How to Keep a Promise to Yourself


I’ve hesitated to talk about this, in case I jinxed it, but … well, here goes:

I’ve kept a promise to myself for the last 128 days.

For the first time in many, many years I seem to have a daily creative practice.

Let me say that again:

A Daily. Creative. Practice.

Not, to take an example entirely at random, “Make a big plan! Leap in on Day 1 like a creative WARRIOR, slay ALL the dragons! Coast on this incredible success until … well, until you notice you haven’t done any work in a month, and your brain’s gone all floppy and sad…

No – daily, in fact.

For 128 days.

And counting.

This is good, because if there’s one thing the Official Creativity Wonks agree about, it’s the importance of a daily practice. (I assume they teach them this at Wonk School.)

The benefits of a daily practice are fairly obvious – they include steady progress, increased skill, and plenty of that sweet, crunchy brain-fodder that can only be got by making stuff.

The principle that helped me to establish my daily practice is counterintuitive to the point of absurdity, and I want to share it today in case it helps you too.

It all started far, far away from here…

Last year, the one and only Ramit Sethi shared an interview he’d done with a Stanford professor specialising in behavioural change, BJ Fogg.

[Ramit Sethi, for the uninitiated, is the deeply provoking doyen of, which is in general far more substantial than the name suggests. I’ve been a happy reader and customer of his for years. BJ Fogg was one of his mentors at university.]

The interview was fascinating, but what really stuck with me was one tiny story that Fogg told, which managed, as such things sometimes startlingly do, to unlock one of the head-cages I’d been crouching in for most of my life.

It was a story about teeth – Fogg’s teeth, and specifically the flossing thereof.

Yes, flossing. Bear with me.

Fogg wanted to develop the habit of flossing his teeth regularly.

So he makes a commitment – a promise to himself. He will floss, he declares, one tooth per day.

One tooth.

That’s all.

If he flosses one tooth, he succeeds in keeping his promise.

You can imagine what happens, of course: pretty much every day, he ends up going on to floss more than one tooth. Often even the whole lot.

But every tooth beyond the first is a bonus.

You might be thinking this sounds familiar…

On the surface, it seems quite like “baby steps” – a phrase beloved of motivational types everywhere, from FlyLady to Lao-Tzu. Somewhat similar is Barbara Sher’s excellent notion of the Complete Willingness Unit – a chunk of work sufficiently small that it doesn’t trigger resistance.

But the One Tooth Doctrine (as BJ Fogg to my knowledge has never called it) feels different to me. There’s just … something about it. It’s stubborn. It’s defiant.

It’s ridiculous.

Declaring that flossing one tooth is good enough to be called “success” is … absurd. It’s outrageous.

So much so that it feels like a radical redrawing of boundaries. God, even thinking about it stirs my indignation. It’s like something an angry toddler would do to show just how much they are not doing what you want them to.

How can you say one tooth is enough?

How can you?!

And yet, if you do, it seems that the neuroscience works in your favour: you floss that tooth, and because that’s the commitment you made, your brain goes, “Yay! We did it! We succeeded!” Good feelings ensue, which reinforce your motivation to continue, and to floss another tooth tomorrow.

And suddenly, it’s liberating!

So I took this and ran with it…

(You’ll laugh.)

Here is the promise I made to myself: each day, says I to me, I will complete one stretch (yoga), one spiral (Shiva Nata), one word (novel, blog post, journal…), and one stitch (sewing, knitting, crochet…).

And I’ve done it – 128 times in a row so far.

Yes, there have been a few days when I’ve done literally one stretch, one spiral, one word, and one stitch. Migraine days. Fever days. Travel days. The day I finished up in Accident & Emergency with a kidney stone. That sort of thing.

But the point is that even on those days, I’ve still succeeded. I’m still feeding the happy chemicals to my brain.

I’ve kept my promise to myself.

And it’s working.

The monumental, dazzling benefit of this initiative is that it puts my creative work – and the support practices that enable it to happen – firmly at the top of my priority list (a position that has traditionally been rather precarious).

To get my fix of Yay! I must find a way to stretch, to spiral, to write, and to stitch, each and every day.

In the past 128 days:

  • I’ve rewritten my novel one-and-a-half times (I’m working with a literary agent at the moment to prepare it for submission to publishers) – contrast this with almost seven years to grind out the first complete draft;
  • I’ve quilted and embroidered and crocheted and knit probably more than in all of 2011;
  • I’ve broached Levels 5 and 6 of Shiva Nata;
  • I’ve significantly improved my lower back flexibility, and my Downward Dog has never been so right-angular.

In short, with this one technique, I’ve completely changed my behaviour in relation to my creative work, and it’s having dramatic effects.

It’s fantastic. I can’t wait to see what I’ll get done in the next 128 days…

What’s your One Tooth?

So, does this idea appeal to you? What ludicrously tiny actions would you choose, if you were going to give it a try? Comment and tell me.

133 thoughts on “How to Keep a Promise to Yourself

  1. 128 days…I’m so impressed Lean and by the results …so far beyond the expectations of what one stitch, one spiral, one word would reach
    And yes I’m inspired.
    It will be:
    One word – towards the book I told Thomas Moore I’d write (and told him in front of 200 witnesses in London)
    One minute meditation – (for the ensuring of all things remaining vital, alive and true)
    One tweet – for the sharing of what’s been a pleasure
    One follow – for the continued filling of the inspirational well that is twitter for me
    One gin – for the celebrating of all the other ones 🙂

    Thank you. Thank you VERY much for the timely inspiration

  2. Crikey. I knew you were doing it. I didn’t realise you were doing it for so LONG. Holy cow.

    OK, I might try. Self-care things. One word (pomes), one line/splodge (art), one yoga thing, one – this one is ridiculous, but it really might be helpful – non-essential personal hygiene thing, like flossing or washing hair or trimming fingernails. The stuff I put off when I’m miserable, in other words.

    I worked very hard to take things off this list, like cleaning one surface, Being Educational, etc. This is the revised self-indulgent list.

    Hm. Here we go then.

  3. Ooh i love this because i have been beating myself up for all these plans that never even get past being on a list. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. ahhhhh! i love!love!love! this (and faeries do too)

    i am stealing the one spiral of shiva nata, one yoga pose, write one word, and make one mark (draw)

    thank you! for sharing!


  5. haha! I laughed out loud at “official creativity wonks” – and ALL THE DRAGON!

    I am soooper-prone to SLAY ALL THE DRAGON!!! plans. And your one-X approach sounds delicious. I have started a massive self-care morning plans… iffy so far and sometimes it just doesn’t get done. Right now I just lop off whole sections – yoga first to go, then meditation, then shiva nata, then morning pages… but I might like the mini-bites better!

    So: One Thought, One Stretch, One Spiral, One Breath…. ahhhhhhh. 🙂 Funny how much it overlaps! Thank you muchly!

  6. i came here via amy!

    am amazed (again) at the synchronicity of the universe. i’ve been working (or trying to work) on some tiny habits (introduced to me via Shannon Wilkinson) and was just on a concall with her today about getting out of a rut using small rocking motions (mental or physical changes.)

    my tiny habits i was trying to start were tiny, but not quite as tiny as the ones you mention, and i think you’ve given me the key ♥ thanks heaps.

  7. Thanks so much for your lovely thoughtful comments! This post really seems to be making ripples today, and I’m delighted that so many people are finding it helpful.

    @Ailbhe: YES, ISN’T IT? Deliciously subversive. I love it.

    @Lisa: Part of me still thinks that the beating-up is essential. I believe I may finally be easing that part into a deep and dreamless sleep…

    @Amy: Yay! I’ve been thinking of adding “make one mark”, too…

    @Beth: The mini-er the better, as far as I can tell!

    @Lea: Welcome, friend-of-Amy! I’m so glad you got something you needed here 🙂


    SO MUCH.

    it reminds me of a quote i noted down from the ‘energy of money’ audio course by maria nemeth.

    ‘financial success is doing what you say you’ll do with ease’

    it’s not making a million bucks or not buying takeaway coffees anymore, unless that’s what you said you would do and it’s easy.

    another gem from her (i’m paraphrasing):

    goals are meant to incite excitement. as opposed to a task or to-do. achieving a task is a relief. achieving a goal is a joy!


  9. Oh what a great idea!I’m always trying to slay the whole dragon! One tiny thing, everyday. Even I can do this 🙂
    Write 1 word
    Walk for 5 minutes
    Do 1 yoga stretch
    Make 1 mark

  10. @Hayley: Ah … ease. It’s such an appealing quality – I find it at once terrifying and irresistible. Love those quotes. Thank you.

    @Linda: Slay the dragon one scale at a time! Yes!

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