The benefits of making a commitment

I’m sitting in a cramped office in rural Botswana with three other people, hunched over a small desk typing into my phone with a Bluetooth keyboard. There are dogs barking outside, the phone is ringing and there’s a woman outside loudly advertising her market stall. I need to head to a meeting in just over an hour, I’m starting to feel hungry and my keyboard is on low battery (so I may need to start typing on my phone screen soon). In other words, I’m fully-equipped with excuses to not to write today.

But I won’t, because I made a commitment to myself.

Last week I publicly declared a promise to myself to write a blog post for five successive days and share it. Keeping commitments to yourself is incredibly important; it is how you keep learning and keep making progress.

Why you should commit

Our thoughts and moods fluctuate from day to day. The solution to a problem may come to you at any time. Actualising this solution requires you to commit to it - it's important to have the confidence to do so in order to reap the benefit from this moment of clarity. Conversely, if you come up with a great idea while in a good state of mind but fail to follow through when you aren't in the same state of mind then that idea has gone to waste.

Often we are afraid to commit to something because we are afraid of the outcome. We endlessly ask ourselves if it is the right or wrong thing to do, and can become exhausted from the back and forth. However, we are calculating using the wrong criteria. In reality, no matter what the outcome is you will still learn something from seeing the commitment through. A 'failure' can be an extremely valuable learning experience. Asking ourselves 'will I learn from it?' is a useful question for deciding whether it is worthwhile.

Knowing how and when to commit

Our brain is not designed to accurately predict how we will feel in the future. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert describes the concept of 'presentism’; that our predictions our heavily influenced by how we feel at this exact moment. We have difficulty imagining hunger when we are sated, we have difficulty imagining ourselves happy when we are depressed and we have difficulty imagining arousal when we are disgusted.

This can make sticking to commitments difficult. We might feel confident right now that we’ll stick to a fitness program; we get a gym membership, draw up a rota and fully convince ourselves that this time we’ll do it. But a day/week/month later, we don’t have the same enthusiasm that we predicted we would.

Sometimes making a solid, concrete commitment to something in advance and then just forcing yourself to just do it, regardless of the circumstances that you hadn’t predicted, yields positive results you wouldn’t have ‘reasonably’ expected. When I sat down to write today, it would have been reasonable to expect that I would be unable to complete this article for the reasons described above. But I forced myself to do it and I’m happy with the outcome.

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Data Scientist + Junior Doctor in London, Cambridge medicine grad, striving to improve healthcare through technology and education.

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