Strategies, not promises

This is a small motto for changing things that you do. I’ve believed in it for a while, and I think I’ve mentioned it once or twice on here, but I don’t think I’ve ever written it up.

The scenario is this: There’s a thing you want to change about yourself. You want to do more of something, you want to do less of something, you want to do something differently, etc. What do you do?

The most common approach people seem to try to take is to apply willpower to the problem: You resolve to do better, and you firmly commit yourself to doing so, and you try your very best to change things.

This is the “Promises” solution. I don’t know if it works for you, but it certainly doesn’t work for me and I’d be surprised if it worked for most people.

The problem is that you are generally already burning about as much willpower as you have to use, just in the course of your every day life. If you had much more to burn you’d probably have found something to fill it up. You might be able to eke out a bit more, but generally if a major behaviour change is required what will happen is that you will end up managing for a few weeks and then will have burned through your reserves and fail to be able to summon the motivation to continue. Worse: The next time you try to do something like this it will be harder because you’ve learned the lesson that you’re not the sort of person who can make this sort of promise and expect to keep it.

So what to do instead? Well, obviously I think the answer is “Strategies”, but what does that mean here?

Essentially it’s that you have to acknowledge that behaviours do not exist in a vacuum. There are reasons for those behaviours. In order to change them you need to address those reasons, either by removing them or providing counterbalances for them.


  • I don’t go to the gym because it’s easy to put off doing it to another day. Solution: Schedule going to the gym for a specific recurring time and day.
  • I drink too much coffee because I don’t get enough sleep. Solution: Get more sleep (easy, right?)
  • I never get very good at this because I always get frustrated at a certain point and give up. Solution: Use some sort of commitment device (e.g. beeminder, but there are others) to push you past that point where you get frustrated.

The specific strategies that you adopt don’t matter that much. What’s important is that you try to figure out specific concrete things you can do to change the underlying behaviour, so that you can solve it without having to throw willpower at the problem.

The obvious reason why this approach is better is that you’re more likely to succeed, which is after all what you wanted.

The less obvious but actually more important reason why this approach is better is what happens if you fail. Which you may. You might have picked the wrong strategy, or at least an incomplete one – you won’t always have correctly identified the reasons for your existing behaviour, or your proposed solution might not be adequate for addressing them. That’s OK.

See, the great thing about failed strategies is that you can fix them. There’s nothing wrong with having failed. It’s not evidence of a character flaw on your part. You just didn’t get it right this time. So you can learn from what didn’t work and from it try to figure out something that will.

It actually took me much longer to realise this second part than the first – long after I originally coined the motto – but I think it’s the more important one. The most important thing about change is to be able to keep it up – promises impede your ability to change further whether they succeed or fail, but strategies improve your ability to change further, when they succeed but especially when they fail.

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3 thoughts on “Strategies, not promises

  1. Marcus

    I think you missed off the most important thing for me – be happy. I find it way easier to do the things I should do, like exercise, when I’m already cheerful. I tend to exist in the moment more than most people, so maybe it’s just me.

    1. david Post author

      Yeah, I don’t trust this strategy.

      The problem is that happiness is transitory, and too much at the whim of external factors, which means that behaviour changes that rely on it tend to lead to relapses. I agree that it’s much easier to achieve your goals when you’re already in a great mood, but you need to be able to achieve your goals when you’re having a shitty day and really don’t want to as well.

  2. Pingback: I don’t trust motivation | David R. MacIver

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