In 1997, former surgeon Don Miguel Ruiz published the book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. It became a runaway hit, making the New York Times Bestseller list and becoming one of Oprah Winfrey’s “favorite things”. It has gone on to influence a generation of people, providing them with a different and simpler way to guide how they live their lives.
The book is usually described as more of a spiritual and new-age type book—largely because of its more mystical statements about everything being “made of love” and other similar metaphysical claims. But the 4 “agreements” — which are basically simple operating principles — are still worth taking a look at. They provide a simple set of instructions for living.
Below, I break these “agreements” down in simple terms, and describe what it looks like to use them in daily life.
Be Impeccable With Your Word
Ruiz’s first “agreement” is to be impeccable with your word. It’s kind of a two-part principle, in that he’s using two meanings of “word”.
In one sense, Ruiz is saying that if you make a commitment (give your word), meet it. Do what you say you’re going to do, and direct your efforts toward making sure you do. Place that at the top of your priority list. Doing so makes your word worth something to others, builds trust, and enriches your relationships — which makes for a better life. It also makes you feel better about yourself, because you’re a self-actualizing person who gets things done when you say you will. Impeccability about commitments also includes being choosy about which commitments you make. Be shrewd and don’t let yourself get cornered into commitments you can’t keep. Learn to say “no” to things as a way to preserve your integrity.
In another sense of “word”, you need to carefully choose the words you use. Words matter—often much more than we think. Words have the power to create bonds and commitments or break them. They have the power to evoke emotions and actions from others. Everyone has a different background experience that they bring to each interaction. Different words can carry different connotations— triggering different emotional responses, depending on who you’re talking to. So part of choosing the right words is really understanding the audience and context for those words. You have to read the room, and read people.
The last part of being impeccable with your word involves not using words with ill intent. This means not using words to gossip about others or say hurtful things. Ruiz urges us that part of being choosy with your words is to make sure that your intent is good, rather than harmful. Avoid gossip or saying things with the intent of bringing others down. Try to speak from a place of respect for others — regardless of how they’ve spoken to you.
Don’t Take Anything Personally
So much of the anxiety and conflict of day to day life comes from taking things personally that are not truly personal. Ruiz explains that the reasons that others say and do things is not because of you; it’s because of them. People are not reacting to what you say and do — at least not directly. They’re reacting to how they feel about what you and others say and do, and how they feel about themselves. There is a lot of projection at work in how others treat you. You merely contribute to, but don’t control what other people say and do to you.
When you understand that people’s words and actions are a projection of their thoughts and feelings, you can stop taking them personally. Your job isn’t to try to change others. Your job is to be who you know you should, and let others react to that in whatever way they will. Just know that when others react in ways that make you feel bad, it’s not about you.
Don’t Make Assumptions
There’s an old saying that when you assume, you make an ass out of “u” and “me”. How many times have you caught yourself in a spiraling series of thoughts and worries about something? How much of that spiral was based on something you knew for sure?
We often base our thoughts and reactions on assumptions. We assume we know what others are thinking or feeling. We assume we know how things will play out. We assume we understand all the reasons for things. But we don’t. In many cases, we can’t.
If you pay attention to your mind, you’ll notice all sorts of assumptions. It’s not that you’re a bad person for assuming. Our minds are habituated to making assumptions, so that we can act quickly. It’s how our early ancestors had to act to survive while predators roamed around them all day. But these days, we’re safe from predatory animals. We don’t need to act quickly every day. We can slow down and ask if we’re sure about the conclusions we’ve come to. In most cases, we’re probably not sure. So the next step is to ask questions.
Asking questions is one of the most powerful things we can do. It takes practice to get really good at asking questions effectively. But when we begin to do it regularly, we’ll find that we become more curious and less reactive. When we stop reacting to things based on our assumptions, and instead ask questions, a world opens up before us. The petty arguments subside; the worries and fear all but vanish. We become free from the heavy anchor of assumptions.
Always Do Your Best
There are few feelings as good as when you have completely given yourself to a worthwhile endeavor. Think of the times you’ve put forth your efforts at service work. Think of the times you’ve been in a flow state and given 100% on a big project. Think of times where you’ve been fully present and listened to someone who needed it. During those times, you were doing your best. The great feeling that followed was the acknowledgment of the power of this agreement. When you do your best at whatever you do, you feel whole.
Doing your best doesn’t mean knocking yourself out at every moment and pushing yourself to exhaustion every day. Your best will change depending on various factors. When you’re operating on less sleep, when you’re sick, or when you’re having a difficult time, your best will yield different results. To that end, it’s important not to judge yourself constantly based on results. In fact, the key to knowing if you’ve done your best is to be honest with yourself about what you had to offer, and what you gave. Be honest and respectful of yourself — of your body and your mind.
Your best is also a long-term thing. Doing your best in general means pacing yourself and allowing rest when it makes sense to. So don’t burn the candle at both ends now, as most likely, it means leaving little for future things that also deserve your considerable efforts.
Priorities are a huge help here. Knowing which things are most important can help you to modulate your efforts. Your best at a medium priority is different than your best at your top priority item. It’s great to “leave it all on the field,” but when you’re playing on multiple fields, it’s definitely not wise to leave it all only one field.
How to Remember and Practice Them
There’s an easy mnemonic device to help remember these agreements: IPAD.
- Impeccable: Be impeccable with your word.
- Personally: Don’t take things personally.
- Assumptions: Don’t make assumptions.
- Do your best: Always do your best.
Keep this device in your mind, and whatever else your habits or goals, use these agreements as your underlying tool to get where you’re going.