The Simple Power of Writing Down Commitments

2nd March, 2022

Already, two months have flown by since 2022 kicked off – and for many, this means New Year’s Resolutions are a distant memory (we’ve all been there).

During my monthly review, I like to reflect on the commitments I currently hold. And while there’s always room for improvement, I realised that for the first time I’m actually content with my system for organising and tracking those commitments! I wanted to share that system with you today.

I’m a big fan of systems thinking.

Without a well-designed system for getting from A to B, the best intentions only carry us so far. Such is often the fate of New Year Resolutions – we set goals like “quit smoking”, “lose 10kg”, or “write a novel”, without the faintest idea how we’re going to get there. We get excited about our new wishlist, without truly committing to a process. And we forget to build a sense of realism, dedication and genuine accountability into our aims.

It’s time to change the terminology. If you haven’t yet done so, I invite you to move beyond ‘resolutions’ and venture into the empowering land of ‘commitments’. The way I see it, here are the most important distinctions between the two:

  • Resolutions exist in our hopes, while commitments exist in our actions
  • Resolutions signal intention, while commitments signal dedication
  • Resolutions depend on optimism, while commitments depend on realism

Can you sense the qualitative difference between these frames of mind? They lead to fundamentally different ways of being.

As someone who’s serious about creating a life of my own design, I’ve found it imperative to operate from a place of commitment rather than resolution alone. Here’s my simple method for staying on track, which I’ll explain using the 3 points above.

1) Commitments exist in our actions

With resolutions, we tend to hope for the best. But with commitments, hope is surplus to requirement, because our choices have a firm basis in action.

You already know this – you’re already a master of making commitments. When you make an agreement to meet your friend for coffee at 11:15am, hope is neither needed nor wanted. It only gets in the way of making a concrete plan: what route will I take? If trains are delayed, what will my back-up route be?

The proof of your commitment is that you simply show up on time for your friend. All that happened? You clearly articulated what, where and when something was going to happen. And then it happened.

When it comes to making personal, private commitments, however, we let ourselves off the hook. Without other people keeping us accountable through visible actions (or lack thereof), it’s much easier to rationalise and justify any lapses.

One way around this is to get support from accountability buddies, friends, family members or perhaps professionals like life coaches. In my experience this can be invaluable, but even more important is learning to trust in myself. Otherwise, external accountability ‘tools’ can become another way to avoid taking ownership.

This is why I have a document on my Google Drive simply titled, “Commitments”. I divide this document into two sections: “Habits” and “Policies”. Let’s walk through each of them.

Section 1: Habits

As you’d expect, this section lists every important routine I’m committed to fostering. Each habit has a clear minimum requirement for completion, along with a duration, trigger, tracking method and most importantly, an inspiring purpose.

For example:

  • Habit: meditate for at least 3 minutes, always ending with a compassion practice
  • Duration: ongoing
  • Trigger: after making my morning tea
  • Tracking: habit tracker app
  • Purpose: practice disidentifying from thoughts, feelings and sensations, build compassion for myself and others, feel more vibrantly alive during the day

I also have two general rules that apply to each and every habit, and they allow me some wiggle room when unexpected emergencies arise beyond my control:

(a) never miss twice in a row, and

(b) never miss twice in 1 week

These rules alleviate any guilt or perfectionism that might arise when something forces me to miss a day.

Section 2: Policies

Habits ground my day in purposeful action, but what about those sporadic situations which are less predictable? It’s much harder to build habits when we don’t know when the trigger will arise.

To account for those, I add a personal ‘policies’ component to my commitments document. Simply put, this takes the form: “when situation x arises, my response will be y.”

After all, if a business runs much smoother for having clear policies in place, why shouldn’t your life work the same way? By putting policies in place, you create a living manifesto for how your life is run, and a statement of who you choose to be in the face of challenging/important scenarios.

You can divide these policies into various sections based on life area, location, or however else you want. I have two key policy areas: personal policies, and relationship policies:

  • My personal policies state how I conduct my life in private. For instance, I have a policy around productivity/energy management at work – “when I notice my energy flagging and my body becoming tense, I close my laptop and take 10 deep breaths”.
  • My relationship policies determine how I conduct myself around other people, whether at home, work, or some other place. This is crucial in helping me set boundaries, show up in the way I want to, and be mindful about how I affect others.

Each of my policies has three components: situation, response (i.e. the policy), and once again, purpose.

Here’s an example. As someone who tends toward introversion, it’s important for me to have alone time before events I know will be draining. Think energetic family gatherings, interviews, public speaking, and so on.

I now make a point of avoiding being around lively people in the run-up, or worse, people who aren’t supportive. This is vital in conserving my energy:

  • Situation: the run-up to a big/important event about which I’m feeling nervous e.g. an interview, meeting, public speaking.
  • Response: I avoid meeting negative people, and instead seek supportive company. If the latter isn’t possible, I plan activities that make me feel calm, rested and competent.
  • Purpose: optimise my energy and presence for significant moments in life, and take responsibility of my specific needs.

As you can see, my Commitments document is firmly rooted in action, not wishful thinking. I invite you to get clear on what exactly this looks like for you. Which habits are essential for you to become the kind of person you want to be? Which policies will guide how you intentionally conduct your own life?

2) Commitments signal dedication

Resolutions signal intention, but commitments are about recognising that intention and then dedicating ourselves to action.

Integral to my Commitments document is purpose. Each and every habit/policy is underpinned by a clearly articulated purpose, and that purpose is the channel through which dedication emerges.

Furthermore, each committed action fits into an even wider frame: the purpose of my life as a whole. In short, my ‘why’:

  • Who do I need to be in the upcoming chapters of my life?
  • Which actions are non-negotiable to become that person?
  • Which core values am I dedicating my life to?

This is an even bigger departure from the land of scattershot resolutions. Without dedicating ourselves to some purpose – built on the foundation of truth – our intentions fizzle out the moment we encounter setbacks. As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

If you need a primer on how to uncover your own life purpose, check out this recent article I put together.

3) Commitments depend on realism

Because resolutions exist in our hopes and best intentions, optimism is classically the main tool for sticking with them over the long-haul. But if optimism is a substitute for realism, you may be in for a hard time.

In the fantastic book Atomic Habits, author James Clear explains that the building blocks of success are small, concrete, manageable steps that send you on a desired trajectory, and compound over time. That sounds like commitment in action, with the main tool being realism.

This isn’t to look down on optimism. It’s just to point out that optimism is optional on your journey to fulfilment and prosperity. I’ve noticed that the more realistic my plans become, the more I see optimism as a bonus. It’s a feeling that comes and goes, but whether it’s present at any one time isn’t my primary concern. Regular action is.

This is why in conjunction with writing down commitments, I maintain a schedule of regular reviews (which is a commitment in itself). Every Sunday, I crack open my Commitments document and check in with myself:

  • Where am I out of integrity?
  • What hasn’t been working?
  • Where am I overstretched? Understretched?
  • Which new habits and policies are needed?

As you can see, this doesn’t rely on optimism. Each question helps me to take an accurate snapshot of reality. By priming myself in this way, I can move forward with the week confident that my commitments are sending me on a desired path.

Whether you conduct daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly reviews doesn’t really matter. As long as you check in with yourself before reality slips away from under your feet, you’re golden. That’s how you keep yourself accountable. That’s how you become dedicated. That’s how you make a real change and become someone new over time.

Final Words

You’ll probably notice that in terms of dictionary definition, “resolution” and “commitment” are practically synonymous. And yet in the messy world of human communication, resolutions seem to have taken on a bad reputation over time.

But words are ultimately arbitrary, and my intention here isn’t to nullify the concept of a resolution. If you have a list of resolutions, and you’re taking consistent action based on them, then congrats! I’m not insisting you use the word ‘commitments’ instead, but simply highlighting that there are two contrasting frames of mind.

Whatever words feel most appropriate to you, there are two very different approaches to personal growth: one is rooted in hope, best intentions, and optimism, while the other has a much firmer basis in dedicated, realistic action. The choice is yours.

In this post, I’ve walked you through my straightforward system for harnessing the latter approach. While a “Commitments document” is my current tool of choice, I’d invite you to experiment with your own version.

Over to you… Who do you want to be? And to become that person, what will you commit to doing? Happy writing.

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Hey, I'm Oliver 👋

I write about personal growth, and the art of living with purpose. By sharing my insights, I aim to support you in cultivating (and unleashing) your purpose. Learn more.

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