The Hidden Cost of Commitment

skeleton with ball and chain

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 It was always out of date, and I couldn’t possibly share everything I’ve experienced, or even close.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.

Taboo

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.

R

Photo by FantasyClay

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{ 30 Comments }

Tim June 7, 2010 at 1:32 am

Dramatic shifts shouldn’t be spurned.

If one has the right to change for the better, one also has the right to change for the worse. I can’t help but see some paradoxical pluses in that. Changing for the worse for the better.

I’m not only done with with fish… chips are gone too.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..For Now =-.

David June 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

Still trying to wrap my head around what you said, but in the mean time I’ll tell you that I did have fish and chips today.

Bob the Chef April 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Depends on the dramatic shift. I would be very careful not to overly generalize. Some dramatic shifts are good.

Anyway, I think commitments are or should always be explicit, at least in proportion with the magnitude of the thing committed to. This is also why I think marriage is a good idea. There is an explicit statement of marital commitment that forces a person to be serious about what they’re doing instead of shacking up.

Obligations are also a concept that to me only has a formal meaning, much like law. Meaning, social convention might create a scenario where the herd enforces obligations, but obligations aren’t intrinsically meaningful. The word only signifies a potential consequence within a particular Rube Goldberg set of social consequences. To be intrinsically obliged, versus obliged to act, would imply that a person is subordinate to another in the order of being, which is nonsense. The problem is one of consequence, where the consequence of being excluded from the herd is used as leverage.

Andy June 7, 2010 at 3:14 am

It seems that there are three types of people- There are people who see most tasks out to the very end, regardless of any negative consequences that the completion of the task may inflict. These people are accomplished, but wasteful of the most limited of resources, time. There are others who abandon ship, but never admit to themselves that they have done so. They consciously take on new tasks, but those that prove to be a waste of time get put on the backburner until they are forgotten entirely. These people are scared to be labeled as quitters, so they try to do all of their quitting outside the scope of self and societal awareness. These people may focus more on what matters and less on what doesn’t, but they face the emotional burden of being in denial. Then there are those, such as yourself David, who mindfully and publicly quit when doing so is in their best interest. You still run the risk of being labeled a quitter, but you know very well that certain types of quitting can be extraordinarily beneficial. You aren’t lying to yourself and you aren’t wasting your time. I say bravo sir. RIP DGK

David June 7, 2010 at 6:52 am

Heh, I have definitely been all three types. Today I am that awesome third type :)

Lisis June 7, 2010 at 7:06 am

Ahhh… I’m vicariously relieved just reading this post. This is the very line of thinking that finally convinced me to abandon my blog, and I haven’t given it a second thought. “Done with fish,” indeed. I guess homeschooling Hunter is my Raptitude… my one big project I want to give 100% to, and the blog (at least psychologically) was a distraction keeping me from doing the best possible job.

This is also how I came to quit my professional career, despite all the years of schooling and experience. One day I noticed that I was half-assing three jobs: employee, wife, and mother. Of the three, “employee” was the only expendable one, so I dumped it, and my life has improved a zillion-fold since.

I’ve often said that success (no matter how you define it) requires knowing how to handle stress, and understanding how to quit strategically. Some things are simply not worth continuing. Only you can decide what deserves to stay on your ever-decreasing to-do list.

David June 7, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Yes, and I admire you for shutting down your blog. I knew you knew it was what you wanted. A zillion-fold is pretty good!

Eric | Eden Journal June 7, 2010 at 7:24 am

David, Like Lisis, I’m also I’m vicariously relieved just reading this post.

I love reading Raptitude, and when you launched DGK, I thought, “that’s cool, but I’d rather just read all that stuff on Raptitude.” In hindsite, maybe I should have mentioned that to you. Even so, I popped over to DGK from time to time just to see what you were up to in your travels.

I’m happy for you that you quit something that wasn’t working for you. This post also makes me consider a few things that I may want to quit in order to focus more on the things I do like (not my blog, so no worries there to my loyal readers :) .) So thanks for that, I hadn’t considered actually quiting some of these things until now.
.-= Eric | Eden Journal´s last blog ..Smile, It’s Contagious – Glow, It’s Infectious =-.

David June 7, 2010 at 10:01 pm

I did consider just integrating DGK with Raptitude, but I didn’t want to turn off people that had no interest in my trip. And I still didn’t really enjoy writing about travel.

Happy quitting!

Joy June 7, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Yay you!!!! Exactly it. Something was weighting you, you released it; *that* release allowed you to release a bundle more…you must be soaring right now….nothing to weight you to the ground…awe-some! Enjoy this new found space/bundle of energy:) You don’t even need to fill it up–just stretch fully and revel in the expanded awareness/newness you’ve just brought to your life…
.-= Joy´s last blog ..Monday Blessing: Days Like This… =-.

David June 7, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Yes, I do feel a lot more powerful with less on my plate. And the funny thing is, it isn’t less in terms of how much time I need — I had pretty much stopped spending time on it — but there’s one less thing pulling on my heartstrings.

I’ll heed your advice and avoid filling up that space. Space is good.

ToScaredToPostName June 7, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Hi David this is my first time posting :P

Wanna say first off you inspire me :D

I have enjoyed all your posts that I have read so far.
But still I wonder…

is this not just a phase you go through –> getting better at being human and therefore the things you say can’t be thruths(I have asked this myself because I want them to be but can’t figure it out).

you say you think being human is a skillset, do you also think therefore that there is an ideal state of being human/skillset and therefore less diversity when people strive for being good humans?

I struggle with your definition because I don’t understand two things:

- what do you mean by better? and how can you be worse?
- being human only a skillset?

David June 7, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Hi TSTPN. These are some big questions.

I would say everything is a phase. I can only say what’s on my mind now, and I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where I only deal in certainties. I have often said that all my truths are only opinions, and it’s the same for everyone else. That was the big joke behind “88 Important Truths.” Of course they’re just opinions.

you say you think being human is a skillset, do you also think therefore that there is an ideal state of being human/skillset and therefore less diversity when people strive for being good humans?

Nah I don’t think there is an ideal state, and we should all get closer to it. I think as people find what works for them in their own lives, we will see greater diversity. I believe as we get further from instinct-driven behavior, we will start acting less alike.

- what do you mean by better? and how can you be worse?

Higher quality of life for the individual. If you are better able to cultivate happiness in your life, you are better than you were before.

- being human only a skillset?

Not sure quite what you mean. By a skillset, I mean the methods with which we humans interact with our world. We’re each given a small arsenal of life skills by our instincts and by our upbringing, but most people don’t even think of it as a skillset. So they never look at how well their typical responses are really working, or whether they should investigate learning different ones.

You learn, for example, how to deal with disappointment primarily from your parents or guardians. If your parents hit furniture and blame others when they’re disappointed, you will probably do that too. Well what if there’s a way to respond to disappointment that does more for you than what you’ve been doing? It’s all about examining ourselves and examining our species, so we can understand why we do what we do, and whether there’s something smarter to do.

Danielle June 7, 2010 at 9:36 pm

I gotta tell you. at least for the moment, this is my FAVORITE Raptitude post ever!! It is the written version of what the inside of my head for the last 6 months. (You write better than the inside of my head, btw).
As someone who recently quit a horrible job in an economy that was even worse, for the simple (and I think entirely sufficient) reason that it was making me miserable, please let me say “Bravo!” to you. Guilt is poison, do what you love, love what you do, I believe it really can be that simple.
I hope more people can come to understand and adopt this philosophy in the future. I’m pretty convinced that this “progress and accomplishment obsessed” world we live in these days is making us all a little bit sick. I bet you feel healthier already. :-)
Thanks for writing, as always. Congrats and I hope you have a great last leg of your trip and journey home.
Danielle
P.s. The Douglas Adams quote was a NICE touch. \m/

Vincent Nguyen June 7, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Bravo David…bravo my friend
:-)
That was exactly what I did when I quit my 60k career job because a part of me was dying each day because it was not fulfilling for me anymore.
If you want progress, if you want change….then you have to take a stance and say enough is enough.
Good for you David, I am very proud of you for making a difficult decision and sticking to it.
I can feel from your post that there might have been some thinking involved before shutting down DGK? or was it shut down “cold turkey” style?
:-)
.-= Vincent Nguyen´s last blog ..John Wooden: Thank you =-.

David June 8, 2010 at 9:07 pm

More cold turkey than anything. I guess I realized how little time I had left abroad, and how little desire I had to catch up or write any more. Because I left it so long, it was kind of a no-brainer.

Rosa June 8, 2010 at 12:43 am

I sooo know what you mean David, I feel like that all the time. I *always* have too many commitments and really work and some of them, I need to work and my learning to quit and not feel guilty about it.
Thank you for an amazing post :) (as usual)
.-= Rosa´s last blog ..“Se lanzó” =-.

David June 8, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Hi Rosa!

Guilt is a factor sometimes. It’s weird how we feel guilty for disappointing others more easily than for disappointing ourselves. I do, anyway.

Dorrine June 8, 2010 at 3:07 am

Thank you for another thought-provoking post.
Reading it, I had such a reaction to the word, “Quit.” It’s such a bully.
The definitions, “give up in the face of defeat; lacking hope,” are tough to hear. And yet it is a reminder of how much value I continue to put in what “you” think of “me.” It’s something I’ve recognized for years, continually been mindful of and gotten some relief from.
Ironically, were I not so concerned with what you think, I wouldn’t over-commit, and be agonizing over the decision of whether to quit, in the first place. Or quitting from the wrong things because I can’t dislodge the true parasite. My ego won’t permit it.
A tidy little lesson. And the timing is perfect.
(I’ve never had a problem putting down a book and dismissing it to myself. But admitting to you I never finished is an entirely different story.)
Thanks again.

David June 8, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Yes “Quit” is a loaded word, isn’t it? Words are symbols that can carry some pretty forceful connotations. I’ll actually talk about that idea more on Thursday.

Maria June 8, 2010 at 6:26 pm

This is common sense in action! Why do we forget we have this ability to exercise common sense? If commitments had feelings they’d probably be thankful for being liberated right? Thanks again for verbalizing what most of us know but cannot express as clearly as you write it!

David June 8, 2010 at 9:20 pm

If commitments had feelings they’d probably be thankful for being liberated right?

Great way of putting it. Set them free!

Chelsea June 10, 2010 at 10:31 pm

I should hire you to follow me around and put my thoughts into better words than I can.

Just yesterday I was struggling to explain to my other half WHY I needed to attempt to write in my blog, and why it was such a big accomplishment that I did. “It’s just a blog, why do you feel obligated to tend to it?” to which I spluttered back, “Because…I do!” I’m glad you feel better about quitting your other blog, honestly, as much as I love travel blogs, I never bothered looking at DGK simply because I love Raptitude so much.
You write such fantastic posts on Raptitude, I don’t know how you handled two blogs to begin with!

Enjoy your “days off” =]

Rohit Prakash June 12, 2010 at 8:10 am

I don’t like your idea of quitting David Goes Wiki. It is a good blog.

David June 12, 2010 at 7:23 pm

I’m glad you liked it but it wasn’t good for me.

Tobi March 20, 2011 at 8:02 am

I’m proud to say that I actually already decided to do this the day before reading this! I went to my account on 43things and deleted all but 7. Some of them are kind of silly and so even though I’m not doing much about them, are OK to keep on there. Like ‘memorize the pokerap’ lolz. Thank you for writing this, I felt like a failure deleting all that stuff but you’ve eliminated that!

Miss Obvious April 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I have always loved supporting writers, especially of blogs, and so I subscribe and hope for the best, irritated at my hopefulness, aggravated looking for the unsubscribe button. You are always such a welcome relief, thought provoking, and I sometimes read and forget to stumble, comment, or like.
The music blog, however, is the exception to the rule today. I think I will not only not unsubscribe, I will wish you were more than a friend in my computer, go directly to my Droid and download, completely ignore my own writing, kids, and photography. I thought you should know we were having a good day :)

Miss Obvious April 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm

“The pea to my sleepless princess” today is without a doubt stock up on lady products. Never delay. Stock as if no one is watching, as if it were your last trip to Walmart. If not, you will be in line at CVS with many pairs of granny panties while the woman in front of you is arguing why she may not return empty lotion bottles. The manager will be brought in because this is impossible because SHE has a RECEIPT people. I know kiwi and business plans and blogs can be delayed. Layered grant panties? Not so much.

Adam August 31, 2012 at 11:27 pm

David,

I have found so much meaning in so many of your posts. I’ve been a subscriber for 18 months or so, and I am in the midst of reading through your archives, a goal I have nearly completed. I just wanted to say that this post really, really speaks to me, and reflects exactly the same struggles I’ve been going through for the better part of a decade.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Obsession is continuing to pursue your original objective after you’ve forgotten what it was.”

I think some of us are more prone to this kind of behavior than others. I have found myself inadvertently committed to: Financial/business news, online gaming, financial/business news in a different media format, TV shows, and others. I have cultivated the ability to quit these things cold turkey, and I’m pretty sure I know what the next quit will be, but I still have plenty of commitments which are of dubious value.

The challenge, for me, is #2: committing to less overall. No matter what I quit, other things seem to pop up in their place. I’ll tell you one thing, though. The relief I get out of quitting something significantly exceeds the relief of completing it.

Thanks for your blog,

Adam

Erwin Cuellar December 19, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Thank you for sharing and explaining this amazing insight, as we all need improvement on quitting what we half-ass to focus on what we truly love. It’s posts like these that help destigmatize the act of quitting.

It’s not right, but I have found that quitting in our society is more acceptable when the cause that made us quit is external instead of internal. Like quitting your job to take on a job elsewhere versus quitting simply because you don’t like the work anymore.

As a small example of quitting commitments, I’ve personally applied this concept to my list of Facebook friends. I used to keep old and distant acquaintances on there, in case I’d ever want to rekindle a connection. I then found myself constantly thinking to myself that I should make an effort to reach out to these people, even though I hadn’t done so in years. Finally I simply deleted/unfriended everyone that I had no plans of reaching out to ever again. My list of ‘friends’ is short, but I am only updated on the statuses of people I actually care about and I am happier for it.

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