it. To break my habit of late-night grazing, I created a commitment that I’ll not eat any food after 8pm for six weeks. I chose $10 as the amount I’d forfeit if I eat after that time. The app prompts me to report whether I stuck with my commitment each day. Now here’s where things get really interesting. With StickK you can choose the third party where the money goes (like a friend or family member), you can choose that it will go to a charity chosen by StickK, or you can select from a list of “Anti-Charities.” What’s an Anti-Charity? It’s an organization you hate. For example, you can choose a PAC that supports Biden or one that supports Trump. You can choose the NRA or an anti-gun group. A pro-life organization or pro-choice. And so on. The point is that you choose an organization that you oppose and that would make you sick at your stomach to fund. I chose a PAC that supports a politician I despise.
How is it going? I’ve been following the commitment for about four weeks. Only once have I had food after 8 pm (and reported it, and $10 went to the PAC – UGH) – it sort of made me ill). My use of StickK has broken my habit of snacking at night. I have made a few other commitments with the app, and those are also going well.
If you use an app like StickK, here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t make your commitment too rigid. My no eating after 8pm didn’t take into account dinners with friends where the food isn’t served until after 8pm. My goal is to stop late-night snacking — not putting down my fork in the midst of dinner with friends.
- Don’t do too many at once. I’m doing two right now and that feels about right. Once these are done I’ll switch to other ones.
- I’ve found the anti-charity strategy to be extremely effective and motivating. It has really caused me to stick with my commitments.
- Pick commitments that are processes rather than goals. A commitment like losing five pounds over the next month doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior change. While things like “eat five fruits or veggies a day,” “workout five days a week,” or “only drink on the weekend” do change behavior.
You may also enjoy Atomic Habits by James Clear. I found it very practical and applicable to many areas of life.
One of his suggestions I found very effective – habit stacking. For instance if you want to build meditation into your day: “After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute.” You’re already enjoying coffee each morning, so associate something new that you want to do with the habit that is already in place. The author keeps numerous resources on his site.
Terrific !! Thank you!