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How to keep a promise to yourself

We all make excuses … But guess what: We’ve got an even bigger issue. We pretend we’re much nicer than we are: we’re trained early on that when we don’t do what we said we’d do (e.g., homework) or when we’re caught doing something that is frowned upon (e.g., allegedly cutting up all of your mother’s favorite Pucci scarves to make clothes for your Barbie), so long as we feel terrible, look sad, and say we’re sorry (whether we mean it or not), we’re decent people. Even as adults, most of us still think that as long as we feel really guilty, for example, that we didn’t call our mother and we have a legitimate enough excuse to go with it, well then, we’re doing okay. But, here’s a question for you: Does feeling guilty, so long as we have an acceptable excuse, really make us a decent human? Or does it make us, more accurately and simply, well- intended liars?


Personal Integrity


Did you ever notice that when it comes to keeping a promise to someone else, we’re pretty good at it, right? I mean, if we say to our kids, “we’ll pick you up at three p.m.,” we don’t mean “if we feel like it” or “if nothing better comes up”? But, when it comes to a promise to ourselves, e.g., “I’m going to do my physical therapy exercises every day,” we are more than willing to excuse ourselves from what we said we’d do, so long as, you guessed it, we beat ourselves up about it. We’re nowhere near as considerate to ourselves as we are to others. We’d never tell our friends that we’re going to meet them at the movies and then just not show up. We’ll keep a deadline for our boss, because we want to please him or her, but we’ll stay at a job we hate, drink a mimosa when we’re on a juice cleanse, and date someone with more red flags than a raceway.


The ability to make and keep a promise to ourselves that is a match with our dream is Personal Integrity. It is the alignment of your heart (your desires), your mind (your plan), and your body (your actions). It’s where the rubber meets the road with your dreams. But guess what? No surprise here. See the warning label for humans. Even though most of us suck at keeping promises to ourselves, we walk around like personal integrity is something we have. I mean, how could we not? After all, we’re guilt-ridden so very often that we must be incredibly good people. Being able to tell the truth about our own lack of personal integrity has integrity to it. The key to being able to deal with and lighten up about our own humanity is to get wholly honest about our dishonesty. It’s pretty simple. No fairy dust here. When you can keep a promise to yourself, you become not only proud of yourself, you can trust yourself. Happiness, self-esteem, and personal pride come from knowing you can count on you. Your prescription for profound happiness, pride, and confidence is really simple.


How to Make a Promise to Yourself


Obviously, we all already know how to make a promise. How to keep one to yourself? Well, that’s another story. We’ll deal with that shortly. In any case, here are a few basic pointers for making promises. These tips are not so wildly different from the tips on how to dream in Chapter One. Why, you wonder? See the fine print on being human: We are sneaky and, unless specified, we’re way too smart to be specific.


Be realistic. Make sure you are making a promise that you believe can happen. So, for example, promising you are going to win the lottery today might not be the best of promises. Promising to quit smoking cigarettes cold turkey tomorrow when you have smoked for the past thirty years, though awesome, is not so realistic. Promising to incrementally cut down the amount you smoke, given how addictive of a habit it is, and plot the inevitable cease-fire, would make much more sense.


Stretch yourself. Make sure your promises are a stretch for you. Promising to floss daily (unless you normally don’t) is more sleaze than stretch. Right? But, promising to drink X number of glasses of water, make your mammogram appointment, call your brother whom you’ve been avoiding, finally go and see the apartment your parents just (over a year ago!) bought, etc., are good promises. Do what you’ve been putting off. Do the thing that immediately came to mind the minute I started talking about promises. Oh, you know the one (or twelve).


Once again, be specific. Your promises need to be wiggle-proof. Make sure that when you make a promise, you answer the following questions: How often? How long? By when? How much? Promises, for example, like I will be nicer to my assistant, hate my commute less, track my spending more, all have great intent, though what do they really mean? Your promises need to be loophole-free. I will call my brother by Sunday and speak to him for at least twenty minutes. I will send out five resumes a week, and tell three new people a day about my career dream. I will reach out nightly to three potential dating prospects online that I’m excited about, etc. You see how slightly different those promises are? They leave very little room for wondering if you kept the promise or not. It’s either yes or no.


Use powerful language. Using sincere but ever so slippery verbs like “hope,” “try,” and “wish” will not cut it when it comes to making promises that are conducive to keeping. Making a promise like I will play one entire game of Apples to Apples (or the board game of choice) with my daughter once a week, for example, is a way different promise from I’m gonna try to bond with my daughter.


Manage the external world. How many of us have blamed the airport or the airlines (back in the day when they fed you) for not keeping to our diet while traveling? Think ahead. If, for example, you know there is a party on Saturday and you have a promise to only eat one dessert a week, wisely save it for the party. We are not a naive species. Stop playing dumb.


Get the joke. The more you resent having to make and keep a particular promise, the more you need that very promise.


The above is an extract from Maybe It’s You by Lauren Handel Zander. As Co-Founder and Chairman of Handel Group, an international corporate consulting and private coaching company, Lauren has coachedprofessors, politicians, award-winning artists, and Fortune 500 CEOs. The Handel Method has been taught at MIT, Stanford University and NYU.