The Importance of Doing What You Say You Will


Exploring the shore (I've been tagged)

A few months ago I wrote a post called 7 Simple Ways to Make a Great Impression.  People seemed to like it and it was well-received, but one thing about it stood out to me.

Those who commented mentioned the first point – do what you say you will – far more than any of the others.

It seems that people consider this a huge problem.

To be honest, I made this the first point for a reason – I consider it a huge problem too.

We’ve reached a point where people don’t take each other at their word.  When someone says they will do something, we are skeptical.  We weigh the likelihood that they will do it and usually decide that they won’t.

When I was in Nicaragua a few years ago, I was on a boat touring the islands of Lake Nicaragua.  The captain told us that we were going to a place called Monkey Island.  As its name implies, it’s an island full of monkeys.

The boat pulled up just close enough so that we could reach out and feed them.  I grabbed some crackers and handed them to the monkeys who gladly ate them.

My wife videotaped it with her camera, but it didn’t turn out well.  Fortunately a couple of fellow travelers we were riding with taped it and offered to email it to me.  I thanked them for their offer and gave them my email.

As we parted ways, the couple reassured me that they would email it to me that night.

I never got the email or the recording.  I never heard from them again.

That’s not what I consider the bad part.  The bad part is that I never trusted them to actually follow through.  I even remember telling my wife that I didn’t expect to ever hear from them.

I hate that people’s word doesn’t mean anything.

Moreover, I hate that I don’t trust people to do what they say anymore.

But it’s come after years and years of people saying they’ll do something and never following through with it.

Years ago a girl I worked with found out I was moving to another city.  She told me her brother lived there and offered to get in contact with him for me to see if he knew of a job.

Even though I never asked her to do it, I accepted.

As soon as I gave her my information, she told me of a few caveats.

She said she didn’t know if her brother knew of any job openings.

Then she said she didn’t know if she would remember to ask him to look.

Then she said he might not even contact me if he did know anything.

I looked at her dumbfounded.  Why even bother offering?

You might as well tell me you want the credit for doing something nice without ever even doing it.

And I think that’s what bothers me the most.

People want the credit for doing something without actually taking the time to do it.  This seems to be why people will say they’ll do something without actually doing it.

Building Trust Again

Saying you’ll do something without actually doing it seems to be common.  You can see that by the comments in the original post.

Of course, I’ve certainly been guilty of doing this in the past too.

A few months ago, I got an email from a reader about my email subscription.  She offered really great ideas on some changes – some I haven’t even thought about before.

In my email reply back I said that I was planning on changing the email format to make it look nicer.  It took me several months to follow through with it.

It bothers me that I said I was going to do something and didn’t do it for so long.

That isn’t good enough.

I’m a big proponent of the idea that you need to be the change you want to see in the world.

So I’ve resolved to be much more aware of what I say.  I don’t want to be known as someone who says they will do something and never do it.

I want to be better than that.

It’s for this reason that I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution for the past few years.  I don’t want to make a resolution to do something simply because it’s that time of year.  When I say I want to do something, I actually want to do it.

That’s my biggest problem with New Year’s resolutions.  We often make them because we feel we should rather than because that’s what we want.  Because we don’t want it bad enough, we’re less likely to actually follow through with them.

Then we make up excuses for why we didn’t follow do what we said we would.  It makes us feel okay to say we’ll do something and then not do it.

I’m not saying that I’ll never make another New Year’s resolution.  But if I do, it’s because it’s something I fully intend on doing instead of just making one because it’s traditional for the holiday.

The reason I consider doing what you say you will do to be so important is because I want my word to be valuable.  I don’t want it to be something people put into doubt.

It’s about integrity.  There needs to be more of that going around in the world – and there’s no better place to start than right here – with myself.
photo credit: Erick Loitiere

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  1. Hi Steve. I love how you went deeper with this one idea!

    I think that, in the past, committing to too many things prevented me from being able to do what I said I would. 2013 was actually a great year for following through, and I think that it was because I had few commitments. I was a better communicator and friend because of it. When I said yes it was because I (for the most part) actually wanted to do it. I’m getting better at saying No right away if I’m not able or willing to do something although I’m always a work in progress!

    Happy New Year!

    • Happy New Year to you too. I can see how overcommitment can be a factor in not doing everything you said you’d do. With so many things going on, you’re likely to forget one or two. It’s a good idea to be able to say no if you don’t have the time. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on too.

  2. Great post!

    I see this as an opportunity. Everything you said was right and I’ve done it a couple of times and been aware while doing it…

    If you manage to follow through, then people will definitely remember you as someone worth keeping/talking/remembering.

    • I see it as a way to stand out from others too. I know it makes me remember them when people do what they say. We should see it as an opportunity to break away from the crowd.

  3. Integrity is high on my list of values. I, too, have had years of disappointment (how dramatic does that sound?) of people saying one thing and doing another.

    Totally understand what you mean about being sceptical and losing trust. But for every 10 people that don’t stick to their word, one does. And that’s the person I’ll call a friend !

    • Yeah, sometimes there’s disappointment going on with this. I still wish I had that video that couple told me they were going to email me. I have some decent photos, but I really wanted that video. Oh well.

  4. You are so right, Steve – it is unfortunate that a person’s word has lost value. My Grandfather always taught us to be true to our word. I take that charge very seriously.

    I also liked what you said about making resolutions because we feel that we should, not because we really want to. I think that is a lot of the reason why I generally do not make them. I didn’t this year, either. I have things I want to work on, and am committing to working toward that, but I honestly don’t look at it as a “resolution” as much as some necessary self-examination and self-improvement steps. Somehow that feels less like a setup for inevitable failure and more of a positive step toward personal growth.

    • I look at the New Year in a similar way. I just use it as a time to reflect on the previous year. It’s more about self-examination than goal setting. I make goals all year round and change them as I see fit. Honestly I don’t usually have any resolutions to make since I’m always looking for ways to change.

  5. Trust is so crucial when it comes to having meaningful and lasting relationships with those around us. It’s important to be careful about what we do and say so that the trust keeps growing. Trust takes a lot of time to gain but it can be quickly broken. It’s important to follow through with our words, even if it’s something small. Great thoughts!

    • I have to say that I do watch what I say more carefully. And I think that’s a good thing. I don’t want to end up saying something I really don’t mean or intend to do.

  6. It even comes down to the smallest things. If you can’t keep your word with something like getting together for a drink etc., then it really breaks some measure or truth. Maybe it is just me, but doing what you say you will with little things is just as important as big ones.

    • Yeah, small things matter too. I’d like to say they don’t, but I don’t know where I’d draw the line between what does matter and what doesn’t matter. Overall, it’s probably just a good habit to watch what you say and do what you say you’ll do for everything – big or small.

  7. Wonderful article. Today people do not value their words. But they fail to realize that by not keeping their words, they are losing the trust of the other person. If we cannot keep our words, we should not offer it. And if we by some reason are not able to keep up our word, then you should take responsibility to yourself and make the other person understand why you were not able to do it.

    • That’s why I’ve been watching what I say a lot more – it’s about responsibility. I feel responsible for what I say I’ll do. It’s not like other people don’t notice, they do. I just need to make sure they notice in the best possible way.

  8. Couldn’t agree more. I’d rather under promise and over delvier than the other way round. The world seems to be full of false promises – projects that don’t deliver on time or budget, salesmen who over-sell. Don’t get me started on governments! We can though make a difference by saying what we mean and meaning what we say, especially to ourselves.

    Have a great 2014 everyone.

    • I’m hoping that I make a difference – a small difference, but one nonetheless. I’m like you, I’d rather under promise and over deliver than the other way around.

  9. I’ve been doing a lot of goal setting and tracking recently.

    The consequence is that I’ve become well-calibrated. I understand my current reality better than that optimistic part of me which wants to ignore the true unflattering picture – I’m constantly failing. One consequence is that my hit-rate has increased.

    I set fewer goals. I give myself more time to accomplish them. I set shorter time-frames. And so on. I think News Years Resolutions are, for the current me, untenable. Instead, I’ve got January resolutions. I’ve also stopped telling people what I’m trying to accomplish. Instead, I just tell them once I’ve actually done it.

    I don’t think people are trying to get the credit before they do it. I think it’s that we have a part of us which wants to or feels obligated to offer help. But then the usual cultural mechanisms which ought to get us to follow through no longer exist (e.g. in the past, a person’s word was much more important – now, we’ve got money; now, we no longer see the same people over and over again, so our lack of integrity is not as apparent, etc…).

    Happy 2014!

    • You might be right that it can be about obligation. I remember a time when a friend’s wife died. He said a lot of people offered to help in whatever way they possibly could. Well, a little while later he needed to move some of her stuff out and asked those same people for help. Nobody actually followed through with their offer. In that instance I think it’s very cultural, like you said. People just feel like they should say those things. I think people should also realize that you need to back what you say up – whether you feel obligated to say them in the first place or not.

  10. I am a firm believer that actions speak louder than words. I want to be the type of person that people can trust, so I focus my attention on doing things that are trust-worthy, particularly keeping my word.

  11. Hey Steve – I’m not a big fan of new years resolutions this time of the year. If I do set them, I try to set a general expectation or intention for the year. Last years was to blog weekly and give more daily. I met about 80% of this goal and am satisfied that I as able to do it. This year, I’m not feeling it so much. And definitely don’t feel like setting them at this time of the year. It feels like any goal set on the beginning of the year is done out of habit. And this is one habit that fails often and always! haha

    Anyway, excellent post to encourage us to be more truthful and accountable to ourselves. We gotta be truthful and follow through to ourselves before expecting that from anyone else.

    • I have nothing in particular against New Years Resolutions. I just see most people making them because they feel obligated to do them or expected to make them. I’d rather make a goal because it’s something I want to accomplish. That can be done at any time of the year. So it’s more about the “why” behind the goal than anything else.

  12. “The bad part is that I never trusted them to actually follow through.”

    —> I’ve had the same feeling, and I absolutely hate it. I hate it when people say “yeah let’s do this and that” and then there is no follow-up. I try to do my best to break this bullshit.

  13. One of the biggest things that breaks my heart is having to explicitly teach my kids from three about people saying things they don’t intend to follow through on. Things like, “You can have my child’s toy soon!” In one incident a woman strung him along for nearly two hours with this line, until eventually, of course, everyone had to go home. I’ve lost count of the number of times since then I’ve had to advise my children to completely ignore an adult’s word.

  14. Hey Steve,

    you’re right! What gets me is the way so many people are banging on about ‘Know, Like & Trust’ as if this is something new or aeven talking about it as a model.

    These days people who aren’t genuine and don’t operate with integrity have fewer places to hide, thanks to the transparency of the internet.

    But true success in life as well as in business has surely always been about integrity, hasn’t it?

    • Yeah, the internet has made the world a little more transparent. People can find out more about what you say a lot easier. Still, it doesn’t seem to stop people from doing it – at least not yet.

  15. mike wilson says:

    hey Steve,stumbled across your awesome blog and love it! have spent time hitched to your philosophical wagon and time running around trying to find it again. where are you now?

    • Thanks, Mike, I’m glad you love the blog! If you’re asking where I’m traveling right now, I’m actually at home in Houston at the moment. I’ll be taking a short trip next month though.

  16. Mike wilson says:

    That sounds like a post! “Take more vacations to be more productive!”

  17. “All you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.” Mt 5: 37
    That’s a part of my personal mission statement.
    Jim Rohn said that the worst threat of using the lies, is that you must believe them a bit, they skew the reality for you.
    The more and more we live in the unreal world.

    • There’s some truth to that. I’m sure most of the people who said they would do something truly thought they would get around to it. But then it gets put off and off until they just forget about it completely. It’s better to be more self-aware when you’re doing something like this.


  1. […] This is important. And I don’t think this is a question of character, or an innate quality, I believe it falls down to simple habit. If you make a habit of doing what you say you will, it will surely become easier. When you have a habit of not doing what you say you will, it is easy to make big claims light-heartedly and not follow up on them. […]

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