Success in any endeavor is easier when you are fully committed.
I first learned this principle in 9th grade. My ski buddies and I were trying to do 360’s off a little jump we had built. Despite the low likelihood of injury on such a small jump, we were all scared – too scared to fully commit. As a result, no one even made it half way around during the initial attempts. Of course, rotating 150 degrees results in a rough crash, as does 200 or even 300 degrees. Ironically, the safest choice is to fully commit to a complete, 360-degree rotation. It’s also the only way to succeed.
Eventually, I got it dialed in:
Nowhere is this principle more important than in behavioral change. Attempting to create a new habit with only a “I’ll do it when I feel like it” attitude is a sure-fire way to not start that habit. An addict who attempts to quit with only a half-hearted commitment is guaranteed to relapse.
100% vs. 99%
It’s easy to see how a weak commitment to behavioral change leads to failure. But what about a really strong commitment that falls just short of 100%? Well, a 99% commitment might get you the results you want, but it will make the process much more difficult.
Perhaps an analogy will help. Let’s imagine you have just ended a long-term romance. You’ve broken up with your partner because, deep down, you know it’s for the best. But instead of fully and totally ending the relationship, you continue to see this person for a date once or twice a month. Does this help or hinder the healing process? Does this make it easier or harder to move on?
If you’re fully committed to a course of action, you don’t look back and you don’t second-guess yourself. You never wonder, “Is today my cheat day?” or say to yourself, “I deserve a day off.” Excuses, when they do arise, are squashed under the weight of your resolve.
In his book, The Success Principles, Jack Canfield writes, “Successful people adhere to the ‘no exceptions rule’ when it comes to their daily disciplines. Once you make a 100% commitment to something, there are no exceptions. It’s a done deal. Nonnegotiable.”1 What daily behaviors do you consider nonnegotiable? For me, it’s movement and meditation. I will move my body and meditate every day, no matter what.
I’m 100% committed to being clean and sober for the rest of my life, which means there are no more decisions to make about alcohol or other drugs. I’ve pre-decided to not partake in mind-altering substances, so when the opportunity to become inebriated arises, there’s nothing to think about. By contrast, if I were anything less than 100% committed, every single time I had the option of consuming drugs I would have to make a difficult, willpower-depleting choice. 100% commitment is easier.
And it’s also more effective. Since the day I resolved to be sober, I’ve never consumed a mind-altering substance. But what if I were to slip up? What if I had a drink, or two, or ten? Well, if I were less than 100% committed to sobriety, then I would probably say, “Screw it,” go on a bender, and give up on sobriety completely. But since I am truly, 100% committed, the screw up wouldn’t be so disastrous. It certainly wouldn’t mean that I should give up on sobriety. After all, I’m fully committed to being sober for the rest of my life.
Instead, the slip up would just be data. It would be an experience to learn from. I wouldn’t see it as evidence that I’m a failure; I wouldn’t see it as evidence that I’m incapable of sobriety. I would see it as feedback: feedback on the things I did leading up to the relapse, feedback on the way I was thinking in the moment, feedback on how I respond to particular circumstances.
Partial commitment is actually easier as a decision than full commitment. It’s easier to decide to “cut back” on sugar than to completely forgo it. It’s easier to say “I’m going to work out more often” than to truly commit to a rigorous workout schedule.
Partial commitment may be an easier choice than full commitment, but it’s much harder in practice. Full commitment is a harder decision to make, but it’s much easier in practice.
“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” –Jerzy Gregorek, Olympic weight lifter2
The word “decide” comes from the Latin decidere (de- + caedere) which literally means “to cut off.” This implies totality, 100% commitment. So, in the original sense of the word, a partial commitment is no decision at all. Rather, it is an unwillingness to make a real decision.
Real decisions are often hard decisions. They require courage. But the fear we feel when contemplating such commitments is often a compass pointing us in the right direction. As Tim Ferriss pointed out in his TED talk, “The hard choices – what we most fear doing, asking, saying – these are very often exactly what we most need to do.”2
Nothing great was ever achieved with a half-hearted commitment. JFK did not inspire the nation by timidly proclaiming that, “We will try our best to see if it is possible to eventually put a man on the moon.”
Here’s what he actually said:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” 3
When we’re less than fully committed to a goal, we ask ourselves poor questions like “Can I do this?” and “Will I be able to do this?” But when we cross the threshold to 100% commitment, the inner dialogue changes. We start asking ourselves better questions: “How can I do this?” and “How will I do this?” Rather than wondering if there is a way to succeed, we are determined to find a way or, if need be, make one.
I’ll leave you with this:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!’” –W.H. Murray
Canfield, Jack. The Success Principles: How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Collins Living, 2004.
Ferriss, Tim. “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals.” TED2017, April 2017. https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_ferriss_why_you_should_define_your_fears_instead_of_your_goals
Kennedy, John F. “Moon Speech – Rice Stadium.” September 12, 1962. https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm
Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/diving-leaping-ocean-jump-outdoors-1600668/. Text added.
Skier: Phil Frank, photographer. Chris Loper, skier. Snoqualmie Pass. 2010.