Common-knowledge self-commitments for changing patterns of thought

So we’re trying to upgrade our mindsets.

Here’s my formulation of what we’ve been doing at my learning community, which has been working well and shows a lot of potential to be even more powerful:

With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge.

I’ve written before about a hard vs soft distinction: with hard accountability, there is a direct, specific negative outcome as a result of failing to meet your commitment. This is the domain of commitment contracts (“if I don’t write this paper by tuesday 8pm, I’ll pay you $50”) and systems like Beeminder. With soft accountability, you’re making a commitment to paying attention to your behaviour in the relevant area and shaping it to be more in line with your long-term vision.

Read that post to find out more about the distinction. Here I just want to note that hard accountability has some disadvantages in fuzzy domains, for instance in changing habits of thought. One is that if there’s a grey area, it’s then very unclear if you’ve succeeded or failed at the committed behaviour, and you need to know. Furthermore, it’s likely to be the case that the behaviour change you want to make isn’t exactly the same as the one you can measure, which means that your commitment is now somewhat at odds with your goal, in that you’re optimizing for the wrong thing.

Let’s also briefly distinguish between outcome-based goals and ongoing behaviour changes. This article is about the latter, but we need to talk about the former because that’s what the research looks at. With outcome-based goals (losing or gaining weight, paying off debt, or getting a particular professional qualification), the emphasis is on reaching a particular end-state. To the extent that the value of that end-state is related to your identity as having achieved it, you can satisfy a bunch of that goal by telling people, who will partially validate your future identity. For outcome-based goals, I’d recommend mostly only sharing them with people who will help you strategize about them. When I recorded my album in 2012, I reached out to some musician friends to make sure my plan wasn’t missing any core details. But I didn’t tell my family or most of my friends at that stage!

It’s worth noting that you might be inclined to consider something to be outcome based (eg “quit smoking” seems like a thing that one does) but it may be more tractable as an ongoing behaviour change (framed perhaps as “respond mindfully to tobacco cravings”).

So: this goal is about ongoing, subtle behaviour change, on the level of how you think. Here’s the framework again, in a graphic:

With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge. (This graphic has a little picture for each of the four parts.

1. Why start with why?

There’s been a lot written on this subject, including a book titled Start With Why. The basic principle here is itself a fundamental mindset shift related to organizing by your sense of desire and appetite, versus fear etc. So how does it apply to commitments?

If you don’t know why you’re committed to something, or if you’re not able to stay connected with that commitment when the going gets tough, it’ll end up feeling like a conflict between what you want to do and what you should do. In “Should” considered harmful, Nate Soares talks about this distinction, which ultimately goes beyond the word and is about the sense of obligation being imposed on oneself. The concept [should] is harmful; the word “should” is a helpful signpost that your thinking is confused (because you’re thinking with this harmful concept).

Presumably, there is a why behind your commitment (if not, you have a challenge that this post is not prepared to help with!) so dig into what it is. Ask yourself “why” multiple times, to get to the deeper reasons. Imagine that you’ve successfully made the change, and how awesome that is for various reasons. Focus on the moment to moment experience you have of yourself, not outcomes like” then I get rich”. There may be a part that actually feels very un-awesome about your imagined result, in which case great! That would have stopped you later in a frustrating way, and now you get to choose one of these options:

  • revise your commitment so it no longer has this downside
  • add an additional system to take care of the need that feels like it would go unmet in this instance
  • revise your understanding of the commitment so you’re no longer afraid of something it didn’t entail anyway
  • decide not to do it

Then, once you have a deep sense of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself.

2. Why commit to yourself? (as opposed to others)

There’s sometimes an impulse to commit to other people. To promise them that you’ll “do better next time”. Why am I saying not to?

In some domains, this might feel kind of obvious: because the commitment is about you. Someone may want to get out of their patterns of anxiety because they’re unpleasant and disruptive to their own life. Or to operate out of a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, because they want to feel less doomed.

But often our habit-change efforts are related to other people. Even things as “personal” as dealing with one’s own addictions or traumas often comes in response to frustration from our friends, parents, lovers, or from professional relationships. This is when you get the temptation to commit to them. To make promises.

The issue is, if you do this, you’re setting yourself up for disconnection with that person if/when you slip up, or even if you feel close to doing so. One piece of this is that right when you could have used the support most, it might vanish in anger as they feel betrayed. Furthermore, knowing this, you might be tempted to hide or pretend that you’re still on track, which is dangerous internally and also dangerous for the relationship. The relationship can suffer because you experience a struggle between doing what they want (the commitment) versus doing what you want. (This is the “should” structure we talked about earlier, just showing up in a different place.)

…and here I thought the commitment was supposed to improve the relationship.

So commit to yourself.

And it will make it more possible to connect with the other person or people even if things are challenging for you, or you’ve strayed from the path. In many cases, you’re still doing it out of care for them, but it’s coming out of your sense of valuing that, rather than subject to them.

The first step will help a lot here too. Stay connected to your purpose, your desire that drives the commitment.

Interlude: commitments, violations, and integrity

While working on this post, I had the fortune to revisit a book I’d first picked up years ago: How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. I’d currently recommend picking up their new book, An Everyone Culture, if you’re interested in this stuff.

The book shares “seven languages for transformation”—four internal ones and three social ones. These excerpts are taken from chapter 6, on shifting “From the Language of Rules and Policies to the Language of Public Agreement”. Public Agreement is a particular case of what I’m talking about in this post, where an entire team makes a shared commitment to a given practice, for instance, “if an issue arises with someone, talk to them first rather than ranting to someone else”.

The authors describe how when they run workshops on this, participants often lament that the commitments surely won’t be upheld consistently in the day-to-day life of the organization. They respond:

“We agree with you. Just because you make this agreement today does not mean there will be an end to running people down behind their backs—which brings us quite naturally to the question of what we think is the purpose of a language of public agreement. What if we were to tell you we do not think the value of shared agreements is to prevent violations but to create them? [This usually leads to an attentive if bewildered silence.]”

In other words, in order for there to be a clear violation, there needs to be a clear boundary to cross. Then crossing the boundary prompts reflection on what happened and to decide how to act differently in the future. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed globally. You don’t need to fail with abandon. Return to part 1—why do you want to act in accordance with your commitment? What is of value there for you?

In the case where “Bob” has set a commitment to himself, then receives feedback from someone on a violation of the commitment, he has an “opportunity to experience his own integrity as well. He himself had a hand in creating the agreement that leads to the boundary his friend draws. As he moves back to the proper side of the boundary, he is less likely to feel only that some individual person has put him in his place. What he’s more likely to feel is that he is being moved by […] an integrity he himself has had a hand in creating.”

This is closely related to the value of making a commitment to yourself. If you feel that the crux of the commitment is in some other person or set of rules, that weakens the powerful opportunity you have to exercise your own sense of integrity.

3. Why share the commitment?

At first glance, this appears somewhat contentious! Research by Gollwitzer et al suggests that in certain conditions people may strive less on identity-related goals after sharing them. The “identify-related goals” category likely includes many of the kinds of things we’re talking about here. So it seems that sometimes it may not make sense to share your commitment.

Except… the studies mostly cover sharing with strangers, which frankly seems pretty irrelevant to real-world situations, and definitely not what I’m recommending (“share that commitment with people who support you“). But allegedly the authors recommend not even telling people you’re close to:

“By not telling anyone, you’re making sure your goal is something you’re really doing for yourself,” —source

But if you’re following the first two parts of this approach, we don’t have to worry about this:

  • you’ve clarified your personal reason for making the commitment,
  • and you’ve made it clear that you’re committed to yourself independent of others’ responses.

Though I’d still generally suggest not sharing it with just anyone.

So who do you share with, and how, so that you get the kind of support that you want?

One element of course is making sure that the people you’re sharing this with get parts 1 and 2 of this process. Whether they already understand accountability in a nuanced way, or simply are open to explanation, it’s important that they don’t think that your commitment is should-based, or that you’re committed to them. Having others holding your commitment in that way can make it hard for you to stay in touch with your sense of it.

If you’re committing to changing your behaviour in a way that will be socially visible, then revealing that commitment to the people you spend time with gives them the opportunity to hold you accountable—or more precisely, to help you hold yourself accountable.

This kind of feedback is particularly valuable for thinking-shifts that involve blind-spots: to take a simple example, it can be hard to notice when you’re angry, when you’re angry, because your cognition is impaired. Or hard to notice when you’re rationalizing. Most of the really juicy mindset shifts have an element like this. By having your feedback loop include other peoples’ less-impaired cognition, you then have a more robust system to keep yourself on track.

Speaking of feedback, the whole trust-powered feedback loops thing I wrote about a few years ago is very relevant here. You’re more likely to notice thoughts that want to stray from your intended way of thinking if noticing them is exciting, and having someone who’s genuinely excited to hear about your experiences of noticing such thoughts is a great way to make it exciting to notice them. Conversely, if someone is likely to feel resentful in response to the experience of noticing, it may be detrimental to have them as part of your support team.

It can help to share commitments with people who deeply understand the shift you’re trying to make. Such understanding allows them to not only offer feedback in the form of awareness, but also reflections on the underlying processes that might be causing your thinking to be functioning in unintended ways.

So that’s a few thoughts on who to share the commitment with. Now, how?

4. Why the “common knowledge” part?

First: what is common knowledge? Here’s Steven Pinker, in a fantastic video on innuendo:

“…this is a puzzle! What is the status of an overture that is in some sense out there, or on the record, that makes it feel so much more awkward than a veiled overture that’s conveyed indirectly. And I think the key to this puzzle is a concept that logicians and economists call mutual knowledge, sometimes common knowledge, which has to be distinguished from individual knowledge.

In individual knowledge, A knows X, and B knows X. In mutual knowledge, A knows X, and B knows X, and A knows that B knows X, and B knows that A knows X, and A knows that B knows that A knows X… ad infinitum. Now, it turns out that this makes a big difference. Mutual knowledge is qualitatively different than individual knowledge.”

Definitely worth watching if you’re interested in how communication works.

Let’s start with the two-person case. I’ve recently been working on changing a cluster of habits related to my patterns of social interactions. One specific behaviour would be tuning in more intently to others’ interest and attention. For instance, if I’m telling a story, does the other person really want to hear it, or am I just talking?

Now, say that I’m with a friend who doesn’t know that I have a commitment to getting beyond these patterns. I might be going into some of them a bit, but the friend might be worried about coming off as rude if they comment about it—or they might not even really notice it or consider it a thing worth commenting about. They might be worried that I would react indignantly (“chill out, I’m almost done, and you told a boring story earlier today anyway”) or defensively (“Well you asked about my trip!”) or awkwardly (“oh, sorry, what? did you not want to hear about it?”). Ack. So my friend is probably not going to give that feedback unless they really feel they need to.

By contrast, if I’ve talked with the friend—particularly very recently—about my commitments, then they’re likely to feel much more comfortable saying “hey, are you doing the thing that you said this morning you wanted to not do?” Because they now know that that’s feedback I want to hear! And they know that I know that they know that that’s feedback I want to hear… i.e. I will know that it’s coming out of a place of caring, rather than just annoyance or their own grievance.

(Additionally, me knowing that they’re aware of it can make me more aware of it too, because part of my brain that is modeling them anticipates that they might give feedback like that.)

This seems pretty helpful, so I probably want to tell all of my friends about this, so I can get that support from each of them. Surely someone is more likely to say something if there are 5 someones. Not so fast. First of all there’s bystander effect, but that can’t be avoided if you’re going to be hanging out in groups.

But beyond that, note that it makes a difference whether your friends just have mutual knowledge with you about your commitment, versus common knowledge about each other’s knowledge of your commitment*. If A doesn’t know that B knows that C is committed to X, then A might (consciously or not) worry that if they called C out for doing not-X, that B might think they were being rude or cruel.

This kind of shared understanding is therefore pretty important for being able to hold people accountable in group contexts in ways that don’t feel humiliating. It underpins the ability to trust that the feedback is coming from a place of caring, rather than personal grievance. (Although that can still happen.)

*(I’m going to suggest using “mutual knowledge” to refer to the two-person case of “common knowledge”, although of course other literature makes no such distinction. And btw none of this has anything to do with concepts like “common sense” or “conventional wisdom”)

Closing remarks & further resources

For more on visualizing why you want something, check out the WOOP (Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan) system.

Also, be aware of the distinction between someone’s stated commitment and what they are actually committed to. In many cases it’ll make sense to take people’s commitments at face value, and then to sort out any difference in talking about it afterwards.

Consider this though in respect to the whole common knowledge thing. If you all know about A’s commitment… and you trust A to be in touch with their stated commitment, but you don’t trust that B trusts A to be in touch with their stated commitment, then some of that discomfort can creep back in.

This is closely connected to the idea of competing commitments, which also comes out of Kegan & Lahey’s research. Hence the first recommended resource: their latest book. Competing commitments are the idea that we often have one overt commitment, that we’ve consciously made—often to change. And simultaneously, we have some other, hidden, commitment, that keeps us safe and simultaneously gets in the way of us changing. The process of being really clear about our intended commitments and being curious about violations can help us surface these:

“This fellow has now used the experience of his violation to reboot the new technology. He has been able to move from a view of the violation itself to a view of the bigger immune system he creates to continuously manufacture nonchange.”

So there it is.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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