Freedom From Commitment

by Stephen Mills on May 8, 2009


Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that commitment in general is a bad thing.  I know this may go against common wisdom, but if common wisdom was so wise, most people wouldn’t be common.  I’m not talking about a commitment to spend quality time with your partner or your children, but the hundreds of general commitments we tend to make all the time.

These are the commitments that box us in and steal our lives. I almost said “steal our time” instead of “steal our lives”, but then I remembered that time is life.  These are the commitments that turn a life of potential joy into a life of obligation and drudgery.  We make these commitments one at a time, in moments of weakness, and in isolation from the total context of our lives.  Thus bit by bit we give away our ability to live joyful, carefree, and just plain happy lives.

Money Commitments

Most people I know live on the edge or even above their means.  Even those who don’t live above their means are living so close to the edge there is no room for error.  We live in large houses with big mortgages.  My wife and I live in a house several times as large as my grandparents and much larger than my parents did.  My parents grew up in homes less than 1/2 the size of ours with at least 6 people in those households.

10 years ago I was debt free and owned my home free and clear.  Then we moved and bought a house twice the size of our previous house and went into debt again.  I don’t borrow money for cars but most of my friends do.

So where does this get us besides nice homes and cars?  It gets most of us locked into jobs we don’t really enjoy.  People are afraid to change jobs because the new job might not work out.  Most people can’t afford to be without a job for even a few months because they are stretched so thin to start with.  They can’t take a risk and try to build a business because they have so much debt and the bills come due every month.  Their lives are filled with obligations they can no longer control.

If you have been at your job for a number of years, you probably feel at least some sense of security there.  You are afraid to change because what happens if the economy goes sour?  The new guy will be the first to get laid off you tell yourself.  We become extremely conservative and risk-averse because we have so much to lose.  Or so we think anyway.  What if you had no debt?  Would that change your actual or perceived level of freedom?

I know young people in their 20’s driving expensive cars.  Yes they can afford them but just barely.  Just because you make a good living doesn’t mean you should spend it all.  For that momentary pleasure, they are locking themselves into the rat race.  They are losing the flexibility and freedom that should be inherent in their youth.  Next they will get married, buy a house, and start having children.  At that point most will be total slaves to the rat race.  A 30 year-old friend of mine just had a baby and bought a 4,500 sq. foot home.  He’s locking the ankle chains on tight.

Your money commitments have enslaved you.  You are not free to experiment and enjoy life.  You are not free to live in the NOW.  You are committed to living for those future debt payments.  If  60% or 70% of your waking hours are spent commuting to and working at a job you don’t love, you have committed away 60% or 70% of your freedom.  You may not realize it and you may not think about it consciously and explicitly, but that is the case for most of us.

It’s not just your debt either.  If you live in a 4,000 sq. foot home you probably owe significant property taxes every year.  You must have an enormous homeowners insurance bill that comes due every year.  You undoubtedly have very high monthly gas and electric bills that obligate you to maintain a high monthly income.

Time Commitments

These are the sneaky life killers.  They overtake you so gradually that by the time your you realize what happened, your life is already gone.  If you were honest and calculated how much of your time every day is used up in commitments, you would likely be very surprised at how little true freedom you have.

Your job commitments, your church commitments, your civic commitments, your coaching commitments, your chauffeuring commitments, your children’s activity commitments, your hobby commitments, your shopping commitments, your household commitments, your PTA commitments, your neighborhood commitments, your friend commitments, your family commitments, your online commitments, and on and on the list goes.

Every single time commitment you make uses up part of your life. One tiny commitment at a time, you have probably given up most or all of your freedom.  You are no longer free, on a daily basis, to live in the now and to make choices about what is important and of value to you now.

None of this is necessary.  There is another way.

A Better Way

“If there is one change you could make today that would have the biggest impact on your life in terms of productivity, effectiveness, and being able to do the things you most want to do, it would be to reduce the commitments in your life.”  — Leo Babauta

Learning to say “no” and learning to reduce or completely eliminate your commitments will pay off huge dividends for the rest of your life.  I encourage you to try living a life free of obligations and commitments.  I had that at one time and I gave it up with a mortgage.  I intend to get even that back soon.

I can honestly say that outside of my work, I have zero time commitments.  There is not one single hour of my non-work time that is truly committed to anything.  The closest thing is this blog, but I don’t look at that as a commitment.  I could quit writing these articles tomorrow.  Besides that I love to do it.  I am freely doing something I love here.

That is not to say I don’t spend time doing things that other people do as commitments because I do.  But I have not committed my time away to any of them.  If I help somebody I do it freely as a choice at that moment.  I never pre-commit to do any of it.  That simple change makes all the difference in the world.  If you commit to spending one evening a week at something for the next six months, how do you know that next week or next month that will be the most valuable thing you could be spending your time doing?  You don’t.  I don’t have any “chores” I’m obligated to do either.

Reducing these commitments is not easy and if you have a lot of them involving other people it is going to be painful to reduce or eliminate them, but you can do it.  Right now put yourself on your deathbed and look back on your life.  Try to imagine what you didn’t do because you were putting it off into the future.  Think about what you didn’t do because you didn’t have “time”, which really means you didn’t have your life.  “Someday…”, “When I retire…”, “When my kids are gone…”, etc.  Remember, you may be on your deathbed next month or next year.

My daughter is grown up and no longer living in our home so that makes it easier for me.  What I am about to say is probably considered heresy by many people, but I’m going to say it anyway because I believe it. I practiced this kind of non-intervention with my daughter.  Most parents are way too involved in their children’s lives.  A friend of mine calls this helicopter parenting.  I hate to break the bad news to you, but your children probably wish you would go away and leave them alone much of the time.

You need to let them learn how to deal with life’s challenges and yet be available to spend quality time with them.  They don’t learn by you telling them what to do all the time.  All they learn from that is how much they wish you would just shut up and quit nagging them.  They really learn by their own freely chosen experiences.  You need to be available to talk to them when they need to talk and to provide calm, intelligent, respectful, and solicited advice.  If you do that I am positive that you will be surprised at how often your children want and choose to come to you freely and talk to you.  You’ll be amazed at how often they solicit your advice.  You don’t need to be hovering over them and running their lives.

I suggest you pick three things that you want to commit time to and eliminate all the rest completely.  Freeing up time so you can spend it doing your activity of choice at any particular moment on a daily basis, is just about the best thing you can do to achieve a sense of freedom and control over your own life.

Being free doesn’t mean being irresponsible.  It means being a fulfilled, joyful, growing, and intentional human being.  It means living your own purpose and your own life.  It means being free to change course at any moment during your life.  Life is a process of growth.  You learn new things that change your outlook and you will want to change your actions correspondingly.  This is is normal.  This is being the adaptable human being you were meant to be.

Make sure you are free to make those changes when you want to make them.  Don’t be an “I wish” person.  Don’t be somebody who says “I wish I had time do this or that”.  Instead be someone who has the freedom to make the choices and have the experiences you choose to have at the time you want to have them.  Don’t lock yourself up in a prison of commitments that you have created for yourself.  A prison you built one seemingly harmless brick at a time.

This article is not the article I started out to write.  I was going to give you a bunch of tips, but I have run out of space to do that.  This is already a long article.  You are all smart people and I think you can figure out what you need to do and how to do it.  I’ll be happy if this article made you pause and think for just a moment.

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What do you think?  Leave a comment below.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Dragos Roua May 8, 2009 at 5:26 am

Nicely done.

In GTD there is this one liner: “under-promise and over deliver”. Every promise is a commitment, and with all commitments we are growing strings around us. At some point, these strings can grow so thick that they become a forest. We cannot see around us anymore. The world has evolved into a huge promise that we have to fulfill.

While making – and keeping – promises is a good way to evolve in your spiritual journey, I don’t think a huge pile of commitments will help you in that regard. On the contrary.


Roger | A Content Life May 8, 2009 at 8:14 am

A really valuable post!

The way some people make debt and money commitments reminds me of the indentured servants system that used to exist in the United States. In case you’re not familiar with it, wikipedia describes an indentured servant as a form of debt bondage worker. The laborer is under contract of an employer for usually three to seven years, in exchange for their transportation, food, drink, clothing, lodging and other necessities.


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills May 8, 2009 at 11:39 am

Hey Stephen, I love it. Dragos said it well in his comment, it all adds up. Simple and unencumbered is a lot closer to freedom than a bunch of expensive stuff that you can barely afford. Regarding your take on parenting, it helps if we think back to when we were young adults. Did we appreciate being micromanaged by parents or other older ones? Mistakes are part of the learning process and we all make them.


Vin | May 8, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Great article Stephen! People who push their limits with nice houses and fancy cars should reflect on how important those things are on Monday morning when the alarm goes off!

There’s no car, house, or any other material item that’s as valuable as freedom. Many of us realize we’ve become a slave to our paycheck long after we’ve dug ourselves so deep that it’s hard to get out.

I truly believe that a happy life is one that is not restricted by commitments that lack meaning. Thank you Stephen for expressing this so eloquently!


Giovanna Garcia May 8, 2009 at 4:45 pm

I agree with you and believe thatsometimes we give away our ability to live…which in turn takes away from joyful, carefree, and just plain happy lives. I think that we can give away out time, however we need to be consious of it…and do it in moderation. 🙂
Have a great weekend~
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than no Action


Stephen Mills May 8, 2009 at 7:27 pm

@Dragos, thanks. I think the under promise way says it very well!

@Roger, yes! We are slaves to our debts.

@Jonathan, I think back to my youth often. When I was raising my daughter, I remember how I felt.

@Vin, thanks for stopping by. “I truly believe that a happy life is one that is not restricted by commitments that lack meaning.” I could not agree more.

@Giovanna, thank you so much Giovanna! You have a beautiful weekend too! 🙂


Robin Easton May 10, 2009 at 12:46 am

It’s so easy to live in a false economy. And so easy for SO many to go deep into debt. I have heard of people committing suicide from the hopeless feelings of being so in debt on credit cards and loans etc. that they can’t see themselves every being “free”. I think this whole post rocks. We should all live this way regardless. I’d even love to see more trading and bartering going on. This is a GREAT article and one that everyone should read. We should be taught this in high school. Instead we are taught to go INTO debt. Wild isn’t it?!! Thank you my friend. Powerful stuff.


Andrew Blanda May 11, 2009 at 3:04 am

Spot on! 🙂 (especially to Robin) – we’re not really taught how to manage $ – the branding and advertising of no-doc loans, low interest finance, 4 years interest free get the publicity more than good fiscal education – that’s what gets people into trouble in the first place.

Most people who are in financial trouble don’t realise how much of a slave they are to debt, and don’t readily see that money/bad management is what’s causing them grief in their lives. Robin, the comment about people committing suicide over financial matters is tragic, and should be something any (willing) society can easily overcome.

Stephen, great article! 🙂


Greg May 11, 2009 at 9:45 am

Great article that articulates the understanding of one choice made over the other which forges the life each of us lives

If you are not free to not do something, then you’re in bondage to it

Careful the moments placed in this life for you will not get them back once spent


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