How to keep a promise – even if you break it

Did you ever have one of those moments when you decide that you’re going to change your life, and it feels like the dawn of a new era?

New Year’s Eve is one of those moments. You take a chance, turn over a new leaf and dump bad habits. You officially decide that you’ll quit smoking for good, and usually you fail within the next 15 days. There’s a sense of disappointment about breaking the oath, and you most likely don’t renew your commitment. After all, who wants to fail again? Who wants to look like a flake?

I still have this problem, sometimes, but it was even worse when I was a Buddhist monk. At the time I had spiritual commitments, and they were really hard to keep. Take the vow not to lie, for instance. Have you ever tried not to lie AT ALL for a week? A month? If so, you probably know that it’s almost impossible—we always lie, hide, change facts. I’m no exception to that rule, so as a monk it was clear to me that I was breaking that vow everyday. I felt terrible each time, but my spiritual guides would always reassure me and tell me that commitments are just tools to help mind progress and stay headed in the right direction, so they are meant to be damaged.

In the long run I learned the lesson and made it a habit to renew my promises as soon as I broke them. It also gave me a totally different view of what promises are for, how they should be used, and how to keep them.

Promises are a means to an end

A promise is nowhere near as important as the project it serves. It’s only there to help you achieve your goal: to stop smoking, to lose weight, to achieve happiness in your relationship …


When you make a promise or commit to do something, keep in mind what you want to achieve.  Your goal is what matters, not the promise that helps its completion. Why? Because if you think that the promise is super important and then you break it, you’ll be tempted to abandon the project out of discouragement. When you pay too much attention to promises and not enough to the goal, you’re like a guy that drives staring at the wheel instead of minding the road. Where do you think that ends?

A promise is supposed to help you and others around you. If it prevents you from moving on, just trash it.

Big promise = Big Failure

We often think that if we have a BIG project, we should make a BIG commitment to achieve it. It only makes sense in theory. In practice, it usually leads to disaster. If you make a promise that’s hard to keep, you’re more likely to renege – it’s that simple.  Maybe you’ll feel heroic as you claim you’ll lose 40 pounds in the next month, but in a month from now after you’ve lost merely 4, how are you going to feel? Bad, probably, and not really willing to try again.

The solution is to chunk your big promise in small promises that you can keep. It’s more fun this way. What’s even nicer: you’ll build up self-confidence by keeping more and more promises and feeling great about each success.

Kick guilt out of the way

Ok, so let’s say you screwed up. You said you would be there for someone when they needed you. They called for help, you didn’t show up. After that you felt horrible, and you swore you wouldn’t do it again. That’s called regret, and it’s a useful function of your mind that helps you not to make the same mistake twice.

Now, if you dwell on regret longer than needed it’ll turn into guilt: a cool way to hurt yourself and not get anywhere. Guilt is neurotic, useless and sticky. It’s a waste of time, especially if you want to help others. Make sure you kick it out of you mind asap. Here’s what you can do instead: move on! Don’t rehearse in your head how you failed miserably, just move on.

I know that this is easier said than done for those with a Judeo-Christian background, like me. We’ve been trained to consider guilt as virtuous, so every time we break a promise we make it our duty to feel like crap. Let’s face it, though—that inherited guilt thing is nonsense.

Just pardon yourself and move on already! The world needs you as a fully functional and happy person, not a buggy little robot spinning endlessly around the same regrets.

Once again: promises are not sacred, what’s sacred is your goal. We all break promises, and whatever we achieve in the long run is obtained through a series of mistakes and imperfections.

To wrap it up: no matter what promise you make, if you break it, wipe the slate clean, renew your commitment, just move on and don’t quit.

Don’t lose the momentum you gained by promising to get somewhere… feed it. Keep running in the right direction. It’s OK to fail.

And if you’re concerned by what others might think about you failing, don’t worry, they’ll forget and they’ll forgive. What everybody will remember in the end is what you achieved when you reach your destination.

  • Greg O’Donnell

    The most important part about making a promise is that when you can’t keep it you go back and tell the person you gave the promise to and let them know you are having problems following through with it.

    Be honest and they will not mind that you could not keep all of the promise.


    • Gaël Blanchemain

      I agree, the ideal way is to be honest. People are often more understanding than we think.

  • manuel

    Enlighthening !
    I had never thought of promises that way.
    A broken promise usually carries a burden of guilt with it and I’ve just realized it’s not the way it should be approached.

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