Managing Agreements

We feel less than great when others break agreements with us, such as not doing something when they said they would. For instance, they might say they will show up next week to meet us, but it’s frustrating when they stand us up. They lose trust in our eyes, which affects our relationship with them. Likewise, we feel no different when we break agreements with ourselves.

For instance, we may have projects that we committed to doing at one point or another. The question is, how many of us have things on these lists from 6 months to a year (or even older) that we have gone numb to? We haven’t fully come to terms with them. We remain torn between doing them and ignoring them. In other words, we get stuck in a cycle of indecision.

Much of the stress we feel in our daily lives does not come from having too much to do, but rather from not finishing what we started. We feel anxious when we don’t do the things we have committed to doing at some level, but here’s the thing – there is nothing more stressful than breaking agreements with ourselves. For instance, every task we add to our list manager is an implicit agreement we make with ourselves.

Sometimes we take on so much that we simply forget our commitments or they get pushed to the recesses of our mind. But, just because we don’t remember an agreement we made doesn’t make it any less of an agreement and it also doesn’t mean we are not holding ourselves responsible for it.

Breaking agreements undermines our confidence more than anything. We can fool everyone, but ourselves. When we break agreements with ourselves, we stop trusting ourselves. It affects our self-esteem and energy. In so many words, it’s a strange state to be in, but because we get used to being in that state, we don’t think about it and before we know it, it becomes our new normal.

The other issue is it’s easy to say yes to others when we don’t know how much we have taken on. We do that when we don’t have a complete inventory of our agreements, let alone them being current and complete. It’s only when we know what’s on our plate will we learn to make fewer agreements and keep them. In the end, it’s better to make a few agreements and to keep them than to take on more than we can manage and keep only some of them. It’s only when we have clarified our agreements that we know what’s on our plate. And it’s only then, we can say no to others’ requests, given the time and attention we have devoted to our current projects.

In order to manage our agreements, we have to know what those agreements are to begin with. It’s a three-step process.We need to capture what has our attention, then clarify what it means to us, and trust we will look at it at an appropriate time in the future. Without capturing what’s on our mind, there is a part of our psyche that thinks we should be doing it all the time. In order to keep track of our agreements, we use a trusted system that is current and complete at least on a weekly basis.

I’m reminded of a quote:

A really contented man has all his yesterdays filed away, his present in order, and his tomorrow subject to instant revision.

Author David Allen suggests there are three ways of dealing with our agreements. Either we dump it, do it, or renegotiate.

With the first option, we consciously decide not to do it. We don’t have to do it, but we need to consciously decide that versus letting it nag at us and undermine our attention. Perhaps, we must consider lowering our standards. For instance, it could mean accepting that we are not going to clean our attic this week and that’s ok. With the second option, we do the thing we said we would do. In other words, we keep the agreement we made with ourselves. We clean the attic this week. With the third option, we renegotiate our agreement with ourselves. We consciously decide to put cleaning the attic on the back-burner and decide to deal with it in the foreseeable future instead.

I know this decision-making framework is easy to understand (and do), but I would suspect most of us (myself included) get caught in the indecision trap about various agreements in our lives from time to time, which comes from a lack of clarity because we haven’t taken the time to capture and think about what has our attention.

We may keep our commitments with others, but when it comes to keeping our agreements with ourselves, we have trouble remaining accountable.

Unless we learn to manage our agreements, we risk being managed by them. It’s the difference between being proactive and reactive. We can either decide to think about things upfront and gain clarity as a result, or we can keep them in our heads and undermine our attention.

We don’t have to do anything right now, but we do need to finish our thinking about what has our attention. It’s easy to keep putting off the thinking because thinking is hard work. The fact remains, few of us have identified all of our agreements with ourselves, much less stay current and complete with them.

It’s better to make a few agreements and to keep them than to overcommit and do only some of them.

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