Thursday, July 28, 2011

Another Secret to Success

Here’s another secret to success, also via Heidi Grant Halvorson.

We can sum it up in one word: commit. By which Halvorson means, commit to one thing, and lose the habit of keeping your options open.

Somehow or other a lot of people have gotten into the habit of rationalizing their failure to commit by saying that they want to keep their options open.

They refuse to commit to a relationship or a marriage when there are so many other options out there. How can you know that you have chosen the best person when there might be a new and better “option” out there?

In truth there might always be a better option. It makes sense, then that in places where there is an abundance of young unmarried people, people have much more difficulty making commitments to relationships or marriage.

I suspect that people like to keep their options open because they like to feel that they are rich. They believe, not unreasonably, that rich people have more options available to them.

Halvorson explains that the same principle applies to other forms of commitment.

Some people like to buy at stores that have a very generous return policy. Some companies like to hire people on a temporary basis or use long probationary periods.

In her words: “People overwhelmingly prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones.  They believe it’s better to ‘keep your options open,’ whenever possible.  They wait years before declaring a major, date someone for years before getting married, favor stores with a guaranteed return policy (think Zappos), and hire employees on a temporary basis (or use probationary periods), all in order to avoid commitments that can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to un-do.”

If it’s pervasive, I count it as an aspect of our culture. We are teaching people not to make commitments because we believe that commitments shut down possibilities and we seem to want to have a life filled with possibilities. We do not seem to recognize that a life full of options is also more likely to be a life with less success and happiness.

I would also draw attention to an especially modern malady, people making tentative appointments. They do not want to commit to your party because something better might come along. They do not commit because they want to keep their options open.

In the corollary people feel comfortable cancelling plans because something better has come up.

Failing to commit is a variation on failing to keep one’s word. Instead of going back on his word, a man who fails to commit refuses to give it in the first place.

Halvorson explains that it’s a bad, even a self-defeating habit, one that needs correcting.

First, because you will become a better person if you make and keep your commitments. Second, as Halvorson argues, because you will be happier and more successful if you commit.

This is so because once we make a decision, we take more pride in it. We tend to feel better about anything that belongs to us.

Halvorson expresses this point: “Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives.  Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.”

I am not convinced that it’s such an egotistical calculation.

Once we are committed to a course of action, we have invested our time and energy in it. We have also let the world know that we are going to undertake it. Having put our pride on the line we feel more confident and more determined to make it work. Better yet, we take pride in the accomplishment of making a decision.

Moreover, when you cannot make a firm commitment, you are likely to perform more poorly.

Halvorson writes: “the other problem with reversible decisions – new research shows that they don’t just rob you of happiness, they also lead to poorer performance.

“Once again, it’s because thoughts related to making the right decision stay active in your mind when your options are open.  This places a rather hefty burden on your working memory, and it’s distracting.  When you’re still deciding what you should do, you don’t have the cognitive resources to devote yourself fully to what you’re actually doing.  Your attention wanders.  And as a result, your performance suffers.”

Keeping your options open robs you of focus. It distracts you from the task at hand. The more you are worrying about whether or not you can get out of your commitment, the more you are worrying about what life would be if you had chosen another option, the less energy and focus and mental space you will have available to work on the task at hand.


james said...

Halvorson expresses this point: “Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives. Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.”

As, for instance, if you have committed to spending the rest of your life getting to really know one woman "in every kind of light." The high school belle-that-wasn't-quite seems 2-dimensional in comparison. said...

Quite useful piece of writing, thanks for this post.