Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between committing to something and feeling obligated to it.
I grew up in a culture of obligation: there were always things I did because I felt like I had to, whether I wanted to or not. This continued on through college and into adulthood until I woke up one day and realized I was doing all this shit I didn’t want to do and didn’t care about. I thought I was living my life for myself, but looking at how I was spending my time, that didn’t seem to be the case at all.
It’s a narrowing process: I’m continuously getting clearer on what I want to do and funneling out the things I previously thought I wanted to be doing. Through it all, I’m shedding obligations and getting closer to my actual desires.
To me, obligations are a form of internalized oppression. They’re the things we’ve been brought up to believe we need to do but didn’t choose for ourselves.
Whether the task is something everyone around you is telling you to do or something you’ve put on yourself, obligations are usually framed through the lens of “should.” If you flip “should” to “want” and the sentence doesn’t feel true, that’s an obligation.
I should go for a run. → I want to go for a run.
Absolutely incorrect. I do not.
Commitments, on the other hand, feel like more of a choice. They feel like a bigger picture or end result that we choose for ourselves. When framed in “choose to” or “want to,” commitments still feel true.
Commitments are a way of facing right to comfort and doing things we wouldn’t want to do just for the sake of doing them. For example, if I’m committed to staying healthy and exercising, I’ll think critically about how I like to exercise and the activities I prefer to do. I don’t like running, so I’m not going to force myself to adopt a crazy intense running routine. I do like yoga, on the other hand, so I can commit to doing yoga x number of times per week in order to feel healthy, energized, and strong.
When I start by committing to the larger outcome and then break it up into manageable action steps, each one feels more enjoyable and less obligatory. It’s all about the framing.
It feels different; it feels more empowering.
I think this is the same when it comes to your writing. If someone were to tell me I have to write for an hour every day, it would feel like an obligation—even though I enjoy writing.
But say I have a vision for a book I want to write. In order to get it done, I need to commit to sitting down and actually writing the thing. With my vision for a finished book in mind, I might commit to writing every day for an hour so I’m working towards my goal.
Another key difference to me is how I’m relating to my commitment. Internalized oppression used to cause me to choose rigidity. I might make the goal of writing every day from 8am to 9am no matter how I was feeling or what was going on in my life. Then if I didn’t fulfill that arbitrary requirement, I’d feel lazy or bad about myself. I’d make myself wrong for not fitting into the regime I’d created.
Instead, what if I created a regime based on what I naturally like to do with flexibility baked right in? Maybe I tend to be most creative in the middle of the afternoon or the evening. I’ll commit to writing during that time of day because that’s what will feel best. I’ll maintain flexibility and understanding, knowing that some days I might be tired, distracted, or simply not in a creative mood. Other days I might write for 3 hours straight without even taking a pee break.
That’s the kind of writing practice I encourage you to discover for yourself.
1. Create a commitment
Envision what you want to do, whether it’s something super concrete like having a manuscript draft done in a year, or something more abstract like journaling more often. Think about how it would feel to accomplish that task and, most importantly, why you want to accomplish it. The why is important—it needs to be significant in order to motivate you and keep you accountable.
2. Build a practice based on who you are—not based on who you think you should be
If you’re not a morning person, please please please don’t set a goal of waking up at 5am and writing for an hour every morning before breakfast. It won’t work and you’ll just make yourself feel bad for not doing what you set out to do.
Look honestly at your life and capacity and create a practice for reasonably working towards your vision. Bake in flexibility: remember that you’re not coming to the table the exact same every day. Give yourself permission to be whoever you are without invoking guilt or judgement.
3. Honor your instincts and adjust as needed
If after 2 weeks, you’ve only written 3 times, the practice you’ve created is probably not the best one for you. Look again at what you prefer and adjust your routine accordingly. Honor your instincts. Bake in flexibility again. Try out this version, then assess a few weeks later and adjust again as you need to.
This all works best if your commitment or vision or goal—whatever word you want to use—is something deeply meaningful to you, something you truly want to be doing. Otherwise it might feel like an exercise in empty “shoulds,” which doesn’t serve anyone.
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