“To abstain from the enjoyment which is in our power, or to seek distant rather than immediate results, are among the most painful exertions of the human will.” – Nassau William Sr.

Three and a half years ago Joe and I joined Life Time Fitness and started working out together. We were each other’s commitment devices. We put Jake in the LTF Child Center and exercised consistently 5 to 6 times a week. A couple of months later, Joe began to experience problems with his cervical vertebra and subsequently withdrew from our daily routine. I was disappointed but motivated enough to keep going on my own. And the results have been amazing. I am happier, healthier and sleeping better than ever. But all this wasn’t enough to inspire Joe to get back on the exercise floor. When he did join me on weekends, he preferred to sweat in the sauna and swim a few rounds afterwards. Joe figured he was eating well and getting enough exercise from doing other things in life.

Last October when we visited China, almost everyone greeted Joe with, “侬发福了吗!”(You’ve gained weight!). Commenting on one’s weight isn’t taboo in China since in the old days when food was scarce, putting on a few pounds meant you were better off than the rest. Nowadays, the skinny Chinese population is increasing in body size, but people still refer to gaining weight as a compliment. Joe just laughed off the friendly comments that he was getting fat.

Then we flew to Guilin to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We had a photographer taking pictures of us on the Moon Mountain looking into each other’s eyes. When she asked us to choose the photos from the computer screen, Joe couldn’t believe the way his belly stuck out from the side view. But it was hard not to eat in China, so many gatherings, so much food and so delicious …

After we returned home, Joe stepped on the scale and got quite a shock. He had gained another 10 pounds! Right at that moment he decided to lose that belly and get fit. Joe started running outdoor during lunchtime everyday. When it got too cold, he retreated into the gym at his workplace. A couple of months ago we eliminated stir-fry. Now everything is either baked or boiled. I have been putting Joe’s soaking wet gym clothes in the washer for a few months and he’s been careful about what he eats. Three months after that picture on the Moon Mountain, his belly is shrinking. Today Joe is 15 pounds lighter, feels great and looks fantastic!

A commitment device is, according to journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result”. It’s a plausible approach to attaining goals, but also serves as a constant reminder of the fact that we have no self-control. In addition, we can always weasel our way out of it. Motivation from within is much more likely to stick and keep us on track.

If adults are constantly struggling with self-discipline and self-control, why do we expect kids to possess the willpower to resist temptations? You can lock up their electronic devices and force them to focus on their schoolwork, but staring at the textbooks doesn’t mean they are actually doing the necessary work. Some college students spend all their free time playing games and as a result flunk their classes.

As parents, we have to help our children define their own interests and talents and support them to succeed in those areas. Their own internal motivation will shape their work ethnics and fuel their success today, tomorrow and twenty years from now.