Photo by Jacob Morch

2 Foundational Principles of Personal Productivity, and How to Follow Them

It is simpler than it seems to do well and feel happy, you just have to go back to the basics.

Mike Sturm
Nov 23, 2017 · 8 min read

About a year ago, I was traveling with the president of the company I work for. We had met with some high-level personnel at a large customer to finish negotiating a large contract. The day wrapped up, and we found ourselves in a corner booth at a fairly nice restaurant. The server brought us our drinks, and we toasted the closing of the deal. I decided to take the opportunity to extract some sage advice from someone that, to me, seemed to have it all together. So I asked him, point blank:

“What do you think is the key to success?”

He paused and looked down at his glass of wine, allowing a faint, but unmistakable grin to dance across his face. Then he looked up at me, and in the most sincere and assured manner in which I’ve ever seen anyone say anything, he said the following:

There are only 2 things you need to do in order to do well in life:

- Honor every commitment you make — big or small

- Keep your commitments to a minimum

Be absolutely obsessive about those two things, and all else will follow.

This seemed too simple to me. But the more I wade through this life — with obligations to my customers, co-workers, family, and friends — the more I tend to agree with it.

What I have found is that when I feel the best about how I am doing — when I feel most productive — it is because I am confident in my relationships. Those relationships are the ones I have with all of the people in my professional and personal life — including the relationship I have with myself. When the things I am doing are helping to keep the commitments I’ve made to myself and others — even when I don’t get a ton of stuff done — I still feel like I’m doing well. I think we underestimate just how much productivity has to do with feeling good about what your’e doing, rather than meeting metrics.

Doing well really does boil down to these two things. Following them is simple, but not at all easy. The urge to do #1 can get confused with the urge to say “yes” to a bunch of things — meaning you abandon #2.

You may feel the urge to make people happy, or to help them out, and you should — it is good to help others. However, if you can’t keep the commitment, or if you have to break another commitment in order to keep another, then you’re not really helping much at all.

Honor Every Commitment

Honor every commitment you make — big or small. This does two things to make you a more responsible and effective person. First, it builds credibility and trust — as a colleague, a friend, a spouse, and whatever else your roles may be. Secondly, it alleviates a lot of emotional and cognitive dissonance, both within yourself, and within your relationships.

Stephen Covey, in his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People uses the metaphor of an emotional bank account that is shared by you and anyone you interact with regularly. When you honor a commitment, you make a deposit in that account. When you break a commitment — no matter how small — you make a withdrawal from that account. I have found that often times, the withdrawals from breaking commitments — regardless of how small the commitment seems — are quite large. Unfortunately, the deposits made by keeping subsequent commitments are much smaller in comparison to the withdrawals.

Keeping commitments, big and small, goes beyond commitments to other people. Plenty of people sacrifice their time, resources, and ambitions for the sake of others. This is good, but it can become harmful when you keep those commitments at the cost of another important kind of commitment: the commitments you make to yourself.

When you tell yourself you’re going to do something, but then push it aside in favor of other things, you damage your trust in yourself. Yes, you read that correctly; you do have a relationship of trust with yourself.

Effective people are effective in large part because they trust that what they set out to do will get done. They believe in themselves because they believe themselves. But when you procrastinate — when you keep failing to do what you told yourself you would do — that trust dissolves. It makes it that much more difficult to motivate yourself to meet deadlines you set for yourself when you haven’t been doing it so far. You intuitively sense that you cannot trust yourself, based on your track record of broken commitments.

Keep Your Commitments to a Minimum

Breaking commitments causes damage to relationships and reputations. Knowing that you will have to break a commitment causes anxiety about that inevitable damage — for both you and the other party. So the best way to prevent that anxiety and damage is to spend time on number 2: minimizing commitments.

The thing is, the work of keeping commitments takes time — often more time than we initially think. It also takes up attention, again, often more than we initially think. Both of those things — time and attention — are finite resources. We should never give them up freely to just anyone who demands them.

Remember: unlike money, you cannot earn more time or attention, so guard them more carefully than you do your money.

This is not to say that you should try to do the fewest things possible, be a flake, and be lazy. In fact, quite the contrary. When you commit to some outcome, you should do all that you can to ensure you bring it about. You should strive to go above and beyond what you promised. Surprise, dazzle, and delight others with what you do. But doing so is only possible if you carefully guard your commitments. Having fewer commitments means you have more time and attention to devote to the things you have chosen to do.

Ultimately, this second principle is about maximizing through minimizing — maximizing the value of your commitments comes as a result of minimizing the quantity of them. This makes perfect sense if you think about it.

Usually, taking on a lot of projects means being tasked with unchallenging and non-value-add work in some portion of those projects. If you get really serious about keeping every commitment, your natural tendency will be to seek out commitments to things that you feel provide a good return on the investment of your time and attention.

Moreover, minimizing your commitments also does another thing to help add to the value you bring to yourself and others: it makes you more agile. Agility here is your ability to spontaneously help someone with something — even without being asked. Aside from helping you to be a better person, it also helps you by solidifying your relationships with those around you. As if that weren’t enough, being agile allows you to explore new and interesting opportunities — which is key for personal growth.

One simple way to think about it is this:

Essentially, you are your commitments, so just how many things are you trying to be?

Try to be too many things to too many people, and you fall short on most of them. If you really focus on doing a few things consistently well for the people in your life, and you will bring real value to those relationships. That value is at the heart of a truly productive life.

The Action Item: Keep a Commitment Ledger

Now for the takeaway: keep a commitment ledger. It is a simple record of the following:

  • what you have committed to
  • to whom you’ve committed, and
  • when you’ve committed to doing it

If you’re reading this, you probably have a “ to do” list — a list of things that itemize just how busy and stretched thin you are. But how many of those “to dos” represent actual commitments? How many do you think you’ll be able to keep? Do you look at your list in this way?

You may not even know: and that is part of the problem.

In order to understand the value or priority of any action or project, you need to be able to understand its underlying commitments — which means understanding to whom you have committed. Projects and actions are things, and they lack value without connection to relationships in your life — whether with other people, or with yourself.

Keeping a commitment ledger is simple. If you have a to-do list or a project register, this ledger can be embedded there. Any time you tell someone that you are going to do something, tag it with something that lets you know that you’ve committed to it. If a date was promised, write that in with it.

An even more reliable approach would be for any commitment with a date attached, put that on your calendar as an “all-day” event. I use both Microsoft Outlook and the iCloud calendar. As an added jab to yourself, being each entry on the ledger with (in all caps) “PROMISED:”. It works like a charm. This way when you look at your stuff on tap for the day, the very top of the calendar day will say “PROMISED: email report to Jeff” — or whatever. It’s tough to ignore that. This practice also helps to separate the true commitments I have from other stuff that just needs to be done at some time.

Wherever you put them, look at those commitments every day — first thing, if possible — and direct most of your energy toward them. Direct any remaining energy and attention toward making sure you don’t take on any more commitments than you can handle. This is difficult, but doable — if done in the right way.

For any commitments you know you can’t meet, re-negotiate them as soon as possible, and be gracious about it with the person. After all, you made them a promise, so make sure they understand that you are doing this as soon as you could have. The amount of respect that this will earn you (in most cases) is valuable enough to pay for any extra time you spend managing your commitment ledger.

In the end, we are only as good a person as the commitments we keep. So if you want to be the best person you can, guard your commitments like you guard priceless heirlooms. They are among the most valuable things on which you can spend your time and attention.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Mike Sturm

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Working tirelessly to help you think like no one else. Author: “Be, Think, Do” Also Subscribe to my newsletter:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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