Keeping Commitments to Ourselves and Others

How to Break the Cycle of Not Following Through

I was texting my friend again: I’m sorry, but I can’t make it tomorrow night. This week is getting too crazy. I cringed because I had sent this text before. I was repeatedly making plans with what seemed like the best of intentions, but as those plans drew near, it would become clear that I was not going to follow through. I felt guilty when I sent a text backing out of plans; I know how frustrating it is to be canceled on. I also had angst when I made plans because I was starting to be unsure I would follow through. It was miserable for me, and I’m sure quite frustrating for my friend.

How many times have you made plans or set goals for yourself that you did not follow through on? It can be so easy to set goals, make plans, say yes, make promises. Then the moment comes when you need to act on that commitment, and it gets a lot harder.

It doesn’t have to be social plans; there are so many ways we might face this obstacle. It can be health goals: “I’m going to eat better and exercise more!” It can be a commitment to make your work life better: “I am going to create more life/work balance at this job or find a new one!” Whatever it is, making commitments that you don’t follow through on does not work for you or the people affected when you fail to follow through. So why does that happen? Why are commitments to yourself and others sometimes so hard to keep? If you are having this problem, here are some starting questions to ask yourself as you figure that out.

1. Do you REALLY want to do this? 
When we make a commitment to do something, it is often because we believe it is something we want to do. However, we sometimes consider that commitment as something theoretical — something we might, at some point in time, at some future moment, do. Instead, imagine the moment where you are about to act on this commitment. When you imagine that moment, do you want to follow through? If not, it is a good time to consider if this is something you really want to do. Did you choose this goal because it was something you wanted, or maybe something you are doing to please someone else? If it is not a goal that is meaningful to you, and there is no reason to require yourself to do it, the answer is easy and you can stop making this commitment. However, if it is a commitment you must follow through on because of work, family, or another force, then it may be time to find a new motivation to help you follow through. What is valuable to you or someone else about this commitment that can push you to follow through?

A client told me about making a commitment to get to a spin class three times a week, and when the moment came to go to the gym, she made it all three times the first week, once the second week, and then couldn’t manage to force herself out the door again. When we talked about it, the reluctance was because she really did not like it — neither the atmosphere of the gym or being on a stationary bike for 45 minutes. However, she knew she needed exercise, so she found other options. For this client, it was much more motivating to take a run or walk outside.  Maybe your goal is also something you can’t say no to. So what are the other options? Is there another way to achieve your goal? 

2 Do you have the resources for this commitment? 
What resources does this commitment REALLY take? Is it time, energy, money, or emotional availability? Whatever the currency is that this commitment requires, do you have it? If you don’t, it may be time to consider if this is a commitment you want to make. It if is, can you gather the resources you need, or can you make changes to the commitment so that it will fit with what resources you do have available?

This is a difficult one for me, especially when it comes to the resources of time and energy. As a divorced parent, there are periods without my kids where I have a generous amount of time to spend as I wish. It is then balanced out by periods in which I have my children and I have almost no time that is unallocated. In an effort to seem like I can manage all things at all times, I make plans and commitments that seem difficult but doable before they arrive, and then downright impossible when I see what my time and energy actually looks like. This is why I kept texting my friend to cancel. In order to stop making promises I couldn’t keep, I had to accept that time and energy are actually limited resources when I am parenting. Not only does this change in thinking cause less stress for me, I’m pretty sure it makes people feel more valued when I am not canceling on them, whether that is a professional with whom I’ve made an appointment or a friend with whom I have planned to see.

3. Is the challenge of the task not balanced out by the reward you receive?
Sometimes we make goals and commitments that are something we should do, or that we are required to do, but that do not hold much reward for us. Or maybe it is a task overwhelming enough that you can’t see the end in which the positive feeling about accomplishing the goal exists. Those tasks and commitments can be challenging to complete without the excitement of a reward you can anticipate. If this is the kind of task you have committed to, what motivation can you find for completing it? What value does this goal have that can help you push you through meeting it without the positive feeling of a reward at the end?

When I think about tasks without rewards, it is the mundane routine tasks that can be difficult for me to stick to. Household tasks like cleaning have no real personal reward for me, seem endless, and it can be difficult to summon the desire to complete them. So I had to find another reason to complete these tasks — something that is not about a positive feeling or reward from completing household tasks. Instead, I found a different motivation: I value my children living in a tidy and clean home, and I value them learning to contribute to the state of the apartment. With this in mind, I started working to tackle a regular routine of household work, not just for myself but for my kids. 

What is getting in the way of following through on your commitments to yourself and others? Is it desire? A lack of resources or reward? Is it something else? If you can figure out what is getting in the way, you can start making a plan for goals that WILL work for you and find the right motivation for completing the goals you need to remain committed to.

Do you need some support in answering these questions and keeping your commitments? Let’s talk.