Tips for reducing your commitment to unwanted obligations

It’s easy to back out of an obligation if technically it’s not yet an obligation. When someone asks for your help on a project, you can thank him for considering you, explain that you are not the best person for the job, and recommend an alternative person or method for getting the help he needs. However, we don’t always say “no” when we should and sometimes it’s not until we’re involved in a project that we realize it’s the wrong project for us.

For those times when you’re carrying more obligations or the wrong obligations, you need a management (and possibly an exit) strategy to regain control of your time.

  • Ask for help. This could mean going to the project organizer and requesting that he assist you in prioritizing and scheduling your work, or it could mean picking up the phone and asking someone to step in and lend a hand. Know what resources are available to you, and don’t be reluctant to take advantage of them.
  • Identify the problem. Is it the time commitment that is driving you bonkers or that you were misled about what you would be doing? Maybe the problem is that you were once interested in the project, but you’re ready now to move on to something else? Knowing exactly why you want to change your relationship with a project can help you find the solution.
  • Change your mindset. Often times, just deciding to feel differently about an obligation can improve the situation. Instead of believing you have to do something, you change your thoughts to acknowledging you get to do it and the stress goes away.
  • Manage expectations. If you think you’re going to miss an upcoming deadline, tell those who are depending on you about it as early as possible. “We spent all last night in the ER after my kid wiped out on his bicycle. My work today likely won’t be as productive as it normally is. Just giving you a head’s up that this might alter the deadline.” Keeping your team members in the loop has the benefit of reducing your stress levels. Don’t whine or exaggerate or act defensively, just communicate the facts. People understand that life happens.
  • Know exactly what needs to get done. The stress of an obligation is sometimes greater than the actual obligation. Identify exactly what action items you need to take, and maybe your stress levels will reduce.
  • Create a detailed exit strategy. Similar to planning any project, you’ll need a roadmap for where you’re going that is complete with action items and milestones. Want to get off a committee at your daughter’s school? Your plan for how that will happen might look like: 1. Complete all current work assigned to you, 2. Find a replacement committee member or alternative method for getting the work done in the future, 3. Craft your resignation note, 4. Buck up and resign, but be gracious (a small gift of appreciation for the committee chair might be in order).
  • Know your priorities. There are times when the obligation is a good one, it’s just not good right now. I’ve recently been asked to serve on a curriculum committee for an organization that I value. I’m honored they considered me, and would love being on the committee, but can’t do the work right now. I told the organization this and also said that once my son starts pre-school in a couple years that I hope to be able to participate then if they still want/need my help. Spending my free time with my son is more important to me right now than serving on this committee.

No matter what route you take to getting out from under the stress of being over-committed, be respectful of the people who will pick up the work that you are no longer responsible for completing. Even though you might want to burn some bridges, it’s never a good idea to just abandon your obligations. You wouldn’t want someone to do it to you.

8 Comments for “Tips for reducing your commitment to unwanted obligations”

  1. posted by Sassy on

    I have been the committee chair and have to say that receiving a small gift from someone resigning would freak me out. I would be thinking “does this mean I should be giving my committee members gifts?” and “what didn’t s/he get done if s/he’s trying to bribe me as they leave?”

    The key to getting off a committee gracefully in my book is to give plenty of notice and do it well before any deadline you might have to miss. And above all: do NOT lie about what you have accomplished. (Yes, I was burned in my last major project by a woman who lied about what she had accomplished and consequently left us in the lurch).

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Sassy — Research shows that people like to be appreciated for their work, especially work they’re not being paid to do. The gift doesn’t have to be expensive, but a “thank you” card or a consumable item is always kind. When I’m chairing a committee, I regularly send out messages of encouragement, bring snacks to committee meetings, and do small things to show my team I appreciate their volunteer work. I do this at work, too, but a little less often since my team gets paid — usually just for the big stuff, but sometimes even for the boring, laborious, daily stuff. I’ve found I’m a lot less likely to get burned by others when they know I respect and appreciate the work they’re doing. (I’m not suggesting you’re not doing that … just speaking from my personal experience.)

    I agree wholeheartedly about giving notice!

  3. posted by chacha1 on

    I’ve worked with a nonprofit off and on for the past decade and can attest that having an exit strategy is key. Many times, people have an urge to help but can’t imagine what their contribution might be: they need explicit descriptions of the tasks required and, often, directions as well. You have to a) identify and b) train your replacements.

    Our organization has failed over and over to accomplish much because the people willing to step up as leaders are not able (or willing) to delegate any work. Then they get burned out and quit, leaving another group to start over from scratch. It’s very inefficient.

  4. posted by usedcardboardboxes on

    Simply saying “no” can go a long way. Often, when I’m asked to join in a project, I tend to say “no” before any “yes”. Some people have a hard time saying “no” and confuse honesty with politeness. The thing to remember is that when you say “yes” and you know that you really don’t want to say “yes” then you are not doing yourself nor the other people any favors. It is not considerate to agree and then back out, especially when you knew you really didn’t want to in the first place. Saying “no” is sometimes the nicest thing you can do.

  5. posted by [email protected] on

    Recently I’ve taken on two voluntary responsibilities and I don’t know yet whether they will be too much! I’m hoping it’s better to contribute at a level I can than leave the job totally undone.

    With organisations I really value for my family, it’s very hard not to step up. I know the people who do contribute work extremely hard to keep the clubs going and the majority of members don’t do anything extra. I don’t want to be like that…

    And yet, of course, I am trading off family time and money-earning capability.

  6. posted by Kel on

    Great article! #4 really hit home – from the other side. I appreciated knowing the person wasn’t going to make the deadline & why and while I’ll do my best to reach my deadline if I don’t I won’t be annoyed with the person who held me up as they had a valid reason and told me. Instead of leaving me floundering in the dark.

    Also cookies/thank you cards are always appreciated! 🙂

  7. posted by Heather on

    Great post! I like the idea of planning your exit from a committee or other volunteer position! I would add, keep your paperwork and materials organized from the outset knowing you will be handing it over to a replacement. Send copies to others as a backup or make sure others know where the information is located in the event you can’t provide it. I was involved with a group who had a key committee person become gravely ill and we never did recover any of the documentation and we lost time trying recreate it.

  8. posted by Elizabeth Kaylene on

    I’m that person who has a hard time saying no! I constantly end up taking on too much and am always left feeling burnt out. Having an exit strategy is good… now if only I could practice saying no!

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