Tagged: behavior design


A spot contract is a miniature commitment contract that you make on the spot and award to the first person willing to spot you.

Regret staying up too late last night? Resolved to go to bed earlier? Make it happen on the spot. Email your friends, asking them to spot you:

If I’m not in bed tonight by 11, I will buy the first person to email me back lunch. Who’s game?


A commitment contract is “a contract that binds you into achieving a personal goal.” You set a goal, decide the stakes, designate a referee, and engage supporters. Stakes include money and/or reputation. Recipients of the money include individuals, charities, and “anti-charities” (organizations you’d hate to donate to).

Commitment contracts are an effective way of spurring new habits. In just one example, a study of more than two thousand smokers found that “the smokers offered a commitment contract were nearly 40 percent more likely to be nicotine-free after a year” [Baumeister and Tierney].

The commitment contract was pioneered by the Yale economist Dean Karlan and his colleague the lawyer-economist Ian Ayres, both leading behavioralists. Together they founded stickK.com, a site for creating commitment contracts. While you can replicate many of the aspects of a commitment contract yourself, stickK offers you a legally enforceable agreement and the promise that, if you fail, your friends will find out and your card will be charged.


Ian Ayres. 2010. Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done. Bantam.

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin



Accept that you have limited control over your behavior, that it is largely automatic and irrational–that it is determined by your environment [Ariely, Christakis, Fogg]. Free will, in so far as it exists, resides primarily in your ability to design this environment [Freedman].*

Your environment consists of triggers, or reminders and temptations. How do these influence what you do? Watch yourself. Play with “activation energy”: make good behaviors easier and bad behaviors harder [Csikszentmihalyi]. For example, leave an exercise mat beside your bed at night and fall onto it when you wake up, or lock yourself out of the internet with a software like Freedom.**

*Just as you can become conscious of patterns, you can become conscious in the moment, more mindful. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” [Victor E. Frankl, by attribution]. But willpower is limited and deplete-able  [Baumeister and Tierney]. Better to save it for the things you cannot plan for.  And to rely on behavior design for long term change [Fogg].

**Activation energy is even more important than it seems. If your energy isn’t up to the task, you may miss out on fun:

One needs such disposable “activation energy” to enjoy complex activities. If a person is too tired, anxious, or lacks the discipline to overcome that initial obstacle, he or she will have to settle for something that, although less enjoyable, is more accessible.

This is where “passive leisure” comes in. To just hang out with friends, read an unchallenging book, or turn on the TV set does not require much in the way of an upfront energy outlay. It does not demand skills or concentration. Thus the consumption of passive leisure becomes all too often the option of choice, not only for adolescents, but for adults as well. [Csikszentmihalyi, p. 68]



Dan Ariely. 2010. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. Harper

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. 2011. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Strength. Penguin

Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler. 2007-07-26. The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. N Engl J Med; 357:370-379.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1997. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books

BJ Fogg et al. 2011-02-23. Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change…and Some Ways You Can Fix Them. Slideshare

Victor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning

David H. Freedman. 2012-06. The Perfected Self. The Atlantic




Deciding exactly when and where something will be done (ie, putting it on your calendar) dramatically increases follow-through.

Researchers studying implementation intentions discovered that:

Women who had set themselves the goal of performing a breast self-examination (BSE) during the next month…greatly benefited from forming implementation intentions. Participants in this study were first asked to indicate how strongly they intended to perform a BSE during the next month, and some of the participants were requested to write down where and when they would want to perform the BSE during the next month. Of the participants who had reported strong goal intentions to perform a BSE during the next month, 100% did so if they had been induced to form additional implementation intentions. If no additional implementation intentions were formed, however, the strong goal intention alone produced only 53% goal completion. [Gollwitzer]

In another study, researchers asked drug addicts under withdrawal to compose a CV:

One group was asked in the morning to form the goal intention to write a short curriculum vitae before 5 p.m. and to add implementation intentions that specified when and where they would write it. Another group was requested to form the same goal intention but with irrelevant implementation intentions (i.e., they were asked to specify when they would eat lunch and where they would sit). At 5 p.m. none of the participants in the goal-intention-plus-irrelevant-implementation-intention condition had completed the task. However, 80% of the participants in the goal-intention-plus-relevant-implementation-intention condition handed in their curriculum vitae. [Gollwitzer]


Further reading:

Gollwitzer, Peter M. 1999. Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist