The anxiety of “broken agreements”

I’m a man of my word.

If I say I’ll send you a follow-up, I will send it.

If we have a meeting, I won’t be late. (Which is hard in LA.)

Said differently, I honor my agreements.

With others.

But what about agreements I’ve made with myself?

Do these agreements adhere to the same high-bar of reliability and completion?

David Allen, the productivity icon and author of Getting Things Done believes that we’ve gotten time management completely wrong.

We’re not overwhelmed.

We don’t have too much to do.


“The sense of anxiety and guilt doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.”

He continues. If we constantly break agreements with ourself, we suffer in the form of “disintegrated self-trust.”

And since I love using productivity as a gateway for uncomfortable introspection, I asked myself:

What broken agreements do I have with myself?

The landscape of agreements

Before we examine my inventory of agreements, let’s examine what this loaded term actually means.

David Allen recommends we begin with a continuum of agreements.

The simplest agreement is an appointment. Here, you say to the other party: “I’ll show up at a designated location at a specific time.”

The most complex agreement zooms out on your life and asks questions like: “Am I living my life in accordance to my values?” (Or “Am I living in alignment?”)

Now there’s an ocean of agreements in between these two points. And according to Allen, here’s where it gets too complex for our brains to process it all:

Most executives have between forty and one hundred projects, a “project” being defined as something they want to finish that requires more than one action step (get a new car, hire an assistant, take the family skiing, launch the new product line, restructure their board, get a new set of golf clubs, etc.) Those projects are driven by ten to fifteen key areas of responsibility in their job (strategic planning, asset management, staff development, liaison with the board, etc.) and in their life (health, relationships, career, money, etc.)

Allen uses these metrics to show the impossibility of keeping it all together without a cohesive system. (BTW, we’ve got a training on David Allen’s GTD system.)

But let’s look at the agreements themselves. When I took inventory of my honored agreements and broken agreements, here’s what it revealed:

Honored agreements:

  • Surf every day
  • Build a company that serves others and enables creative expression
  • Be flexible for drop-offs, pick-ups and co-parenting
  • Meditate 2x a day
  • Stay connected with family and close friends
  • Nourish my soul through spiritual practice
  • Be kind

Broken agreements:

  • Regular 1:1 time with each kid
  • Regular 1:1 time with Lisa
  • Eating together as a family
  • Deepening my pool of ideas for a RadReads book
  • Being present

As I reflected on this list, my first reaction was to say “I wouldn’t have broken those agreements if I had more time!”

But I know that’s bullish*t.

(In fact, when I used to coach, I had a rule that you couldn’t say “I don’t have enough time to [exercise]” and instead say “I’ve chosen not to make [exercise] a priority.”)

I feel pretty aligned in how I spend my days, save for a single tension. This tension reveals itself in my broken agreements.

The tension is between being a “great entrepreneur” and a “great dad and husband”. Said differently, my ambition is the point of maximum tension.

Seeing the broken agreements on a piece of paper indicated to me, that I’ve tipped a bit too far into the “great entrepreneur” mode (probably a byproduct of the recessionary headwinds and an insatiable ego) and should slightly tweak the dial back in the other direction.

And I know, my ego will certainly offer some resistance.

Now it’s your turn. What do your broken agreements reveal about you?

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