How to Keep Promises to Yourself

| | Personal Leadership

In Make a Promise to You I talk about the importance and value of making promises to yourself.  The question I have for you now is when you make a promise to yourself, how good are you at keeping them?

The majority of people I work with admit to having trouble keeping promises to themselves.  Even people who are great at keeping their promises to others have trouble with this.  In the webinar/group coaching series The Art of Accountability I have been amazed at how many highly accountable people shared that being accountable to themselves was one of their biggest challenges.

Why is it so hard to keep a promise to yourself?

Here are the three most common impediments I see to keeping a promise to yourself, along with some suggested antidotes.

1.  Your Promise is a “Should”

You promise it because you know you should…eat healthy, get more sleep, lose weight, quit smoking, etc..  You know you should because your doctor, your family, your friends, etc. keep telling you that you need to do this.  While it makes perfect sense to you intellectually, you make a promise because you feel guilty not because you are really committed to it.  You may even get off to a good start out of sheer willpower, but its not an energy you can (or want to) sustain.  So at some point you give up leaving you feeling more guilty and bad about yourself.

Antidote:  Ask yourself these questions

  • Is this something I really want or something others want for or expect from me?
  • Am I willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen?
  • Am I choosing to make this promise because it will increase my self respect, trust, and  love or am I hoping in doing so I will get those things from someone else?

2.  You Promise What You Don’t Want

I will not have any more negative people in my life or I will no longer let people take advantage of me are examples.  We create our world with our words so the minute we declare what we don’t want, we are unwittingly focusing on exactly what we don’t want.  The problem is this:  what we focus on grows.

Antidote: If you are clear about what you don’t want shift your language so your promise reflects what you do want.  For example, I will surround myself with positive people.  I will be treated with respect and will hold people accountable for treating me with respect.

3.  You Do Not Keep Your Promise Present

The demands of others, life circumstances and the busyness of life can cause us to lose focus or even forget all about the promises we make to ourselves.  We can also use all of those as reasons why we justify why we can’t focus on ourselves.  Unless we create some way to keep that promise in existence it will disappear.


  • Get an accountability partner. Make sure it is someone you can trust to care for your best interests, who will hold you accountable, and who you will give permission to hold you accountable.  Get a consistent schedule of checking in at least weekly even if it is just for 5 minutes.
  • Keep your promise visible AND present. You could write your promise on an index card or cut an image out of a magazine that represents your promise.  Post it where you will see it every day such as on your mirror or in the front of your journal AND read it out loud yourself daily.  You can also set up an automated daily reminder on your phone AND when it goes off take a moment, take a breath and consciously get present to what you promised.  There are lots of ways to do this.  You may have to experiment to find the way that works for you or even change it up to keep it fresh.
  • Be In Action: Especially if it is going to take you a while to keep your promise you need to make sure that you stay in consistent and focused action doing the things that you need to do to keep your promise.  Always know what your next action is and by when you will take it.  When you complete that step immediately identify the next one you will take by when.
  • Create a Practice and Stick to It: A practice is something you do consistently over time.  If your promise is to get fit a natural practice could be walk at least 2 miles every day.  If you want to write a book your practice could be to write for 1 hour every day.  If you stop doing your practice either start doing it again as soon as you notice or create another practice if you see you are not likely to follow through with the first one.

When we make a promise to ourselves and don’t keep it, we chip away at our relationship with ourselves.  Just because no one else may be there to hold us accountable or even know about the promise to begin with does not make it any less important.  The truth is we know.

Leading others begins with leading yourself.  Personal integrity is the foundation for leading yourself.  It is way too easy to take your promises to yourself lightly or let them fall by the wayside.  Don’t let that happen.  Your promises to you matter because you matter.

Making a promise to yourself AND keeping it is a surefire way to build trust and belief in yourself.  And when it comes to being a leader trusting and believing in yourself is key to your success.

What other reasons do people have for not keeping their promises to themselves and what antidotes do you suggest?


Enter A Comment

T   |   12 June 2011   |   Reply

I’ll have to say this is a big problem for me. Logically it works, but who’s to stop me from breaking these contracts with myself? Am I going to SUE myself? Deny myself? Kick my butt? LOL I really think with some, like myself, there is a bigger problem. I have a high energy mind, but low energy body. I kind of feel like a brain in a jar like on Futurama. When I DO have the motivation to get things accomplished I go above and beyond the expectations of others, and logically, that should be motivation enough. But the next day, I’m back in bed, with my laptop, NOT doing the things that will take me further. It’s easy to say that ‘well all you have to do is just…’ but what if there seems to be some ‘force’ that won’t allow you to get out of bed to go work out? Or you can’t stay out of the planning stages of anything to launch or expand your business? There is always an excuse. The situation is not perfect. The laundry’s not done. I don’t want to finish the laundry. Once I finish the laundry, I’ll get to it. I wish it was that easy for me.

Susan Mazza   |   12 June 2011   |   Reply

I appreciate your honesty. The first step in the quest to learn to keep promises to yourself is recognizing the barriers to doing so. It is by no means easy even if it is simple for many people. My advice is to start small, perhaps even very small, and work on your reliability with yourself first.

For example, making a promise to do 1 load of laundry tomorrow. Then choose to do it fist thing in the morning no matter what. Make a new promise for the next day and then do that no matter what. Given what you said it will likely be hard. You get to choose whether your commitment or your resistance will win.

You may also benefit from the work of Carol Tuttle (http://www.caroltuttle.com), especially if you can’t get past your resistance and given your pattern of low energy.

Paul   |   30 May 2012   |   Reply

Hi T,

Your explanation of how you feel very mentally able, yet physically seem unable, is exactly how I have felt with myself so often and it’s very, very frustrating. Lots of ideas, but nothing ever gets done.

Something occurred to me about myself in your comments. That is, that the laptop is always there. Being online and constantly connected is so useful and such a wonderful attraction to someone with a thirst for knowledge such as you and I, but I suspect that its really what distracts me from being in action too. Just a suggestion, but I am going to make a promise to myself tomorrow not to turn on the laptop, and a second promise to get up and do something active, so that I can break myself out of this habit.

Thanks for sharing!


Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2012   |  

Hi Paul,

Thanks for sharing your personal insights and ideas Paul. Unplugging from technology and just doing something to engage your body really does make a difference. Let us know how it goes and what you discover.

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