The Premise of a Promise

Listen to these three variations on a theme:

“That piano, in the living room, has been sitting untouched for months. I’m gonna start playing again.”

“I’ll pick up piano again when my schedule is less busy and I have more time to practice”

“Starting January 1st, I promise to play the piano for one hour, three evenings a week. I will plan out which evenings I will play at the beginning of each week. If I miss my goal by Sunday evening, I have to give up coffee the following week.”

Whoa, hold on!

Can you hear the huge difference in that last statement? Yup, that’s a promise! It’s clear, concise, AND has a consequence. And, guess what, it works miraculously! Most people are very receptive to the notion that they can make any dream come true by making the right specific promises … however, when it comes to the part about giving up your morning cup of coffee for a whole week, they have their doubts.

Who would willingly want to do that?!

Even the most committed, inspired people occasionally bristle against this aspect of HG coaching when they first sign up. The idea of punishing yourself seems counterintuitive to the ultimate goal of self-love and contentment, doesn’t it?

I often hear: “Do I have to make a consequence? Can’t I get the same result if I back each promise with a specific reward?”

No, and here’s why.

There is much literature on the psychology of loss aversion that explains why people are more motivated by negative versus positive reward systems, but you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to understand it. Simply put, rewards get boring. If you win something every time you keep your promise, those little rewards lose their value, and you lose your motivation.

At the heart of the matter, the promise IS the reward.

When you promise to eat vegetables, drink water, skip soda, get out of bed without hitting snooze, pay undivided attention to your spouse or kids, send out five resumes, or call your mother, you start aligning yourself with your ideals. When you keep those promises, you are rewarded in so many ways: you feel better physically, you make progress on your long-term goals, you get positive responses from people and your environment, and you feel great about yourself. Trust yourself to get to that place! You do not need an artificial reward, the benefits you’ll feel and your integrity are the natural rewards you crave.

But isn’t there a better alternative to punishing yourself?

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that consequences are not the same as punishments. Punishments (as retribution for an offense) lie in the realm of morality – good and bad, right and wrong. But when you break your word to yourself, you’re not necessarily doing anything wrong. You just chose what you chose! You are always choosing, and that is what we try to show you. We help you understand how the mind works so you make choices that work for you (rather than against you) and align with your dreams.

Creating artificial consequences makes it way easier for you to choose what’s best for you. And they don’t have to be as unpleasant as biting into a raw onion. They can be funny and creative! It’s up to you to determine which consequences will be annoying enough to keep you paying attention. For example, if I am at all rude towards my co-workers, I have to write a poem and send it to them. Usually my justification for being rude is because I’m busy and “can’t be bothered” with niceties. Having to slow down and write a poem puts me in my place and restores the relationship.

It’s always a work in progress.

Figuring out the right promises and consequences that will help you achieve your dreams at the right pace is both an art and a science. When I help clients implement this system in their lives, we start small with simple promises first. “I promise to always leave my keys in this dish” or “I promise to take a vitamin daily” are easy examples. Once those become second nature, we make an intermediate list, and keep building. Things that were once hard will become second nature. Bigger promises will require bigger consequences. Circumstances will arise that require revisiting your list, tweaking, adjusting, and paying attention to the process. But you get to feel proud, confident, and happy along the way. And you get your dreams! Sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it?

A promise you keep to yourself is an incredible, magical thing.

It’s more than just an intention, or even a plan. Promises make clear on what you really want and specific about how you will get it. Like a roadmap of your truest intentions, you can rely on your promises to point you in whatever direction you consciously picked, no matter what temptations or distractions arise.  

Promises are where our dreams take form and come to life, and your commitment to them is what builds personal integrity, true self-worth, and ultimate happiness. @HGLifeCoaching (Click to Tweet!)

So, say “I promise” this Spring! A clear and resolute action coupled with a meaningful (and irksome!) consequence is all you need to ensure you actually play piano (make it to the gym, eat healthily, save more money, etc.) today … and all year!



Laurie Gerber is a Senior Coach and Co-President of Handel Group® Life Coaching. For over 15 years, Laurie has led international events and private coaching courses. She has appeared on MTV’s True Life, A&E’s The Marriage Test, Dr. Phil and TODAY.


Image courtesy of Juan Pablo Arenas.

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