The Art of Making a Promise to Yourself

When it comes to making a promise, sometimes the best person to focus on is yourself.

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When did you last make a promise to someone else? Perhaps you promised you would call your mom, or assured a friend you wouldn’t be late. Perhaps you promised a partner you would pick up the dry-cleaning, or made a vow to a colleague that you’d take care of their work while they were away. For the most part, we tend to keep the promises we make to other people. There’s something about having a witness, and being responsible for another that makes us step up and follow through on our commitment. Yet, when we make promises to ourselves, well… That becomes a whole different story.

For example, how often have you promised yourself you would get up one hour earlier than needed in order to practice yoga, go for a run, or meditate, only to hit the snooze button and thought "I’ll start tomorrow"?  Or perhaps the promise to yourself was to stop being such a self-critic, to be gentler on a relative, or to help out in the community more, and yet several months later those promises were completely forgotten.

In yoga, tapas, one of the five Niyamas, is the practice of keeping our commitments—regardless of those are to ourselves or to others. There are good reasons to practice keeping the promises we make ourselves. Tapas builds our self-confidence. Whether we are aware of it or not, when we promise ourselves we will get up an hour earlier every morning to meditate but don’t, we are sending ourselves a signal that we are not to be trusted, and worse still, we are reinforcing the idea that we cannot achieve transformation.

Conversely, each time we do fulfill our promises we are reminding ourselves of what we want, and that we are capable of achieving it. That energy stays with us so that the next time we have a choice to keep or break our promise, we’ll more likely choose the former. It’s the same as creating a new habit.

And, should we need any more convincing that keeping our promises to ourselves is a good idea, then we need only look to how much happier we feel afterwards.

But it’s not always easy to start out, so here are some tips for keeping the promises we make ourselves:

Make a ritual.

Start by writing down the promise you intend to keep to yourself in as much detail as possible. This helps us get clear on what we truly want. The more details included, the easier it will be to execute on our promise, as we’ve provided ourselves with a kind of "plan of action."

When we get writing, we may also realize we are making the wrong promises to ourselves. Perhaps we think we should meditate before work. Thinking we should do something won’t provide us with the inspiration to actually do it, so maybe our promise to ourselves in this case would change to be “I promise to follow my own guidance rather than others.” Or, “I promise to be more accepting of who I am and my own path.”

Write down these promises and check in every now and then. What inspires you? Are you working toward that goal? Procrastination happens, but if you examine the reasons behind your promises, your more inclined to follow through.

Get a witness.

Just as we tend to keep our promises to others because we have someone witnessing our words, it can be helpful to share the promise we are making to ourselves with a friend. Expand your own support system—when you need a reminder or an added dose of motivation, they're there to support you. 

These don't always need to be in person either. The Wanderlust 21-Day Yoga Challengebo offers a virtual yoga studio to foster support among yogis. Regardless of your commitment, find ways to include others in on your mission. It might inspire them to make similar positive life shifts.

Note your feelings.

We might waver on our promise when things get rough, so it’s helpful to record how we feel each time that we do keep a promise to ourselves to remind ourselves that it’s totally worth it. If your promise is to meditate more, how do you feel after that first session? How do you feel about two weeks, or three, or an entire month? 

Your promise might be more related to your career—"I promise not to answer emails as soon as they come in." Are you more productive? If your commitment is about eating better, or making an effort to stick to an exercise routine, has your body changed? Keeping track of your progress is often a great reminder in keeping you focused.

Cultivate longing.

In the end, the main reason we break our promises to ourselves is because the enthusiasm simply wasn’t there; we didn’t truly want the change. From following the steps above, we become more deeply in tune with our underlying desire for transformation. Perhaps we want to live a life of greater freedom, love, or service.

If we stay focused on this heart’s desire, then our promises won’t be an effort at all—they will become something we simply have to do.

Helen Avery is a contributing writer for Wanderlust. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.