Sunday, April 4, 2010

Making Commitments and Other Bad Ideas

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
Matthew 5:33-36
Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned.

James 5:12
One of the things that I think Jesus got right is that making oaths and commitments is a bad idea. If you want great working relationships and great personal relationships, then I suggest you just drop the practice of making commitments. Here's why...

Commitments are Always Lies
And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
Unless you're omniscient or clairvoyant, whenever you make a commitment, you're lying. You can certainly state an intention or make an educated guess as to what you plan to do or who you plan to be, but there's no way you can accurately predict or guarantee 'anything'. To pretend to do so, even with the best of intentions is simply lying.

For some reason, this is easier for us to see with children than with adults. When a child promises that, if you buy him a puppy, he'll care for it (walking it, feeding it and playing with it everyday), it's easy to see that the child is speaking without fully understanding the ramifications of his commitment. When two young teenagers make a statement about their undying love for one another, we simply don't take it seriously. We know that they have the best of intentions, but they don't fully know themselves, let alone what the future will bring.

Commitments Kill Relationships
Even with the best of intentions, commitment has this uncanny way of morphing into obligation.
Obligation: A social, legal, or moral requirement, such as a duty, contract, or promise that compels one to follow or avoid a particular course of action.
Whereas a commitment is simply a well-meaning (albeit misguided) way of stating intent, an obligation is something that takes on a life of its own slowly usurping other aspects of a relationship.

I've mentioned before that, when Iris and I were married, our ceremony included no statement of commitment, no obligations. We simply stated our intent to love each other more each day than the day before.

We did this because we'd witnessed the effect of obligation on relationships. Obligation has a way of taking relationships out of the present (what I want now) and rooting them in the past (what I said then). Obligations are often used to coerce behavior: "You said that, when we got married you'd..."

Would you rather be motivated by love or by obligation? Would you rather be with someone motivated by love or by obligation?

Commitment Invites Abuse
Although you may have the best of intentions when making a commitment, the people to whom you commit may not be as well intended.

I can remember sitting across the table from a venture capitalist as we discussed the terms of a contract between his firm and my company. When we got to one fairly convoluted statement about transactions that would automatically occur under a certain set of circumstances, rather than explaining it to me, he simply said, 'It will be like removing the sleeves from you vest', implying that terms were merely a formality with no real impact.

They weren't.

The Tyranny of the Urgent
Others aren't so much ill-intended as, well, let's say they have an overabundance of external white matter. They have a grasp of isolated details, but they lack the ability to pull them together into a cohesive framework.

I've worked with many business managers who exemplify this phenomenon. Their management style involves asking questions as to the time and materials requirements of individual tasks in isolation. They add up the numbers and determine a schedule and time frame. They ignore or are simply ignorant of other ongoing tasks being performed by the people they're managing. Once a plan is in place, they routinely interrupt the process with spurious 'urgent' tasks and assignments that require 'immediate' attention.

The funny thing is that these managers always seem surprised or disappointed when things don't turn out as 'planned'. Through the process they'll somehow morph time estimates into 'commitments' saying things like, "You said that thus and such would take just a week; it's four weeks later and you're still not done!"

Over the years I've tried to explain to folks like this the difference between work estimates (the number of dedicated hours required to complete a task) and calendar time (the actual time that transpires based on the fact that no one is actually working in a dedicated manner on any one task). But alas, too much external white matter.

The worst managers become somewhat self-righteous and indignant demanding 'accountability' of the people they've neglected and mismanaged. Sigh ...

If you ever find yourself working for someone like this, then I'd suggest

What to Do
Now, you might be thinking, "all this is well and good, but the fact is that we live in a world that requires us to make commitments."

I'll grant that there are circumstances that seem to require commitment on our part, but I would suggest that the ones that truly require commitment and obligation are few and far between. Here are some things I would suggest:
  1. Commit to making no commitments.
  2. Start paying attention to everything you say to see if in fact you're simply stating intention or if you're making a commitment. If you catch yourself making a commitment when none is required, rewind and restate as intention.
  3. Revisit older commitments that have transformed into obligation. Ask yourself and the person to whom you've become obligated, "how's that working for us?" If it's not, then maybe it's time to rework your obligation together.
  4. If the opportunity to make a commitment arises, become really clear on not committing but simply stating intention. In many cases, people may walk away. However, you'd be surprised how often a statement of intention is sufficient even in conducting business.
  5. If you've found commitment to be a positive motivator, then try replacing commitment (backward looking) with resolve (forward looking). Even if you're someone who's often failed to meet commitments, you might find that resolve is a much better way to fulfill your intentions.

Noncommittally, Teflon


  1. I would add that even this blog and all the writers on this blog do this without commitment. We write because we want too do this. We believe we have to share something that people will enjoy reading. So, without commitment a lot of things can get done, and it's so much more fun!!!!!

  2. Oops, I am logged in as Teflon. Comment above is made by Iris!!!!

  3. Tef: this one had me scratching my head a bit...maybe because I'm having trouble distinguishing between commitments, oaths, resolutions & intentions. I think I get your drift, though; let me do a few re-reads...

    With intention to understand,

  4. Sree, I guess it gets a bit blurry. In fact that may be the point.

    You start out stating an intention or desire or goal, "Someday, I'd like to climb Mount Everest."

    Someone interprets that as a commitment, "Sree said that he's 'going' to climb Mount Everest!"

    After a while, someone notices that you still haven't climbed Mount Everest and says, "Hey, you said that you were going to climb Mount Everest, but you NEVER did!"

    The commitment begins to morph into obligation. "You said you were going to climb Mount Everest. You SHOULD do what you say you're going to do."

    So, I guess there's this sequence that kind of goes from musing to intention to strong statement of intention (commitment) to obligation (commitment with judgments). It all gets jumbled.

  5. I don't get this strong aversion against commitments. To me a commitment is "just" a strong stated intention with carity on what exactly the intention is about.

    "I'd like to run the new york marathon" is not a commitment. "Yes, I will run the new york marathon this year" is a commitment. - and yet it is not an obligation. I can absolutely break my commitment. If I break my leg the week before I will not do it.

    Getting married and making a commitment about staying together is to me not an obligation, it is a strong stated intention: "knowing what I know today - I want to be with you for the rest of my life". If one day you decide that drugs and alcohols is now a very important and fun part of your life - I would defently reconsider and I would be likely to redraw from my commitment.

    I guess that I do not make the strong link between commitments and obligations. To me obligations are not commitments with judgements to me obligations means that there are certain consequences.

    If I run the new york marathon because of obligations it means that I have stronger aversions against the consequences of not doing it than the consequences of doing it.

  6. Joy, you make a great point. In fact, intentions are not commitments and commitments are not obligations. Hence we have all three words.

    Nonetheless, not everyone thinks as clearly as you do. So, while I agree with you in terms of how you view each of these, I still see the polymorphism taking place. One person states an intention and another here's a commitment. One person commits to doing the best the can and another hears an obligation.

    From a dictionary perspective, none of the words are inherently judgmental. But again, in practice, obligation tends to be more loaded than intention.

    So, I'm not exactly sure what words to use, but in my experience, there's a definite contrast in terms of where people focus (past, present or future) and the level of judgment conveyed when someone 'fails' to fulfill intentions versus commitments versus obligations.

    What words would you use?

  7. Absolutely, the unavoidable issue when one makes a committment, is utilizing the fear of self failure, because one is not comfortable or safe enough with expressing simply their intention. Why isn't that enough? When one 'fails' to keep a committment, there is all kinds of wasted effort justifying the failing to keep the committment, etc. bw

  8. Many angles to this issue:
    - how we color words and eventually change their meaning. If enough of us interpret 'commitment' to mean 'obligation' long enough, eventually that's how everybody starts interpreting it. Just like the whole thing with 'Why' questions
    - it is necessary (or at least very convenient) to plan our lives around commitments made by other people (from when they will show up to pick us up, to whether they will stay married to us, etc), so much so that we tend to attach our happiness to that convenience, and then react with great unhappiness when other people 'breaking' their commitments/obligations, and start judging them for it. We tend to not handle it very well when somebody says - in Joy's example - that they would rethink our commitment if we start prioritizing drugs/alcohol, etc, even though that actually sounds like a very mature and clear thought process. In fact, the heavy judgements around this tend to distort people's clarity.

    My second-grader brought home a book the other day - "Rex's Rules" - about a boy who hates following the rules, and asks for a day without rules. His mom agrees and lets him do whatever he wants, but then she follows suit too, and asks him to fix lunch himself, etc, and he quickly realizes that the 'rules' are actually there to make life smooth for everybody. So this goes back to the awareness point we discussed recently - if we were all non-judgementally aware of how things work, we would actually want to follow up on our own commitments as long as they made sense, and we would make clear decisions on which ones to 'break' because they didn't make sense anymore.


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