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December 5, 2018

How We Make Promises, Plans, and Possibilities

Many people have big bold visions for the world, but it starts with either a promise, plan, or possibility.

I have a client who is currently in the process of writing a novel. It is a great story with tremendous relevance to the predicament that so many of us find ourselves in these days: isolation, meaninglessness, hopelessness, feeling powerless in a world gone out of control. This novel not only paints a bitingly accurate portrait of what it is like to be alive today, but it also offers a vision of hope and redemption.

All of these are great reasons for my client to be up early every day, on fire with inspiration to move his novel forward.

What in fact happens is the all too familiar story of people who have big bold visions: less than he hoped. 

I ask all my clients to set intentions for the week, and then to choose 5 items for each day. Before that,  I ask them to make the important distinction at the outset between promises, plans, and possibilities.

Let’s break them down.

  • promise is something that you say you are going to do and you will absolutely do it, no matter what. It is important to never ever, ever, make a promise that you think there is even the slightest chance that you may break. Making promises and keeping them is how you build integrity, how you build relationships of trust, and even more important, how you learn to trust yourself. When you make a promise, make it along the lines of “I will do this or give up my first born child.”
  • A plan is something you intend to do, and it is extremely likely that you will actually do it. Setting a plan and not keeping to it will inconvenience other people, and it will mildly erode your trust in yourself, but not anything like to the same degree as breaking a promise. Everybody needs to make plans, but in today’s fast-paced chaotic world, sh** happens and sometimes even the best-made plans go awry.
  • Possibilities are things that might happen. It would be a great idea if they did happen, but who knows? Maybe we will get to it, and maybe we won’t. Creating a possibility of what might happen and then not doing it should have no negative consequences in yourself nor for anyone else. It was just a nice idea, but probably a little ambitious.

You might begin your day like this:

I promise to:

  1. Send an email to Jack
  2. Pay the electric bill
  3. Write 5 minutes on my novel
  4. Meditate for at least 5 minutes
  5. Call John back as I promised.

I plan to:

  1. Work on my novel for 20 minutes
  2. Meditate for 20 minutes
  3. Go to the gym
  4. Take a nap after lunch
  5. Spend an hour working on my book proposal

It is also possible that I might:

  1. Work on my novel for an hour
  2. Meditate twice today
  3. Get carried away and work on my book proposal for 4 hours

You get the picture.

Now, here are a few nuances:

Never Break a Promise

  • It is better to make small promises that you can absolutely keep no matter what, than to make overambitious promises and break them. Consequently, as you can see above, it is better to promise to work on your novel for 5 minutes and keep it, than to say you will work on it for an hour and break it.
  • Every time you break a promise, your word has less value. As I said above, but it is worth saying again, the primary and most obvious consequence is that other people cannot trust you when you break your word. If you promise to do something and you do not do it, it is more hurtful and disappointing to others than you might imagine.  What we do not appreciate immediately is the destructive power it has on your relationship with yourself. If you make promises and break them, you become secretly, and privately, in your own eyes a person without integrity. You develop a private and enabling habit within the secret chambers of your own mind where you cannot trust yourself, because you cannot keep your word. That is a slippery slope that can end up as a life of deceit and even addiction. Consequently, think very carefully before you write a promise on your list. Make it ABSOLUTELY doable, and never ever, ever, ever, break a promise, no matter what.


One simple way to make it less likely to break promises is to ask someone to be an accountability partner. It is much more important to learn to keep the promise than to achieve that particular outcome. In other words, making promises and keeping them is an end in itself — independent of what you promised. It creates integrity.

When I coach people (and I only take 7 clients a year) I allocate another coach as a mentor. My clients report every day to the mentor on the success of their promises, plans, and possibilities. The mentor acknowledges the email, congratulates the client on their triumphs, and expresses extreme concern about broken promises and mild concern about broken plans.


An even better way to ensure that promises do not get broken is to set up a penalty. An easy way to do this is to open a PayPal account, put $1000 into it and give your accountability partner access to the username and password. Don’t pick your sticky ex or someone you met on the street for this.  Pick someone you trust with your life.  If you set a promise and break it, $10 gets transferred to a non-profit: ideally, one which you do not approve of, it adds to the pain. The second time you break a promise, it is $20. Each time you break a promise, it keeps doubling. Trust me, by the time the penalty gets to a few hundred dollars, you will just find a way to keep your promises no matter what.

Many people have inspiring visions of what they would like to do in life, this all happens through tremors of creative flow. Visions and ideas only become real when we develop the capacity to make promises and keep them. For many of them, this is a skill that takes some time and support to develop. 

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