The Hidden Cost Of Commitment


Today I fired one of my bosses.

Last year I took on a commitment that sounded like a good idea at the time. It didn’t look like a lot of work, and it wasn’t, but I never really got on top of it. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t actually want to do it, but the signs were there from the beginning.

I always came to it with resistance, but kept going because it was temporary, and I don’t like to leave things incomplete. Well today I decided just to pull the plug on it, and I felt such a relief. I didn’t know how much it was weighing on me.

I am quitting David Goes Kiwi. It’s still there, but there will be no more updates. And I feel wonderful about it.

A travel blog really seemed like the right thing to do, but honestly I just never enjoyed writing for it. It was always out of date, and I couldn’t possibly share everything I’ve experienced, or even close. Often I struggled for words, and my posts came off like a budget guidebook. The pictures were much more interesting, but it was always way easier to post them on Facebook. But I didn’t post many on Facebook, because I felt I should post them on DGK first. It really just got in the way of its own purpose: to keep people up to date on my overseas trip.

It’s not a big deal — I’ll be home in a matter of weeks, so I would have had to wrap it up anyway — but the relief I felt today when I finally decided to ditch it was unbelievable. It was something that was only dragging me down, because I just wasn’t willing to make a proper go of it.

Now I can write for Raptitude without that faint, forlorn nagging of my second blog. Guilt, I guess you’d call it. The guilt of not doing a good job of something that was supposedly important.

The hidden cost of commitment

Commitments take more than your time. They quietly take up space in your conscience.

They sneak in there because they often don’t appear to be commitments at all. We usually think of a commitment as an explicit standing agreement between you and somebody else, a promise to do something. But most of our commitments are with ourselves. Something you mean to get fixed. Some goal you mean to get underway. Some situation you mean to put right.

Even if it never made it to any kind of to-do list, if you ever came to the intention to do something about it, your conscience will always sense you’ve left something important unresolved. It won’t always tell you what it is, but it won’t leave you alone. It is the pea to your sleepless princess.

An additional commitment isn’t just an additional drain on your time — in fact, if you’re properly neglecting it, it shouldn’t take any time at all — it’s a drain on your emotions. You’ve agreed to make good on a promise, even if it’s only to yourself, and if you don’t, you feel it in your self-worth. If you’d only rejected the idea outright from the start… but you took on a new cause, and failed the cause, and yourself.

It’s hard to recognize how much space commitments take up — until they’re gone. Then you get back a quantity of peace you never knew was missing. It’s like when an electric fan shuts off, and you weren’t even aware it was running. In an instant, the room becomes quieter than you ever realized it could be. Your mind had already compensated for that hum in the background. But you were still hearing it.

So it is with commitments. Especially when they take place over months or years, they can become squatters in your conscience. Even if you’ve checked off everything on your physical to-do list, your mind isn’t fooled. It knows what you’ve committed to emotionally, and if something’s unresolved, it won’t let you feel free. Some part of you will know you’re letting yourself (and possibly others) down, even if you can’t remember exactly how.

It’s a classic “open loop” in GTD-speak — something you are emotionally committed to, on some level, that you know you’re not fully dealing with. These open loops accumulate, and bear down on your conscience, because that feeling of commitment never reaches a resolution. This is the force that overwhelms people — not the specific, identifiable things, but the dark, unsorted mass of “stuff” we know is always there.

The sudden rush of relief I got when I quit made me realize where I want to be with each of my commitments: completely willing to deal with it, or completely free of it.

And I don’t think that’s unrealistic. I reckon that amounts to two things:

1) being aware of what you are committed to, and

2) committing to less overall

They do go hand in hand. Committing to less means you’re less likely to let something slip out of sight, where it can fester. This keeps to-do lists tidy and short, and relatively welcoming. I keep discovering this phenomenon: the more items I have on my to-do list, the more afraid I am to tackle any one of them, because I know it’s at the expense of umpteen other commitments that I also (at some point) decided were too important to drop.


And now I am a believer: do fewer things, and you can do them better. Doing many things half-assedly becomes a strain on the self-confidence, because of the lack of clarity and the high rate of neglect. Better to invest your time and patience in a few things that really excite you.

Somewhere along the line, quitting became not just uncool, but wrong. The flipside to “quitters never win” is “only losers quit.” Quit what? Do winners finish everything they start? Why?

We live in a highly progress-oriented society. Nothing wrong with that, but I think in our enthusiasm for progress, we can lose sight of the real value of that progress — and what it’s costing us.

In a recent article, Ash from The Middle Finger Project characterized quitting as having become a moral taboo in our society:

We’ve been taught that quitting means failure. But we neglect to add the very important caveat to that statement, which is that there are two types of quitting: Quitting things that matter, and quitting things that don’t. Because we’ve had it so drilled into our minds that quitting is bad, we don’t tend to make that distinction, and instead, don’t quit anything. We persevere through the things that matter, as well as the things that don’t. And we use a hell of a lot of energy in the process, all in the name of fear of failure.

From now on, I will not let the taboo of quitting play a role in my affairs.

There’s a brilliant line in the movie Adaptation. John Laroche is a passionate orchid expert — his whole life and livelihood revolve around them. During an interview he tells the passion-starved writer Susan Orlean that before he was into orchids he was just as passionate about tropical fish.

John Laroche: Then one morning, I woke up and said, “Fuck fish.” I renounce fish, I will never set foot in that ocean again. And there hasn’t been a time where I have stuck so much as a toe back in that ocean.
Susan Orlean: But why?
John Laroche: Done with fish.

Time for the axe?

If there are any obligations in your life that you continue to uphold, even though you aren’t particularly excited about them anymore, consider just dropping them. Without apology or explanation. Half-done, half-started, perpetually almost-done, whatever, just decide you’re no longer lifting a finger for it.

Even if it’s stuff you’ve been completely avoiding for an embarrassingly long time — even if deep down you know you’re never going to actually tackle it — it will not release its pull on your conscience until you flatly declare yourself done with it.

Sick of coaching little league? Piano lessons? Volunteering? Pilates? Ditch it, and use your life for what excites you. It will make you a better person, not worse. What would happen? Who would be disappointed? Would they get over it? How would you feel if it was no longer a part of your life?

Suddenly I’m very excited about not-doing a lot of stuff. Tomorrow I’m going to butcher my to-do list, and everything that remains will be more important to me, and will receive more of my attention than it’s been getting. Hope you do too. Look at your own list. Pick a random item and ask: what would be so horrible about never doing this? Are you emotionally committed to it? Could you decide to end that commitment now?

In fact, that’s the most effective way of dealing with anything: decide you are done with it, wherever you’re at with it. Some things are certainly worth following through, but I suspect most of the pies we’ve got our fingers in aren’t worth being involved in at all, and will never reach that rewarding level of completeness we may have initially dreamed of.

There is a certain minority I’ve always been proud to be a part of: I put books down without a second thought when I’m not enjoying them. Most people tell me they have to finish a book once they’ve started it. Why? What is it doing for you? Put it down, no matter what you paid for it, no matter who lent it to you, no matter how good the beginning was, no matter how many pages are left.

I’d like to extend that same ruthlessness to all my lukewarm projects, from a blog draft that’s going nowhere, to humongous items on my life list that no longer compel me. Your projects don’t have feelings, or rights. Kill them freely. Then the important ones can breathe again.

So long, and thanks for all the fish

I can’t yet say my whole mess of “stuff” is bagged and tagged by any stretch, but DGK was a major lump in the pile. I was behind on it from the get-go. Just keeping up with my schedule on Raptitude while I traveled was difficult enough, I definitely didn’t need another blog competing for my conscience.

Worst of all, it always made me feel bad to think about. But for some reason I didn’t cut it loose. Nor did I get on top of it. I let it sit in no-man’s land, where it was only weighing on my mind.

At one time it was very exciting, though that phase didn’t last long. In fact, I think it became a drag sometime between its inaugural post and the day I actually left on my trip (maybe a week’s time) so I’ll let it serve as an excellent example of something I kept doing only because I felt like I should.

I do hope you enjoyed DGK though, if indeed you did read. I never tracked any stats for DGK, so I don’t know who was reading it or how many visitors there were. Nearly all my pictures are available on my Facebook anyway. I’ll leave it up for the time being, but I won’t be going there myself.

Done with fish.

You should like Thought Catalog on Facebook here.

image – Shutterstock