The big goals get all the attention, right? (Losing weight, graduating, having a good relationship with our families.) But before we can reach those big goals, we have to learn how to keep all the little promises to ourselves along the way— it’s that process that changes us. Those little, seemingly inconsequential promises are actually the Big Little Promises* that, when kept, strengthen our confidence and change the story we tell ourselves. They help us see ourselves as people who do things outside of our comfort zone. These big little promises silence the inner critic — the one who tells us we aren’t good enough, or strong enough. I call her Mildred. The little promises may lead to a bigger promise, of course, or not. But those little ones add up, and they change our story.
These promises can be anything—sticking to a deadline, leaving work on time, making time for something that’s important to you, returning phone calls. The key is to use the small promises to reach the bigger ones. With each fulfilled promise, our big goals seem probable, not just possible. Those small promises that we keep chip away at the negative stories we might tell ourselves.
How to keep those Big Little Promises.
When I gave birth to my son, my big little promise was to keep my son alive, healthy, and loved. That big little promise took over my life for the first year, and, frankly, it was the only one I was capable of keeping. Now he is older, and I am actually getting some sleep (although I am still putting the milk in the pantry and the cereal in the fridge). Recently, I wanted to start getting up early, before my son, so I could take care of myself (take a shower, meditate, practice yoga). The problem was, it was way easier to use “I’m a mom” as an excuse to sleep in. So I kept breaking that promise to wake up early. Then Mildred started blabbing again, gossiping about me, right inside my head. I had to remember how to shut her up. I had to remind myself that I could follow through on my promises. Right now, I’m doing a better job. I’m not perfect. I skip days. That’s okay. Keeping promises to myself at this stage in my life looks different than when I was training for a marathon, but there are some revelations that I wanted to share in case they help you, too.
Be Kind to Yourself
I am the Queen of Big Ideas. Big. Grande. Go big or stay home. All or nothing. But my enthusiasm starts to fizzle after awhile. Or I’ll miss a goal. I won’t make a self-imposed deadline or I’ll miss a few days in a once-a-day challenge, and suddenly it all seems out of reach. Mildred starts flapping her jaws again.
Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that if we don’t keep our promise once or if we consistently aren’t able to keep our promise, that is okay! Be kind to yourself. You’re not getting graded on this. Don’t let Mildred tell you any different. Give yourself permission to take sick days, to alter your plans, to rest or relax when you need to. Just because we don’t do something one time or we miss a day doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile or negates all the times that we did follow through.
Keep Track of the Victories!
To help keep the occasional slip up in perspective, find a way to chart your success. Write it down. Make it fun. Reward yourself. Make it social – find someone else who has a similar goal and keep each other motivated. Make a note in your calendar when you keep your promise. Put a big red dot on your planner. If digital is your thing, try an app like “Streaks,” that will let you set up and track daily or weekly activities. Then, if you miss a day or a week, it won’t seem like such a big deal because you have that big red streak in your calendar to remind you of all of the times you did keep your promise. The next streak is only a kept promise away.
Stay Small and Flexible
This is the key — make realistic promises. Make them even smaller or easier than you think you need to at first. Start with the easiest and smallest promise that you can. If your goal is to read more, don’t set a goal to read a book a week. Start with a promise to read 10 minutes every night before bed. Then you can move up from there. You have to read for 10 minutes before you can read for an hour.
If it is hard to keep a promise, try lowering the bar rather than beating yourself up. Experiment with different ideas. Instead of promising to do something every day, say you’ll do it once a week. Make a smaller promise. Make it as small as you possibly can. Set yourself up for success. You might think that the small doesn’t matter, but it leads to the bigger, harder promises. It leads to more. But start small. (This is ESPECIALLY true if you have young ones running around.)
I currently meditate every day, but I am REALLY lenient with myself on what counts as “meditating.” For me, it needs to be every day because practicing consistently is what helps me most. Some days I meditate for 20 minutes in my designated space. Other days, the most I can manage is a few minutes in my car, or the 60 seconds as I wait for the water to heat up for my shower. That still counts, dang it! I’d rather look back and say that I did it for one minute during each of the last five days than say I didn’t do it at all. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Make It Matter
If what we promise to ourselves doesn’t really matter, if it’s not something that is deeply important, we’re not going to keep that promise. That’s okay! Let’s face it, we all have a lot going on, and most of us aren’t sitting idly wondering how to fill our time. There are the things we have to do (work, eat, feed our kids and pets), things we need do every so often (shower, take out the trash), and the things we want to do (meditate, workout, socialize, travel). We don’t need to do things just for the sake of doing them, or because “they” tell us we “should.” If we all did everything “they” (the experts, the advice columns, you know — “they”) say we should do every day, we wouldn’t have time for the necessities. Adding something else into the mix, no matter how good it sounds or how much we might like to do it, is hard. There are only so many hours in a day. So if you are going to commit to something, really commit, make sure you’re doing something that matters to you, and you alone. Spend your time purposefully.
Break a Promise
If there’s a promise that’s hard to keep, even after making it as small and easy as possible, then consider whether it’s something that really matters to you. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as you thought it did. Maybe it’s not the right time or “season” in your life for that promise. That’s okay! Let go of it. It is kinder to let go of that promise than to keep butting your head up against a wall. By not keeping that promise, you’ll make room for another one that does matter to you. Give yourself permission to break a promise, and even congratulate yourself when you do.
It’s making those teensy, tiny promises to ourselves – and keeping them. Following through on our commitment to ourselves, to what we really want, makes it easier and easier to show up. Mildred doesn’t define us. She doesn’t get to decide how we live or what we are capable of. Whatever your promise is, take small, consistent steps. Make big little promises that move you closer to your goals. Keep those promises. Tell Mildred to *$%@! off.
Wishing you a few moments of clarity amidst the chaos,
What tips have you found that help? Tell me, I’d love to know!! Do you have questions? Leave a comment, email me, or connect on social media.
*This is a total homage Lane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies,” which was made into a series by HBO. If you haven’t read the book or seen the series, I recommend them highly.