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Can you think of a time when you fully committed to something?

Went full out? Took a leap of faith? Went, “What the heck, why not?” Put your money down? Went past the place of no going back?

Did you feel your body react as you recalled that moment? Did you notice that you held your breath, that you shifted your body slightly as you reconnected?

Such is the power of commitment.

Here are three insights about taking the plunge, stepping up to the plate, and what that commitment looks like.

1. Commitment = feeling fear

If you’re struggling to commit to a bold task, then you’re almost certainly struggling with fear. Fear of starting, fear of failure, possibly even fear of success.

It just comes with the territory.

What’s needed is courage. Courage is possible once fear is acknowledged – and the decision is made to press on regardless.

Courage comes from knowing that the fear is there, but that the goal you’re striving for is more important than that fear. Courage comes from breathing, and seeing fear shift into excitement.

What’s possible here is, as Aeschylus writes, to “Overcome fear and behold wonder.”

2. Commitment = moving
There’s an old joke: five frogs sitting on a log. One of them decides to jump off. How many are left? Five – because deciding doesn’t mean doing.

You’ll know you are committed when you’re on the move. It might be getting out of the house, it might be making the phone calls, it might be rehearsing that tough conversation.

But unless there’s movement, there’s no commitment.

So ask yourself this question: if people were watching you, how would they know that you were committed?

3. Commitment = persisting
An insistence on perfection (and for nothing but) can immediately deflate the balloon of commitment.

Whatever you are committing to, it is almost certain that you will stumble and quite possibly fail. And then you can decide whether that failure is permanent or temporary.

I had dinner the other night with David Allen, author of the international bestseller Getting Things Done, and he told me that it took a year to write the first draft of the book – and then he had to abandon it.

And he decided that this was a temporary failure, not a permanent one. And so he wrote the second draft.

Where have you given up? Was it too soon?

The low down on “burning your boats”

You may have heard of “burning your boats” as a metaphor for commitment. Legend has it that Hernando Cortes, en route to dismantling the Aztec Empire, burnt his boats on arrival so that his rebellious crew had no option but to press on.

The truth is, he didn’t burn his boats but ran them aground, and not as a way of getting his crew to commit to battling the Aztecs.

John H. Coatsworth, director of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, puts it like this: “Cortes beached the ships to prevent anyone from heading back to Cuba to report to the Spanish nobilities that he was engaged in an utterly unauthorized and illegal expedition. He was running for cover.”

From Idea to Action: Something to Practice
What’s the big thing, the Great Work that you want to commit to?

Out of ten, how would you score your current commitment?

And now you’ve done that, realise that this is a trick question. There is no “half way” on commitment. You either are, or are not. (It’s either a ten or it’s nothing).

So, imagine you’re now fully committed – ten out of ten.

What wouldn’t you do to make this a success? (This is a more powerful question than jumping to “what would you do?”)

And now you’ve written that short list, what’s left?

Pick one of those actions.

Make it one that excites you and also scares you.

Write it down. Write down when you’ll do it.

And now write down who you’ll ask to support you, by creating accountability.

And here’s what you’ll tell them: What you’ll do. By when. And how you’ll come back to let them know.

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Michael Bungay Stanier is the Founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. They give busy managers the tools so they can coach in 10 minutes or less. Michael's latest book is The Coaching Habit. It shares seven essential questions to help you work less hard and have more impact.

For more information, please visit

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