How to Prevent Breaking Promises to Yourself

Mar 14, 2018

Last week we talked about how to recover when you’ve broken a promise you made to yourself. This week, let’s illuminate how to make promises you can keep.

Most of us never learned how to make clear promises to ourselves. And that causes us a whole lot of unnecessary suffering.

A promise is an assurance to someone that you will definitely do, give, or arrange something. For a promise to work, the do, give, or arrange has to be clear and possible, and you have to be competent to do it.

Right there, think about how many promises you make to yourself you don’t have the time, energy, or resources to fulfill. You can’t write for an hour on Saturday when you promised to take your mom to the doctor and the rest of your day is already filled to the brim. You can’t run because you don’t have any shoes. You can’t go to the networking meeting because you’re depressed.

We create promises that fit our idealized version of our future self and then we wonder why our actual self (who is pretty much the same self we will be tomorrow or next week) can’t fulfill them.

Instead, make teeny tiny super clear promises the you of today can keep tomorrow.

Look at this break down of common reasons for broken promises and what you can do instead:

  • Your promise was so vague or unclear, how could you know if you kept it or not?  Instead: Use this formula:  What you will do + when you will do it + where.  As in I will run 5 miles on Saturday at 8 am on the Niwot trail.
  • Can you actually keep that promise no matter what? Does it fit in your life? Or is it too big for your real life as opposed to your perfect future self’s life?

Instead: Make smaller promises. These aren’t nearly as sexy so we avoid them; however, when you keep them, you build self-trust and precious momentum. Over time, that will get you so much farther than pie-in-the-sky promises that undermine you and then encourage you to double down on more pie-in-the-sky so you can make up for the promises you didn’t keep and then you break those… and on and on and on.

  • Do you need any “pre” promises to pave your way? To keep my running promise (see last week), I needed to not drink red wine on Friday night. When I decided to share the wine my friend brought, I made it less likely that I would run on Saturday. It would have worked better to look at my Friday night plans to meet Dana and decide to go to a movie together instead or to be clear with myself that I would not drink by having a La Croix or tea ready for myself.

Instead: Work backwards from your main promise. Is there something you will need to say no to, an appointment you need to reschedule, supplies you need to buy, and if so, how likely are you to do one of these things? And if the answer if “not so much”, change your main promise now!

  • Did you really want to? Research shows that we’re much more motivated to do hard things if we really want them. If you find your life is littered with broken promises, it might be time to reflect on your true desires. This can take awhile, but the work is essential to make a life that is yours.

Instead: Play around with making teeny tiny clear promises that truly light you up. Notice: Is it easier to keep your word? If not, ask yourself why?

  • Forget willpower, use your environment and habit. Research is calling into question much of what we think we know about willpower. It’s proving that environment and habit are much stronger. I got into running by running with a group. I had a habit of running three times a week no matter how I felt.

Instead: What is one tweak to a habit or your environment that would make it easier to keep your promise? You aren’t weak or bad when you break promises; you’re wired for comfort and to do the easy thing to save energy. Give yourself support to stick with what matters and forget relying on will power.

I know and practice this stuff and I still break promises. This isn’t magic. This has been the result of practice. Learning and practicing this kind of promise making has made me so much more confident and self-trusting, that every time I get loosey-goosey or try to do too much, I scurry back to small precise doable promises for my day.

It feels good. It works.

Thanks for reading,


Jettison Self-Doubt and Lose the Itty-Bitty-Shitty Committee and Make Your Thing Now

From the national best-selling author of The Woman’s Comfort Book and Why Bother.

Made for writers, artists, mail art makers, knitters of sock puppets, creative entrepreneurs, photographers, Tarot readers, and anybody who needs to make stuff they love.

I’m not one of those creepy people who make it hard to unsubscribe or email you again nine years after you’ve unsubscribed. Giving me your email is like a coffee date, not a marriage proposal.