Running on Empty? 3 Simple Strategies to Honor Your Commitments


By Darren J. Gold

In an age of being overscheduled, overworked, and overburdened, many of us are running on empty, juggling commitments, and dropping the ball.

Now, you may be thinking, “I always keep my commitments, and if I don’t it’s no big deal.”

Let’s take a look at that thought, because it’s common and, I would suggest, untrue and ineffective.

On any given day, you make hundreds of commitments. First, you make commitments to yourself. You may say, “I’m going to get up early today and go for a run.” Or “I’m going to finish that report I’ve been meaning to get to for more than a week.”

And, like most people, you likely fail to honor many of the commitments you make to yourself. Not all the time, and not in an egregious or untruthful way. But mostly in a way that allows you to minimize the significance of not keeping the commitment. You might catch yourself saying something like, “Well, even though I didn’t get up for the run, I got more sleep” or “I got some of the report done, and I’ll definitely be able to finish it tomorrow.”

Second, you make and break commitments to others—to your spouse, partner, family, work colleagues, and friends. Like saying you’ll reply to an email by 5 p.m. but getting to it later that night. Or agreeing to show up at a 10 a.m. meeting and arriving five minutes late. No big deal, right?

Sometimes we’re simply loose with our words. We make imprecise commitments or fail to appreciate what we’ve actually communicated to someone. Consider, for example, a colleague who says, “I think we should take a look at a new product feature,” and everyone in the room nods his or her head while fuming, “I don’t have time for that.” Or your partner sends you a text (knowing you will read it) asking you to pick up some milk on your way home. You don’t reply. Have you made a commitment?

When you’re imprecise with your commitments and don’t follow through, your performance and the performance of those with whom you have relationships suffer. Again, not in a moral or ethical or normative sense. Not honoring commitments is not necessarily a good or bad thing, it will just compromise your potential for performance. It’s that simple.

Honoring Commitments Makes Life Better

When I honor my commitments, my life seems to work better. When I observe others doing the same, I notice the same thing. When I work with organizations that ingrain the importance of honoring commitments into their culture, they seem to outperform their competitors.

Let’s look at how this can work.

Use precise language. 

Consider the following exchange. Person A says, “I need the report ASAP.” Person B says, “Sure.” Is this a commitment? Well, sort of.

Person A has made a request and Person B has indicated her acceptance. But there is no precision in either person’s language.

For example, Person A knows that if he doesn’t have the report by the end of the day, it will delay the project. But he hasn’t communicated that to Person B, and yet he is counting on it being delivered “on time.” Person B has a lot on her plate. She assumes Person A knows this but doesn’t check with him. So she says yes, assuming that tomorrow morning will be acceptable.

When Person B doesn’t deliver the report at the end of the day, performance and the relationship suffer.

Consider the same people who are more precise with their language. Person A makes the following request: “Can you deliver the report by email by 5 p.m.? I need it by then because I plan to work on it this evening.” Person B replies with a counteroffer by saying, “I can’t deliver it by 5 p.m., but would 6:30 p.m. be acceptable?”

Person A agrees, and they now have a precise commitment. The likelihood that a misunderstanding will result in the commitment not being honored is reduced dramatically.

Choose to honor, not keep. 

When you realize how much language matters, you’ll find yourself pausing before making a commitment. You’ll ask yourself, “Can I really honor this commitment?” If the answer is no, you’ll either say so or propose an alternative.

You may have noticed that I said “honor” your commitment, not “keep” the commitment. It’s an important distinction. If you had to keep your word every time you made a commitment, and you took that seriously, you would reserve your commitments for only those times where you were certain you could follow through.

How many times have you genuinely made a commitment, only to have some unforeseen event make it difficult or impossible to keep it?

When you can’t follow through—not because it’s no longer convenient, but because it’s truly no longer possible—then you immediately notify the person who is depending on you and offer to do whatever it takes to repair the issues you’ve caused.

Examine your motivations. 

Imagine that your boss asks you to stay late for an important meeting, but you have a conflicting personal commitment that’s important to you: a date night with your spouse, a parent-teacher conference, or watching your son or daughter perform in a school play.

Now, it may be that your boss’s request is truly critical and you have a real conflict. In that case, you’ll be required to make a choice and perhaps honor your word by speaking with your spouse or family, as the case may be, and offering to do whatever it takes to make up for staying late.

However, if you’re truly practicing awareness, you may notice that the real conflict is between your ego and your word. The request from the boss may not, in fact, be critical. Or, at a minimum, you may simply assume it is without checking. In any case, what becomes critical is your egoic need to please or to not be excluded, which makes it difficult for you to have clear conversations about what’s important to you.

Now imagine a conversation with your boss where you authentically acknowledge the importance of the request and share—without reservation—the importance of your existing personal commitment. Imagine respectfully saying “no” and offering an alternative that might be just as acceptable. This strategy will go miles in helping you honor your commitments. 

Integrity, the practice of honoring your word, has the potential to massively increase your performance in every dimension of your life: your relationships, your work, and your overall well-being. Go forth and declare, “I am my word.” It’s worth it.*  *  *

Darren Gold is a Managing Partner at The Trium Group, where he advises and coaches CEOs and leadership teams at many of the world’s most innovative companies, including Roche, Dropbox, Lululemon, Sephora, Cisco, eBay, Activision, and Warner Bros. He is the author of the new book Master Your Code: The Art, Wisdom, and Science of Leading an Extraordinary Life. Learn more at

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