The Power of Self Contracts

In November, I announced my newest class, Contract Systems. I taught it for the first time in December. While mostly about personal contracts between multiple people, I thought self contracts were worth covering. But I didn’t have much experience with them, so I decided to fix that.

After a lot of research and tinkering with the idea, I realized that I basically had a self contract—the recurring task list and calendar that I teach as the core of my normal productivity system, along with my boundary list (my personal rules/don’t items—like when I won’t teach a class or run an event, mostly aimed at preventing burnout). 

So, heavily utilizing copy and paste, I reformatted those things as a self contract, added a few administrative notes, printed it, signed it, and decided to see what happened.

Despite the fact it just felt like a formatting change, I did notice some real benefits I wanted to share, along with the how to.

Firstly, I think I got more done/was more consistent. I already consider myself a relatively disciplined person, but the contract format did a few things. One, it really made it feel like an agreement, something prescriptive, not a note I had made simply describing my routines. Two, if I didn’t stick to the contract, I had to add what I dubbed an error addendum, describing, among other things, why—I felt like I had to have a really good reason. This also let me track patterns, and demanded course correction. (Some reasons were built in—but more on technicalities later.) 

Secondly, kind of going with that, I had what I dubbed change addendums. I could change the contract if needed, but again, I needed a good reason. I also had to wait three days—and I still had to want the change, and not have tweaked its terms. This also let me easily track any changes I made, and remember why I’d made the change, and when. (Sometimes, this gets blurry as months and years pass, and I might undo things I did for a good reason, or not correlate the change to something else, if the timing gets forgotten.)

So, the administrative how to. 

I came up with a brief goal/why/mission statement for the very beginning of the contract, basically spitting out how my productivity system works—values first, maintaining areas of life, including myself, making progress on goals and projects, and generally completing what needs to be done. It’s simple, but I liked the idea of including the big Why. 

Next, defining the term. I went with one month contracts. I preferred the shorter term to increase the checking in on it. This is ultimately a matter of preference, though. I also note that before the contract is up, I should sign the next one, with any reasonable changes, to give the system continuity.

I made a note about check ins—when I should be sure to check off the things that were done, plan to get the rest done, etc. I chose a recurring basis, since that’s what my original system was based on, officially incorporating it into my preexisting weekly review, but realistically, I poke the contract almost every day. 

Next, how changes work. Since I don’t have another party who’s signed this contract to negotiate with and balance against, I decided to balance it against time—so necessary changes can be made—life happens—but not on a whim. I decided I would write up the change, (and why—there should still be a good reason), and then wait three days—still wanting the change, no tweaks—for it to go into effect. Then, I date, sign, and it shall be so. I also added a note that I don’t need to write up a full change addendum if the change is someone else’s—for me, mostly my wife’s or a doctor’s. A boss might play into most people’s considerations. 

And, error addendums. Or, if the contract gets broken, what happens? You don’t want the whole thing to fly out the window. I also advise against any self imposed consequence here—it’s easily unrealistic, can get iffy depending on your mental health status and history, and it ultimately doesn’t address the core issue (why the contract got broken), risking becoming a trade off (“am I willing to face X consequence to get to break the contract?”). Instead, I use error addendums. The form has the basics—the date and what went wrong—the ever important why, what was done to fix it immediately/why it turned out okay, since that’s important, (ex: chore wasn’t done today, because I was tired, but I rested and it got done the next day), and, furthermore, what was done to prevent it from happening in the future, to advise future contracts (ex: I made changes to my sleep schedule to promote better sleep). I also lay out exceptions—like that there’s no error addendum needed if the error was due to good, big things that still mess up productivity—travel, a holiday—or someone else’s cancellation (that’s not on me), or a directly conflicting event (versus, say, a recurring task—since most events will cut into routines to some extent). 

Also, I have a reflection addendum. I added a note that at the end of a contract, I should add a reflection addendum, to keep track of my thoughts at the time, especially if there weren’t any other addendums, and to note any changes I may be making between contracts. 

Next, the copy and paste bits. Tasks, or your do items—for me, my recurring task list and calendar events for the term of the contract. And, rules—or don’t items, like personal boundaries, which I gave examples of above. 

I’m on my third self contract now. It really is surprising to me how much the format has helped me—mostly the concept of error and change addendums. So, I wanted to share it. 

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