“Should I stay or should I go?”

That's a line from a song. It is also a question we repeatedly ask ourselves about the various commitments in our lives—especially our relationships to Significant Others. Who doesn't want to control the destiny of their romantic relationship?  But the issue of commitment also extends to other important areas of life--our work, friends, hobbies, volunteer work, and projects. We also wonder about others’ commitment to us: “Does he really love me?” “Would my boss fight for me if there were cutbacks at work?” “How could I get this group to work with more dedication?"

In her fascinating book, Commit to Win, fellow PT blogger Dr. Heidi Reeder provides help for the person who seeks help in persisting with both personal and professional goals. Commitment “is the experience of being psychologically attached to something and intending to stay with it.” What makes you committed enough to stick with a person or a goal? What keeps you dedicated to your exercise routine? Or to your job? And what makes you start to doubt a particular commitment? Reeder boils down all the variables that contribute to commitment, or lack thereof, into a useful, 4-factor equation that I’ll reveal below.

Can all the factors which contribute to a commitment really be distilled into a simple formula? Unbelievably, yes, pretty much so. Based on over 50 studies, 2/3 of all commitments can be explained by these 4 factors:

  • Treasures--the rewards you get from pursuing the relationship or goal
  • Troubles--the difficulties you experience
  • Contributions--the time, energy, and tangible resources you’ve devoted to your relationship
  • Choices--the options you do or don’t have

The resulting equation looks like this:

Level of Commitment = (Treasures – Troubles) + Contributions – Choices

Let’s take a closer look at this equation.

For commitment, treasures must abound.

Treasures and Troubles.

The first part of the equation—“Treasures Minus Troubles”—is in parentheses because the two interact to create your level of satisfaction within a relationship. These two variables seem obvious.  In any decision, weighing the positives and the negatives of a commitment seems like a no-brainer. But Reeder points out subtleties that aren’t at all evident at first. For example, troubles stand out like a sore thumb, whereas treasures are often taken for granted. Our brain’s built-in “negativity bias” means that we will be more conscious of troubles than treasures. Therefore, treasures need to outweigh troubles, usually by a ratio of about 5 to 1, for the relationship to be satisfying.

Contributions.  For better or for worse, contributions increase commitment.  To quote Reeder, “Where resources go, commitment will grow.”  "Contributions" is a critical factor in changing your level of commitment because it's the factor in the equation that's most under your control. Do you want to be more committed to someone or something? Increase your contributions to the relationship. Are you interested in 50 ways to leave your lover? One of them is to decrease your contributions. (“Just start giving less, Tess.”) 

Stay or go?


Having choices decreases commitment. If you believe that there are lots of potential partners out there in the singles world, for example, your commitment to your current partner could be weakened or devalued. Even the perception of choice decreases commitment. In this blog, Reeder explains how even looking at porn can weaken relationship commitment because of the perception of all the available sex partners out there—even if they are imaginary!

Reeder summarizes the role of choice like this: “If you want to increase commitment in your life, the message from social science research is clear: stay focused on what’s important and devalue your other options, concrete or imaginary…. Contribute to what matters most and avoid the rest.”

It is one of the strengths of the book is that Reeder never over-idealizes the virtues of commitment. There are some goals and relationships that are simply not worth pursuing.  Reeder offers great advice about when and how to prune away harmful or time-wasting commitments, namely: Put less emphasis on treasures, reduce contributions, and become more aware of troubles and choices.

I was so fascinated by Commit to Win that I read it like a novel. In fact (disclosure ahead), I loved the book so much that I wrote a blurb for it. The book contained more “treasures” than I can include in a short review. Among many other gems, there’s a terrific discussion of the 7 myths of commitment. I particularly liked her point that commitment is not like an on/off switch—it’s more like a dimmer switch that we are constantly adjusting. Reeder also provides useful answers to questions such as:  Why do so many people remain stuck in unhappy relationships?  Does marriage increase commitment?  What can people do to weaken commitment in an unsatisfying or abusive relationship?  You will also learn how your commitments are affected by such psychological processes as "The IKEA Effect," "The Accumulation Effect," and "The Entrapment Effect."

The “troubles” in this book are few. Because of my own interests, I would have liked a longer discussion about the interaction between "motivation," "values," and "commitment." I'm also curious about the 1/3 of commitments that are not explainable by the Commitment Equation. Still, Reeder makes her points well. Thanks to her lucid style and deep knowledge of the research, I found that the main ideas in Commit to Win were firmly etched into my brain by the end of the book. 

Although you have many other reading “choices,” I think you’ll find that “contributions” of your time and energy to Commit to Win will be well worth it.  Reeder’s work will give you a new way of thinking about commitment. As she states, "The real benefit of determining what deserves your commitment is a life of greater purpose and meaning." You may find, as I do, that you’ll ponder the Commitment Equation almost every day to evaluate the worth of your various relationship investments.

© Meg Selig

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009).  For info on mental habits, health habits, willpower and related topics, follow me on Twitter at @megselig1 or on Facebook.


Reeder, H. (2014) Commit to Win: How to Harness the Four Elements of Commitment to Reach Your Goals. (NY: Hudson Street Press).  (Note: The book will be on sale May 15 but may be pre-ordered now.)

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