On Keeping Your Word

Most people are pretty good at keeping promises to others.

When I make an appointment with a busy person, even just for something as simple as a call, they almost never cancel on me. If they do have to, they almost always apologize and work to reschedule.

This is true even if I don’t know the person. Even if the call was just a friendly chat, not something incredibly important.

There are exceptions, of course. But the fact that they feel so rude is evidence itself that broken promises to other people are quite rare. If they happened often, they would just feel normal, not like an insult.

Promises to Yourself

Yet, how often do you break promises to yourself?

You tell yourself you’ll stick to a new diet… and give up after one week.

You tell yourself you’ll start a business and never get past printing the cards.

You tell yourself you’ll make a change, but nothing ever comes from it.

We break promises to ourselves all the time. Unlike when others break their commitments to us, these are so common, that, for most of us, they don’t even feel disappointing. They’re just “part of life.”

The Value of Promises

Maybe the reason we break our own promises is that it doesn’t feel like it has a cost. If I break a promise with you, you’ll be mad at me and trust me less. If I break a promise with myself, there’s nobody to get mad at.

But this is just an illusion.

Breaking promises to yourself has the same costs as breaking it to other people. Except the person you trust less is you.

When you trust yourself less, you treat the future-you as being inherently less reliable, less responsible, less likely to commit to the things current-you says you’ll do.

Without trust, you take your own plans less seriously. Take your own plans less seriously, and you’ll be less likely to commit to them in the future. A dangerous circle develops where you fail at your goals not because they were impossible, but because you simply didn’t think somebody like you would be able to stick to them.

Make Fewer Promises; Keep All of Them.

I don’t make many promises. Reality can change, so if I’m not sure I can make a party, or have time for a call, or help with a chore, I won’t commit. Better to disappoint someone early, than betray a trust later.

But the promises I do make, I keep. Sometimes they cost more than I had expected. Sometimes plans change and the reasons I promised them no longer make sense. But I keep them because, if I didn’t keep my promises, what kind of colleague, friend or husband would I be?

In the same way, I don’t make many promises to myself. I make few commitments, but I stick with them. I don’t always expect to be successful, or that life will always go according to plan, but I trust that the failure won’t be because I didn’t decide it was worth sticking with.

If you haven’t kept your promises in the past, rebuilding that trust takes time. It starts with small promises and keeping them even if they don’t feel like they matter.

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