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The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best

In the 4th Agreement of “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, we are encouraged to “Always Do Our Best”, no more and no less.  Our best will change, depending on our resources and energy.  

Why we do less than our best

In “The Four Agreements”, Ruiz suggests that we do less than our best when we view an activity as unrewarding. We may put in the time, but if the activity is not enjoyable, it will feel like a chore. If it’s no fun, we won’t do our best.   

Consequences of doing less than our best

When we don’t do our best, our self-talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we think of an activity as unrewarding, the more unrewarding the activity becomes. The more unrewarding the activity is, the less we want to do it, until, sometimes, we go “round and round the merry-go-round” so much we give up on the activity altogether.When we do less than our best, we can feel disappointed, worried, and  anxious.   The less we do, the less we do, which can lead to anxiety, self-loathing, a sense of “I can’t do anything”, “I hate this”, “work is a drag” and “life is a drag”. When we do less than our best, we suffer. We create a painful hell for ourselves.  

Why we do more than our best

At first glance, the phrase “Don’t do more than your best” may seem like a contradiction:  after all, don’t we WANT to do better than our best? Actually,  no, we don’t. 

When you think of the phrase “do better than my best”, replace it with “overextending myself”, and the importance of this agreement becomes more clear. In our modern-day, fast-paced society, one of our  accepted “agreements” is “you can always do more, you can always do better”. In this belief system, we should extend ourselves beyond exhaustion and sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. We should do more, more, more, as if it’s a weakness to say “I need a rest.”

Consequences of doing more than our best

When we overextend ourselves, our actions no longer feel joyful. Rather, we feel a sense of obligation, the pressure to be perfect, a sense of “always more to do”. We feel overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful and powerless. We become less effective. We deplete ourselves, we let ourselves down and we create a painful hell for ourselves. This 4th agreement suggests that when we overextend, when we do too much, when we force ourselves to keep going, when we want to rest, when we say yes, when we long to say no, we are no longer doing our best.

In “The Four Agreements”, Don Miguel Ruiz tells the story of a man who asks a Buddhist Master how soon he can transcend suffering if he meditates four hours a day.   The Master responds that the man will transcend in ten years.  The man wants to do better and asks how long to transcend if he doubles his meditation time to eight hours a day. The Master responds  that it might take twenty years.  Confused, the man asks why it will take him longer to transcend if he meditatas more. The Master replies, “You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy, and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won’t enjoy your life. Do your best, and perhaps you will learn that no matter how long you meditate, you can live, love, and be happy." 

”What is the promise of "Always Do Your Best"?

The promise of “always do your best” is a life which is fun, free and happy. Life is supposed to be fun. When we do our best, we don’t sacrifice our joy or our life.  When we do our best, we are free from self-judgement. We can forgive ourselves for past mistakes because we know we did our best with the knowledge and resources we had at the time.

When we do our best, we allow ourselves to be honest about our capacity to be available physically or emotionally. When we do our best, we set ourselves free.

How do we do our best, no more, no less?

I suggest a four step process which is inspired by my friend Martha Creek.

1.  Pause.

  • Before you begin, before you respond, before you say yes, take a few seconds to stop and breathe.

2.  Presence.

  • Check in with yourself.
  • Notice how you feel when you anticipate the task or receive the request. Will it require a change in your plans? Does it add stress?
  • Do a HALT check: Are you feeling hungry, angry, lonely/isolated, tired? If so, know that your best won’t be as good as a day when you are feeling nourished, calm, connected and rested.
  • What can you realistically commit to, without feeling overwhelmed?
  • How can you be your best and do your best in this situation, without feeling secretly resentful?
  • How would you respond if you weren't afraid, if you weren't seeking power or safety or approval or belonging?

3. Proceed.

  • Give an honest no and an honest yes. In the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 5:37, Jesus gives us a simple way to proceed: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no”.  An honest “yes” and an honest “no” means you can be fully present, at peace and free, whatever activity you choose.
  • Say “yes” and accept where you are right now. Say “No” to shame, guilt and “should”.
  • Remember HALT.   Do your best to…Eat when (or before) you need to eat. Restore yourself when (or before) you force yourself or you feel resentment ; - go for a walk, take a time out. Connect with yourself when ( or before) you feel alone, unsupported or disconnected.  Rest when (or before) you need to rest.


  • Practice makes progress
  • Expect to find it hard to break your habits. You are circuit-breaking years of conditioning.
  • Expect discomfort and “clunkiness” as you form new habits. You didn’t learn to walk without a few stumbles. You’ll stumble here too.


If Our Tendency Is To Do "Less Than Our Best"

1. Pause.

  • Notice your resistance, how you stop yourself from doing your best.

2, Presence. 

  • Check in with your body; do a “HALT” check

3. Proceed.

  • What can you do to move towards more peace?
  • Restore “HALT” if you can.
  • Say “no” to the old habit and say “yes” to a new one.
    • For example: Before you start to play that game or watching YouTube, Netflix, Facebook… say “no” to sitting down immediately. Say “yes”  to a short delay while you take a different action. “For a few minutes, I am going to do 6 things or take 6 minutes to do something first”.
    • Say “no” to the belief system that you can’t do something, such as cook/sing/learn/speak in public; say “Yes” to “I’ll do my best at it anyway.”

4. Persist.

  • Keep on keeping on!

If our tendency is to do "more than Our Best:

1. Pause.

2. Presence.  

  • Notice your resistance to the idea of doing less than you usually do.
  • Notice your body’s condition; do a “HALT” check
  • Notice your fear: “will they be upset?, “Will they retaliate, or turn away, or cut me out of their life? Will they not like me anymore?”

3. Proceed.

  • Accept that the new habit will likely feel awkward, especially at first.
  • Allow the discomfort.
  • Restore “HALT” if you can.
  • Give an honest “no” to the old habit and say “yes” to a new one. For example,
    • say “no” when you force yourself to do something because you think you should/they think you should/you fear their reaction; Say “yes” to giving an honest answer to yourself and to others about what you can take on and what interests  you.
  • Remind yourself that it’s OK to be honest and not do it allIf you’re saying no to a request, remind yourself that any connection that demands that you be out of integrity with yourself, is not an authentic connection.
  • Still, it can be difficult to say no to someone you care about. You may find it helpful to “name the ghost”, - “I feel guilty saying this, and my honest answer is a no.” “I’m saying yes to you, I want to remain connected to you, and I’m saying no to the request, the activity, the demand”; “I’m afraid of hurting your feelings, and the honest answer, the answer in integrity for me, is “no”.

4. Persist.

  • Keep on keeping on! 
  • Work on building the resilience to say “no” to the things that you just don’t have the bandwidth or interest for. Instead, say “yes” to taking a few steps towards more peace. Practice makes progress.


Pause; Presence; Proceed; Persist.

Do what you can with what you have, where you are.

Do your best, no more, no less. Doing your best leads to personal power, to forgiveness, to acceptance, to freedom.