Tracking Commitments

You’re making commitments all the time. Let’s say you and I agree to meet on Tuesday at 9 am. That’s a commitment. If I show up at our agreed meeting place on Tuesday at 9 am and you’re not there, you will have broken your commitment. I’ll be disappointed, and perhaps somewhat upset at having wasted my time. You may apologize, and we can agree on a new time to meet. When the time for the meeting comes, I’ll be wary. You now have a track record of having broken a commitment to me.

So keeping commitments to others is important. But so is keeping commitments to yourself. While breaking a commitment you’ve made to yourself may not carry the same social stigma than breaking a commitment to someone else does, the effects can be just as bad. You start letting things slip by. Eventually, you think of your commitments as fluid—you abide by some, and not others. You allow the more difficult ones to slip by, even though they may be important.

For example, you could commit yourself to avoid sugary foods. Nobody else needs to know about this commitment: it’s only a deal you’ve made with yourself. If you go back on your commitment—allow yourself a cookie, for example—you open the door to indulging in all sorts of other sugary treats. You now think of yourself as somebody for whom avoiding sugary foods is optional. It’s not a real commitment, but a pretend one. A bad situation all around, since now you’re not only allowing yourself an unhealthy treat but also feeling guilty about it to boot.

It may be that this was a commitment you shouldn’t have agreed to in the first place. Just as it would be wrong for you to agree to meet with me on Tuesday at 9 am if you’ve already agreed to meet someone else at that time, committing to keeping sugary foods completely out of your diet may be counter-productive. You may need a more nuanced approach: perhaps you can have one treat every week. This is a new commitment, one you’ll be more likely to abide to; after a while, you’ll develop enough of a track record abiding to this commitment to make it second-nature.

In today’s hyper-connected world, we’re making commitments to ourselves and to others all the time. While some people may be blessed with powerful enough memories to keep them all in their heads, most of us need external tools to help us keep track of these commitments. For example, many of us have calendars that help us keep track of our commitments to meet others at certain times. Perhaps we also keep some self-commitments in our calendars (e.g., blocking out a particular week for vacation.) But what about your other commitments to yourself, the ones that aren’t time-dependent? How do you keep track of those? (Do you?)