Commitments, Obligations and Stress: Giving Yourself Permission to Say No
What’s a typical week for you? What’s a typical day? What do you have to do next? What haven’t you done? Is there too much to do and too much to think about? Are you trying to do several things at once?
You’ve got too many commitments!
For so many of us, it’s not that there’s not enough time in the day, it’s more that we’re trying to do too much in the time we’ve got.
Too often, we commit to too many people and too many things, and then find ourselves without enough time to fully enjoy or complete those commitments.
What’s the difference between commitments and obligations? A commitment is something you agree to do or choose to engage in. An obligation arises out of you choosing to commit to something. An obligation is something that you’re obliged to do; you feel you have to out of a sense of duty because you said you would.
If you choose to commit to something, you accept the obligations. If, for example, you commit to a book club, you accept the obligation to read the chosen book each month and turn up for the meetings. If you lose interest and you no longer feel committed to the book club, those obligations become a burden.
Burdensome obligations become clutter in our lives when there’s not the will to back them up. You need to choose your commitments wisely; otherwise you’ll increase your obligations.
Too many commitments create pressure and stress and can get in the way of you doing the things you most want to do and living the life you want to live.
How have you accumulated so many commitments?
Maybe you’re the sort of person who over-commits when you’re feeling especially energetic, productive and capable. At times like this, it’s easy to think you can take on and cope with more. Perhaps you’re an overachiever; you feel you have to prove something to yourself or others. Maybe you sign up to good causes and offer to help others out of goodwill and compassion or you feel strongly about an issue and really want to step in to help. Or perhaps you just can’t say no to invitations or to other people’s requests for help.
Why can’t you let go?
Taking a step back and disentangling yourself isn’t always easy; wanting to avoid feeling guilty, wanting to keep up appearances, or fearing rejection, scorn or shame can all be reasons for why you find it difficult to let go of commitments.
It may be that you’re thinking about sunk costs: the time, effort, love or money you’ve already put into something.
Sunk costs can fool you into sticking with something you would be best off ending, so you continue to put more time, effort or money into someone or something – the exercise classes, the political party you’ve been relentlessly campaigning for or Friday evening drinks with colleagues that you always go along to. Even though you’re not enjoying it, you stay the course instead of letting go.
Perhaps you tell yourself you just can’t; you’ll let people down if you don’t keep up with all your commitments. You said you would do something, so you think you should keep your word, stick with it and put up with the difficulties. But the commitment has become an obligation; you feel it’s your duty. You have to stick with it.
It can be difficult to back out of a commitment if you’re worried about the other person’s response; you know the other person will be easily offended – they’ll be angry or hostile in some way, ignore you or sulk – if you explain you can no longer stick with it.
It could be that you tell yourself that you’re so used to that particular commitment – you’ve done it for so long already – that you might as well carry on. You think they can’t do it without you. Maybe you do some voluntary work and you think, ‘They like me. They want me. They need me. I can’t let them down.’
Perhaps you don’t want to call it a day because you don’t want to admit that you were wrong to have committed to it in the first place. So you struggle on.
It doesn’t have to be like this! You can declutter your commitments.
Identify your commitments
Start by identifying what your commitments are. Make a list. Look at everything you’ve got going on in a typical day, week and month: going to work, routines and commitments at home, family members’ needs and activities, your own hobbies, interests and projects. Write them down. Which of the things on your list do you recognize as things you absolutely have to do? These are the activities, tasks and duties that are probably non-negotiable – you need or have to keep them.
Identify your values
Next, think about your values – what’s important to you and has some worth. Here are some examples:
• Time with family / friends
• Your physical / mental health
• Time for your current interests and hobbies
• Time to learn new skills and knowledge
• Time to do absolutely nothing. To be quiet, calm and relax
For each commitment, ask yourself, ‘How much does it matter to me? Is it something that’s important to me; in line with my values and priorities?’
Identify what to let go of
Identify how you feel about each commitment. Feelings of stress, anxiety, irritation and resentment for any one commitment are telling you to let go. Maybe it’s something you used to enjoy but you no longer like doing; it even annoys you, the thought of doing it makes you feel stressed.
What can you let go of, not do or not go to? What can you give away, delegate and get someone else to do? If it doesn’t feel good, let it go knowing that what’s left is more in line with what you need and want to do with your time.
Now think about what you would like to make more room for in your life.
Maybe you want more time for reading or watching films, more time with your partner, children or other family or friends. Perhaps you’d like time to explore new activities – drop the community work to take up singing in a choir or rock climbing, for example. Maybe you simply want to do less of anything.
This is an edited extract from Declutter Your Life: How Outer Order Leads to Inner Calm, by Gill Hasson
Photo by Isaiah Rustad