It’s a lot easier to keep a promise to someone else than to yourself, isn’t it?
After all, if you break a promise to someone you care about, like a friend, family members, spouse, or child, there are going to be tangible repercussions. Every time you look into that person’s eyes and see sadness and disappointment reflected back at you, you’ll be reminded of how you dropped the ball and let them down.
But what about when you break a promise to yourself?
How many times have you sworn to yourself that you would (or wouldn’t) do something, only to drop the ball hard? Did you swear on your own liver that you wouldn’t text your ex at 3am? Or committed to a healthier diet and exercise regime only to sabotage it with a mountain of junk food a few days later?
It’s likely that you’ve broken promises to yourself countless times, and you know what? So have I. So has just about everyone else who has ever lived.
The questions then are: how can you keep a promise to yourself? And furthermore, why do you find it easier to break a promise to yourself than to someone else?
What are the repercussions of breaking (or keeping) a promise to yourself?
We will all have several close relationships throughout our lives. These start with parents, grandparents, and siblings, then extend to friends, partners, and possibly our own children.
Although these external relationships are intense, and can last for a long time, there’s one relationship that will last from the moment you take your first breath to the second you exhale the last one.
That’s the relationship you have with yourself.
When you’re proud of yourself, you can gaze into a mirror and be happy with the person who’s reflecting back at you. Your internal dialog and self-talk will be positive and encouraging, and that in turn will ripple outward.
Quite simply, when you think highly of yourself, the interactions you have with others will be positive in turn.
In contrast, when you’re ashamed of yourself or feel like you’re a piece of crap for breaking yet another promise to yourself, then that negativity will be mirrored with others as well. Your self-confidence will fall apart and you won’t feel like you have anything to offer your loved ones. Your shame and self-loathing might prompt you to be reclusive, or to snap at others because you’re projecting your emotions in their direction.
Fortunately, these issues can be avoided by learning some of the best ways to keep a promise to yourself.
1. Put it on paper and sign it.
Quite simply, create a formal written contract as an agreement with yourself. Seriously, write out every aspect of this promise, including why you want to do it, and write a solemn oath to yourself that you will, in fact, keep your word.
We’re not talking about jotting down a note on a napkin, either. Lay this out in a word processing or desktop publishing program with an elegant typeface. Then print it out and sign it in ink.
This might seem like a silly amount of effort to go through, but it isn’t. On a subconscious level, we associate paperwork with “official” processes. We sign contracts when we get new jobs. Agreements are signed when we take out loans or buy a house or a car.
By signing a physical agreement with yourself, you’ll feel compelled to abide by the terms of that agreement.
2. Ensure that you have the ability to make this a reality.
Are you familiar with The Dunning-Kruger Effect? This is a situation of cognitive bias in which someone grossly overestimates their ability or knowledge in one area or another. As a result, they might dive into an endeavor with great enthusiasm, assuming that they know what they’re doing, only to find out shortly after that they’re in way over their heads.
An example of this would be someone who buys a house that’s in dire need of repair because they assume they have all the skills and knowledge they need to fix it up and flip it. But then they discover that, in reality, they have about 10% of the skills they need. Thus, the project will either be a failure, or they’ll have to shell out a lot of money for other people to fix everything for them.
That doesn’t mean that you should forego promises to yourself that are important to you. Instead, if you don’t YET have the capacity to do this (whether by physical limitations or financial constraints), then put a plan into action to sort that out. THEN make the promise.
The dude who bought the house in the example above could have made that project a success if he’d taken some carpentry, electrical, and plumbing courses before diving in.
3. Start small and increase gradually.
If you decide today that your goal is to bench-press 300lbs and you try to do that immediately, do you know what will happen? You will break yourself. Anyone who wants to lift that kind of weight without their arms collapsing and their chest getting smashed knows that they must start with a weight that’s just a bit challenging, and then increase the weight incrementally.
Same goes with learning something new, or pretty much any other endeavor. Most people break promises to themselves about attaining a goal or breaking a habit because they try to do too much too quickly. As a result, they either go into shock or damage themselves.
You want to be able to speak a new language fluently? Learn one new phrase this week and practice it until it becomes a core memory, then learn another and another.
When you start with small goals, you’ll meet them with greater ease and grace. This will inspire you to keep going incrementally. Never mind doing an hour of yoga every day: start with five minutes. Then six. Want to stop swearing? Go 15 minutes without cursing. Then increase that to 30.
See this rather like easing yourself into a cold swimming pool on a hot day. If you cannonball into the water, you’ll scream and flail and possibly throw up from shock. But if you start by dipping a toe in, it’ll acclimatize, and then you can ease down to the ankle, and so on. Before you know it, you’re swimming like a happy little otter and having a grand time.
4. Create a calendar.
Written schedules help reinforce your daily patterns (and thus your life patterns). When making a promise to yourself, it’s important to remain consistent in your efforts to make said promise a reality.
For instance, if you promise yourself that you’ll run a 5k marathon in 6 months, then you need to train for X number of minutes X times a day, or you won’t be fit enough to run when the date arrives.
Plan out SMART goals that you can use to fill a calendar with a critical path and work-back schedule. If you’re not familiar with this concept, SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
If we’re using the running example here, your SMART goals might include the aforementioned running X times a week, increasing the amount of time incrementally every few days. Stretching, getting new trainers and running gear two months before the marathon to break them in, and everything else associated with making that goal a reality can also be added to the plan.
Once you attain each goal, check it off or decorate that calendar square with a sticker. This will keep you motivated to continue.
As an aside, remember that it generally takes 40 days to make or break a habit. Consider making day 41 on your calendar a special day. If you manage to hold fast to your goals until then, you’ve already taken a major leap toward attaining what you’re striving for.
5. Create visual cues to keep you inspired and on target.
Take note of where you are and what you do on any given day. Where do you spend most of your time? What are the items or surroundings you look at constantly?
For example, do you have an office or cubicle that you work from? Even just a dedicated desk? Or do you take your laptop with you and work from various cafes? How many times a day do you look at your phone? If you work in your home kitchen or living room, are you staring at the fridge for hours at a time? Or do you face a wall?
Place visual cues in the places you look at the most to keep you inspired. This might include photos on your desk, stickers on your laptop, new wallpapers or screensavers on your phone and desktop, or sticky notes on mirrors. Some people benefit from colorful vision boards or posters in prominent places.
Seeing these cues on a constant basis can help to keep you on track. Furthermore, they’re cheerful, helpful reminders of something that’s important to you, rather than a guilt-trip.
6. Reward yourself incrementally.
For every goal you reach, give yourself a treat. Furthermore, increase the scope of that treat for the advancement toward the goal.
Let’s say you’re buckling down and doing an online degree program that you’ve always wanted to do. If so, chances are that you procrastinate sometimes and have moments of self-doubt, maybe even self-sabotage.
Scrap that noise. Use that calendar we mentioned above to set target goals for yourself, and reward yourself every time you hit a goal.
For example, at the ¼ mark, gift yourself with a stress-release item you’ve been wanting, like a new game or book. At the halfway mark, maybe a new computer to inspire you to carry on. You’ve made it ¾ of the way? Consider a weekend getaway to regroup and recharge to carry you through the last stretch. And once you’ve achieved the goal, take a proper vacation somewhere amazing.
Of course, these options assume that you have money to burn. If that’s not the case, but you know that you’ve hit all your targets, be your own cheerleader. Take a good, long look in the mirror and tell yourself how proud you are of everything you’re achieving. The goal you’ve attained will be its own reward, of course, but try to do something special for yourself once you’ve reached it. Even if that’s simply a week in the woods in a tent with your dog.
7. Find an accountability partner, if that works for you.
This approach might not be for everyone, but it may be of help if you have a strong social circle that you lean on for moral support.
If you need a cheerleader to keep you on point with the promise you’ve made to yourself, talk to your tribe and see if someone would be willing to be your accountability partner. It’s more than likely that someone else in your circle will also be working toward a goal, and that way, you can be accountable to one another.
This often works well since most people are more diligent about not disappointing others than they are about letting themselves down. You might be able to talk yourself out of hitting your target that day because you’re feeling down or you want to play a few more levels on your game, but then you’ll have to admit that to your friend tomorrow.
Avoiding shame can be a great motivator.
8. Keep a journal.
A journal can be immensely helpful, no matter what promise it is that you’re making to yourself. This is because you can use it for such a wide variety of things. For example:
- Use it as a daily diary to keep track of how much time you’ve dedicated to your goal.
- Write in it to express frustrations or other difficult emotions you’re going through.
- Keep note of challenges you bump into so you can refer back to see if patterns emerge over time.
- List things that work well for you (great food combinations that your body loves best, hours in which you absorb the most in your studies, stretches that alleviate symptoms, scents that inspire you; the list can be endless here).
- At the end of the day, it is a summation of all the things you did that made you feel proud of yourself.
These are just a few of the things that you can track in your journal. If you want to be really clever with it, however, let someone you trust have at it too.
Get them to write some motivational things at random in it for you to find as you progress along your journey. These are amazing little surprises that may pop up exactly when you need them.
You might be having the worst day ever, but you flip the page to find an adorable, dill pickle-scented sticker in the middle of the page accompanied by the note “I believe in you.” And suddenly your mood brightens and you have a burst of inspiration to Do The Thing.
9. Avoid creating consequences.
Some people are more motivated by pain and shame than others. As such, they create punishments as consequences for not hitting the targets they’re aiming for. They do this because they’re trying to avoid pain and disappointment in themselves, and they might have been raised by people who treated them poorly instead of encouraging them.
Sometimes these self-punishments are far harsher and more cruel than what anyone else could inflict upon them. For example, someone who’s aiming for a weight loss target might starve themselves or force themselves to eat food they hate as atonement for the perceived sin of not “trying hard enough” to meet that goal.
The etymology of the word “sin” is “to miss,” as in missing a target. It comes from the common Greek word hamartia: an archery term that literally means “to miss the mark.” It refers to making a mistake and falling short of what was intended. Same goes for the Hebrew chatta’ah, which means to miss the way and accidentally go against established order.
When you’re working hard to do something, then even if you miss the target, the “sin” (or “miss”) was in good faith. As such, the response should be compassion, forgiveness, and patience, rather than condemnation and punishment.
If your child was trying hard at something and couldn’t quite make it, would you be awful to them? Or would you gently encourage them to try again, because you have faith in them and you know they have the potential to do it right? Then maybe treat yourself with that same gentleness and compassion too.
10. Recognize that you can hit reset as often as you need to.
There’s a great Japanese Buddhist term that fits perfectly here, and that’s honin-myo. It roughly translates to the concept that every moment is an opportunity to start anew. As such, there’s no point in fixating on what has happened up until this point, and that includes berating oneself for missteps. Instead, with the next breath, one can hit “reset” on their journey.
If you misstep or falter in your promise, then readjust yourself. Reestablish your balance, take a deep breath, and on exhalation, wipe the slate clean.
On the off chance that you’re feeling a ton of self-loathing about missing a mark, set aside an hour or even a full day to “cleanse and renew” yourself. Take a long shower or soak in a bath, imagining that the water is washing away the previous missteps. Eat or drink something nourishing and take some time to meditate.
Without judgement or unkindness, take note of the things that contributed to you missing the mark you had set out for yourself. Not to berate yourself for anything, mind you, but to give you perspective so you don’t end up repeating past behaviors. Then, when you’re ready, stand up and take a big step forward. Not only are you symbolically beginning anew, but you are literally taking the first step onto the fresh start of your journey.
This is the acronym for the (albeit vulgar) phrase: “just f*cking do it.”
So many people procrastinate endlessly about the things they want to do, or feel that they should be doing, rather than just doing what needs to be done.
Sometimes this is because they don’t like change very much. They’re comfortable and secure with the way things are, and they are worried about how they may feel or what they might have to deal with if situations change. It’s very much a “devil you know versus the devil you don’t” scenario. Even if they’re uncomfortable with the status quo they’ve been maintaining, that’s somehow more secure than the risk of discomfort if they change it.
Invariably, when and if they actually do The Thing, they’re pleasantly surprised at how much better everything is and how painless it was to actually make it happen. It was the fear of potential pain that stopped them, not the reality!
Another possibility is that they’re afraid of failure. They might not be particularly happy with the current state of affairs, but that’s easier for them to deal with than the self-loathing and pain they’ll feel if they do try, and then fail.
The thing is, a master has failed more times than the pupil has ever tried. Furthermore, the only way that you’ll ensure that you’ll fail is to not try at all.
Ultimately, when it comes to making promises, a person’s word is their bond. If The Thing you want to do is truly important to you, then make that promise today. Take the steps to keep it, and be proud of yourself for having such rock-solid integrity.
If you can keep a promise to yourself, you’ll have no problem keeping your word to others too.
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