Put most simply, committed action means taking real action guided by our values. A key part of ACT philosophy is that a rich and meaningful life is only possible when our actions are congruent with our values.
Harris (2009) uses the catch phrase “Do What It Takes” to refer to committed action. This recognises that it is sometimes difficult to act according to our values. As well as leading to satisfaction and achievement, the prospect and reality of taking values congruent action sometimes brings up fear, anxiety, discomfort and pain. We are all tempted to avoid these feelings by withdrawing from the challenge of action. “So committed action means ‘doing what it takes’ to live by our values even if that brings up pain and discomfort” (Harris, 2009; p11).
ACT draws on the whole gamut of behavioural change and skill training interventions to help clients increase their capacity for committed action. Many of the Practice Elements included under other therapeutic models such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (ACRA), and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) are appropriate for use here.
To elaborate somewhat on the basic concept, Harris (2009; p208) says that “Committed action means taking larger and larger patterns of effective action, guided and motivated by values. It also means flexible action: readily adapting to the challenges of the situation, and either persisting with or changing behavior as required; doing what it takes to life by our values”.
The aim of working on committed action as a separate element in its own right is to help the client get in the habit of regularly drawing on their values to help guide decisions about action and to overcome barriers to action. Harris says the aim is “To translate values into ongoing, evolving patterns of action. To establish the pattern of repeatedly returning to our values, no matter how many times we lose touch with them”.
Committed action happens all the time. Turning up to a session with a practitioner, doing a therapeutic exercise or talking about a difficult topic is committed action. But committed action takes centre stage after we have clarified values and when we are ready to think about setting goals based on those values. When we come to this readiness there will still be many psychological barriers to overcome. The processes of contacting the present moment, defusion, acceptance, and self-as-context can be used at anytime to help overcome these barriers.
There are 4 basic steps to the ACT Committed Action process
- Choose a domain of life that is high priority for change
- Choose the values to pursue in this domain
- Develop goals guided by these values
- Take action mindfully
Choose a life domain – Some domains of life that might be considered by a young person include: education; friends; family; girlfriend/boyfriend; work; drug use; recreation; physical health; mental health etc. Let us imagine that our client chooses friendships. At the moment he feels that he does not have any real friends. His old ‘friends’ are all part of his drinking and drug using crowd and he wants to get away from this scene.
Choose values to pursue in this domain – Different values that could apply to this domain include: helping each other; having fun; loyalty or supporting each other no matter what; being real and keeping each other honest; sharing resources; being sociable; good communication; being physically active, and making healthy choices. Imagine that the client chooses the values of good communication and being physically active. One of the problems that he has had in past friendships was not speaking his mind clearly enough and getting sucked into things that he didn’t really feel comfortable with. He also thinks being physically active might be a way to get away from drinking and drug use.
Develop goals guided by these values – Hayes and Smith (2005) suggest that if your values are like compass points that orient you in your life journey, your goals are like the road maps that can help you plot a course, sign posts you can follow, and land marks you can aim for. “Goals give you a practical means to make your values manifest. They also offer you a metric against which you can measure progress on your valued path” (p178). It is important to remember that reaching goals is not the main aim or purpose. “[T]he true goal of goals is to orient you toward your values so you can live a valued life, moment by moment” (p179).
S = Specific – Goals need to be phrased in very specific language. They need to specify particular actions, say when and where they will take place, who with and other relevant details. It needs to be specific enough so that you can easily tell whether or not it has been achieved.M = Meaningful – The goal will be meaningful if it is genuinely guided by values as opposed to following a rigid rule, trying to please others, or trying to avoid some pain. If the goal lacks a sense of meaning or purpose check if it is really guided by your values.A = Adaptive – Does the goal help you to head in a direction that, as far as you can predict, is likely to improve, enrich, or enhance your quality of life?R = Realistic – The goal should be realistically achievable. Think about the resources available to you such as time, money, people who can help, and whether you have the skills to achieve it. Hayes and Smith (2005) talk in terms of making sure that goals can realistically fit with your life.T = Time-framed – To increase the specificity of your goal, set a day, date and time for it. If this isn’t possible, set a timeframe that is as accurate as possible.
It is also a good idea to set a series of goals that span the short to long term:
Returning to our imaginary client. A long term goal that he might set for himself based on his priority life domain and chosen values is to, within 12 months, make two new friends with whom he shares a sporting or other physical activity on average once a fortnight. A short term goal for the next month might be to learn some communication skills so that he can be more confident in making conversation with new people and assertive in expressing his wants and needs in social relationships. A medium term goal could be to join, within the next 3 months, one or two recreational activity groups in which he can meet other young people his age such as a martial arts class or a swimming squad. An immediate goal might be to get on the internet and start searching for structured activities that he could investigate further over the coming weeks.
Making the goal setting process tangible is important. For this reason it is helpful to write down the goals (along with the priority life domain and chosen values) using a structured worksheet. Goals are also more tangible if we identify some of the specific actions that will be necessary to achieve the goals. We can write these down too. Specific actions relevant to our client’s short term goal of learning communication skills include: finding out if the service provides a relevant program; setting a date to begin this work, and making time available to practice new skills. Specific actions relevant to the immediate goal may include telephoning the library and booking a computer for the afternoon, or asking a family member if they can lend their laptop for a few hours tonight.
Public commitments are much more likely to lead to follow through than private ones. For this reason ACT practitioners ask clients to say out loud exactly what they are committing to. Many people feel awkward doing this so Harris (2009; p212-213) offers an explanation of why it’s beneficial.
These notes are based on Harris (2009), Chapter 12, unless otherwise specified. Some material is drawn from Hayes and Smith (2005), Chapter 13