Making Commitments

When I suggest a time and place to some of my friends to meet one-on-one in the future (like the following week or beyond), they will tell me they don’t know if they can make it even though they have nothing planned for that day/time. They tell me they will contact me on the day of to meet (of course, I always make my plans in advance and rarely see someone ad hoc). What they are really telling me is, “I can’t commit to you right now because I’m not sure I can make it (even though they don’t have any other plans) or something better (or something they won’t say “no” to) comes up along the way”. They are “afraid” that something might show up on that day because of which they will not be able to honor that commitment. These very same people have no problem committing in advance to holiday dates for travel with their families/friends even though that is no more of a commitment than meeting a friend for a tête-à-tête.

There are others who do commit (because at the time of scheduling the meeting, they are available), but they call you last minute to cancel/reschedule because something “more important/urgent” has shown up in their world. This is obviously something they can’t quite say no to, but whose problem is that anyway? Not mine, for sure.

By the way, some of these friends who also happen to be parents, are (unknowingly) teaching their kids the same lesson — that it’s okay to break your promises and to cancel plans at the last minute. They will never learn the value of making a commitment and honoring it. I mention this because I’ve seen it happen firsthand with my nephew and niece. Because their parents don’t keep their promises, the kids end up learning the same behavior (and you can’t blame them either). We think we can get away with telling kids one thing and then doing another (“do what I say, not as I do”), but it doesn’t work that way. Kids will always do what you do and learn from who you are.

Then, there are those who do show up on the mutually-agreed upon time, but they are not with you 100%. Their attention is divided between the things on their mind, their phones, and you. Of course, it’s even ridiculous to think that it’s possible to manage all of that.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the whole point of meeting someone at a mutually-agreed time and place is to give each other your complete and undivided attention. If your attention is divided between your phone, things on your mind, and the other person, why even bother to meet? Because you’re neither able to give your attention to the phone (calls/messages) nor are you able to give your attention to the person across from you. You are trying to do both, and that never works. It’s never worth the cost that comes with it. But, you would be surprised how often people take offense when you remind them of that; if anything, you should be offended the most.

This might seem heretical, but there are many times when I am going out for dinner where I don’t take my cell phone with me. In any case, I am going to be spending this time with friends/family, so there is no need for me to bring a phone. Not having to bring the phone would also mean more time spent together. There is nothing more sad than watching a couple at a coffee shop or a restaurant occupied with their phones. Some of my friends do it too with their partners. It’s called “being alone together”.

There are also those who have no problem keeping their word with others, but they don’t extend the same level of commitment to the promises they make to themselves. There’s a lack of commitment to doing things we have said yes to, but for whatever reason we don’t follow through. When we fail to keep our word with others, we lose trust in those relationships. When we don’t keep our word with ourselves, it lowers our self-trust as we keep repeating the same mistake.

Not committing to things may be akin to having a blank canvas when doing creative work or having an infinite budget for a project, where not having constraints limits you, but having them truly liberates you. When you can do anything, you do nothing.

Because we don’t fully commit to the thing, we don’t find ourselves accountable for the results. Also, commitment alone is not enough. You need to show up every day and do the work. I couldn’t have said it better than Denzel Washington, the American actor:

Without commitment, you’ll never start. Without consistency, you’ll never finish.

There are times when we are afraid to commit to things or ideas. We want guarantees, assurances, etc. for things to work without putting in the time or effort required. Nothing in this world is certain. You’re not in control of the result of what you do; you are only in control of the work at hand.

It’s easy to come up with ideas, but ideas without execution is pointless. Unless you commit to something, you’ll be distracted by everything. When I am making my weekly plan, I am putting a stake in the ground and committing to doing things during the week. By committing to say yes to a few things during the week, I am implicitly saying no to other things.

Going back to our first three examples, we are afraid to commit for a variety of reasons. A big reason is we don’t have the slightest idea how much we have taken on in terms of personal and work commitments, let alone managing them appropriately. We are so used to living reactively and, as a result, never seem to be in control of our life. We try to manage it all in our head, but don’t realize that our head is a terrible place for storing things. The brain is great at ideating, but not for storing those ideas. Think about it — if we could keep it all in our head, why would we save contacts with their phone numbers and their email addresses (basic information)? Why not just memorize it all? Well, we can’t, and it wouldn’t be a good use of our minds.

Think about the reason why some of us use calendars. That’s one way to keep track of our commitments with ourselves and others. In fact, you’d be surprised by the number of people who don’t use a calendar in this day and age and try to keep it all in their head. My father is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t use a calendar to track his commitments. For instance, when he receives a card invite for a social event in the near future, he keeps it in the living area at home so he doesn’t forget about it until the date of the event, as out of sight can be out of mind. But that’s not an optimal use of our mental faculties, is it?

Another reason these people are afraid to commit is because they are constantly driven by the latest and loudest. They can’t commit in case something comes up that is better or they can’t say “no” to, but that is their problem. There are some people who take precedence over others in their life so that when they are unable to meet you, chances are they are afraid to say no to these people (for many reasons). They are constantly reacting to things around them and not living a healthily-selfish life.

One reason could be they haven’t met enough people in their life who would hold them accountable for cancelling last minute or not showing up. Others around them have never taken this up as an issue, which is why they continue to behave the same (implicitly, of course). You could argue that it’s not entirely their fault, but more the responsibility of the people in their lives. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Remember, we teach others how to behave with us.

I understand there are times when legitimate things come up unexpectedly, and that’s life. It’s fine as long as these “urgencies” don’t come up often because then it’s probably less important than we deem it to be. I am trying to state my point subtly, but I hope the euphemism is not lost on you. In my book, it’s okay to cancel/reschedule at least a full 24 hours before the calendar event (if not a couple of days or a week in advance; the earlier the better). That way you can plan your day and week accordingly and spend that time wisely. You are not beholden to them. Of course, you might argue that when others cancel last minute, you can still use that time wisely, and while that may be true, what matters is how you treat future meetings with these people (if at all).

Remember, if they don’t show up at a mutually agreed upon time and place (time and again), it’s not their fault. But it’s definitely our fault if we keep making plans with them and expect different results each time. Whatever hurts, instructs, as Ben Franklin has rightly quipped.

I take same-day/last-minute cancellations/reschedules seriously and it affects my availability when making future plans with these people. It’s unlikely you’re going to keep making plans with someone who cancels/reschedules/doesn’t show up repeatedly.

The advice I’ve received from one of my mentors about calling prospects (or anyone for that matter) is to call them thrice and move on. Not returning your call once can be an accident, twice could be a coincidence, but not returning your call thrice is definitely a pattern. I’ve found the same advice works for when dealing with those who are flaky as well. Of course, there might be others who are less tolerant than I am. Learn from your mistakes and move on.

There are some people who treat personal and work meetings differently (and we are strictly speaking about semantics here). There are even some who take offense when calling a personal rendezvous a “meeting”. For me, whether I am meeting a friend, having a meeting with a client, or spending time with my nephew and niece, what remains the same is my commitment to them in terms of showing up, meeting them, and giving them my undivided attention. I don’t think of a “meeting” as only a work meeting, as some might believe. I also give a start and end time to my meetings for reasons that are obvious to me, but may not be so to some people. They might find it restricting. I feel I am doing them and myself a favor by sharing the exact times. That’s not to say that we can’t extend our meeting (if only for a short while). That’s the reason we have buffer times accounted for in our meeting. For instance, if you know a meeting might take an hour, you block 90 minutes for it. Then, if you get done early, you can use the extra time at hand to your benefit.

Here is my advice for those who need help with keeping their commitments with themselves as well as with others. Above all, keep your word or risk losing self-trust and/or trust with others with which you have relationships. Take inventory of your commitments and honor them. Use a trusted system as it will help you keep track of what you’ve said yes to (and to honor those commitments). Remember, you can’t do it all. When you say yes to a few things, say in a given week, you’re also implicitly saying no to other things. When you can’t honor your commitments (only in case of true emergencies), renegotiate them as soon as possible. You’ll gain their trust and respect.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve coached a number of knowledge workers to live a value-based life, which has allowed them to make and keep their commitments to themselves as well as with others in their lives. Because of this, they are well-respected, trusted, and looked upon by others as having high integrity. This has also helped them build and sustain healthy relationships in their lives. More importantly, it has enabled them to live a proactive life and one that is not at the beck and call of a reactive world.

Don’t be afraid of making a commitment. When you can do anything (let’s say, in a given week), you do nothing. Unless you commit to things, you’ll remain distracted by everything. It’s ironic that we are afraid to commit to things even when we don’t have plans in the near future. We are afraid to put a stake in the ground because we are living life reactively, which is in stark contrast to living a value-based life.

Sign up to get my best advice on improving your personal effectiveness via my weekly Newsflash: