The Lost Art of Keeping Your Word

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How to say yes and mean it.

Eraser erasing the words, "I promise"

Remember that movie Yes Man? The one where Jim Carrey’s character has to say yes to absolutely everything asked of him? On one end, this finds him in situations destined to become famed pub stories (see: tryst with the granny-aged neighbour) and on the other, leads to a promotion at work and a happily-ever-after with a quirky new girlfriend.

IRL, however, saying yes to All The Things can lead to drowning in too many commitments, signing up to projects that you aren’t capable of delivering, despite your best intentions, or not having the dedication to see a project through to the end (because you didn’t really want to do it in the first place). And this is where the art of keeping your word has been lost – in a sea of knee-jerk yeses. We’re on a mission to recover this lost art, and to do this, we need to learn to be stingy with our yeses.

Going back on your word

While your initial enthusiasm can be impressive to others, in the long-term, going back on your word not only has potential repercussions for your professional reputation, but, as Mary Hoang, principal psychologist at The Indigo Project, says, “letting others down can have a negative effect on the way you feel about yourself”.

Keeping your word is essentially about trust, according to Vanessa Auditore, Headspace director at health and wellbeing clinic Pivot. “When you make a commitment to someone, or say you’re going to do something, the other person is relying on you to follow through,” Vanessa says.

She says to remember your actions affect more than just you. “It’s about the collective,” Vanessa says. “In order for the collective to be able to work together, we have to trust that if this person says they’re going to do X, then they will do it. And that the person who says they’re doing Y will get on with Y. It’s only then that we end up with an outcome that benefits everybody.”

How to say yes… and mean it

From little things like forwarding on a contact’s details to delivering a project at the time you promised – all these actions demonstrate integrity, according to Mary. “It’s a fundamental value that employers and business associates seek. Integrity breeds trust and respect in relationships, demonstrating that someone is honest and considerate in their actions,” Mary says. “This can lead to an increase in career and business opportunities and raise your reputation as a person who can be relied on.”

And we all know how a great rep leads to a more successful career or business. So in order to be that person who keeps their word, Mary recommends checking in with your personal boundaries before agreeing to take on that next project.

“Good boundaries come from a healthy sense of self-worth, understanding your preferences and valuing your time and energy,” Mary says. “Learning how to stop and check in with yourself is important, so I suggest you learn how to say, ‘Let me have a think about that/check my schedule’, when requests are made, to give yourself time to think about the situation more carefully and whether it suits you.”

Questions you could ask yourself before committing include: “Do I really have time to take on this new task and do it properly?”, “Is this something I really want to do or am I just saying yes to avoid feeling guilty?”, “Is this taking time away from something else that’s more important to me?”, “What are the consequences (both good and bad) of doing this?” and “Will I eventually have to say no and let someone down when I can’t deliver?”.

This kind of honest reflection is important to schedule in regularly,” Vanessa says: “If you don’t know what your strengths are, what you’re good at, or where your boundaries are, then you’re likely to say yes to things that, actually, you can’t handle.”

Mary adds, “People will learn to respect your boundaries the more that you enforce them, so practising them is a good start.”

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