Bambang LRT Station, circa September 2012
She turned from me and wiped her eyes as the train sped away from the platform of Bambang LRT Station. Tears fell from her eyes, I’m sure of it. And my chest constricted. I looked up the ceiling of the station, trying hard to prevent tears from falling.
It must have been my wife’s monthly appointment with her OB-GYN. It’s the fourth month of the baby in her tummy.
And I could not be with her…
I had a meeting that day. I could not remember now who I was meeting with or what it was about. It could have been related to my ministry as the staff person of an international agency of our church; or with the Ilokano literary organization I belonged to; maybe it was related to a new, exciting ministry project I was pursuing with several friends; I might have been going to a recording session for my podcast or the radio program I was producing for DZMR, a station of FEBC Philippines in Isabela; or I might have been going to UN Avenue for a meeting related to the upcoming once-in-every-four-years national conference of our church.
I don’t remember the exact meeting that conflicted with my wife’s appointment with the OB-GYN. But one thing is clear, I remember the pain of realization that I was not available for my wife when she needed me. This incident at Bambang LRT Station wasn’t the first time either.
The Desire to Make a Difference
As a man of faith, I have dedicated my life to working in ministry. Nope, I am not a Pastor. I am a lay person who has chosen to spend time, energy, and sometimes money to ministry, particularly with young people. Back in 2006, I resigned from a well-paying job from an outsourcing company so I could devote my time to being the President of our church’s national youth organization. Take note, this position did not pay anything except reimbursement for representation and events.
But it was alright. I knew that I was serving God, and by extension, I was working to help make a difference for the society.
Because of that initial commitment, I learned how to work freelance (mainly online work) so I could pay my bills and be able to buy food. That commitment ended officially in 2008, but I took on a new role in our church as the Philippine Staff of the international agency of our church that works with young people. I was under contract with this international agency, which meant that I did have some level of freedom to pursue several personal projects on the side.
I probably responded a little too well to the narrative in blogs and pop culture that said “you can be anything you want to be!” I probably even went overboard and spread myself too thinly. In a scene from the Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo complained to Gandalf about his uncommonly long life: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
That was exactly how I felt towards the end of 2012. It would have been alright if I were a single man. But I had a wife, and a baby on the way.
I got married in January 2011 to a beautiful bride who shared my faith. She understood me and what I wanted to do with my life. With all my imperfections, she chose to spend her life with me.
On the first year of our marriage, I went on with my levels of commitment prior to getting married. I had a lot of trips for work. I had a trip almost every single month of the year. On top of that, I had meetings 3-5 times a week. It wasn’t uncommon for me to go home at 10pm, sometimes even later. To think that I had my office at home and my wife is the one who needed to go to the office daily.
After the Bambang LRT station incident, my wife and I had a serious conversation about my commitments. That wasn’t the first time we had such a conversation. But it was probably the one that I really listened to. After all, I am a family man and she expressed concerns about their role in my life given my many, many commitments. That stung. I wanted so badly to justify myself and tell her that this is who I am, that I was changing the world.
But she was right. As a husband, as a father, they needed to be high up in my list of priorities. But the way my life was going, I was over-committed and spread too thinly.
Being married and having a baby is a forcing function. It forces you to take a long, hard look at your priorities and commitments. Business as usual won’t work anymore, especially if you want to be a good husband and a good father.
This realization could be tough to accept for some idealists. But it imposes limitations that forces you to make better choices.
And that is what I did at the start of 2013, right before my son was born. I took a long, hard look at my pursuits and my priorities. I made the decision to streamline my commitments, simplify my life, and drop the ‘good commitments’ that prevent me from pursuing truly great ones.
I thought it would take me a few weeks to do it. But I was wrong. It took me more than 2 years to really do it. From time to time, I also had an over-commitment relapse. But thankfully, I have a wife who reminds me of what truly matters in my life.
How to Streamline Commitments and Simplify Life
If you’re reading this, this may have resonated with you. It doesn’t matter if you’re married or if you’re a single person. It is so easy to fall into the over-commitment trap. For overachievers, idealists, and all around idealists, we all need the reminder that life is more than just changing the world; that the people we love need to feel our love and presence. And that in the long run, we will also need their love and support to help us keep going even when the going is tough.
I read somewhere that busyness is often a sign of laziness, and that too much activity can blind us from what truly matters.
So, I am outlining the process that helped me streamline my commitments and simplified my life.
Identify All Existing Commitments
I spent some time identifying all of the commitments I had. My criteria was simple. If it requires me to do some tasks for more than 2 weeks, then it gets included.
I included my current full-time work, as well any project I was involved in. I reflected on the amount of time I was devoting to each item on a weekly basis. To make my life easier, I put them on a spreadsheet. I have lost the original spreadsheet that I did in 2013. I have since used this as a tool for my annual personal evaluation.
When I did this in 2014, I realized that I did have 15 individual items on my list that demanded time from me including being an author, (I published my first book in 2013, my second in 2014, and my third in 2015.), being a member of an Ilokano literary organization, being part of a group of friends wanting to engage young Christians in social media, helping our church address communication needs at the national level, I was also an active blogger and podcaster, radio host, and several others!
It was nice to know that I was involved on so many things. But the truth is, I could not give my best to ALL of them, because each commitment was demanding more and more of my time.
Yes, things are not always busy. Theoretically, I could devote time for each commitment based on time needed. For example, much of youth work is seasonal. I am terribly busy during the summer season, semestral breaks and Christmas season because most youth events are scheduled on these times. In the off season, I can dedicate some time to writing and other personal projects. But commitments also have a way of sneaking up on you. Before you know it, tasks pile up and you are left scurrying, hurrying to deal with many urgent things that, for some reasons, decided to all blow up at almost the same time. When it rains, it pours, indeed!
Evaluate each commitment.
Once I identified all my commitments, I had to look at them individually based on a criteria that helped me decide which ones to retain and which ones to let go. At this stage, it is important to ask some difficult questions. You need to be very honest with yourself even though you terribly want everything to work in your favor. Call this inertia, or the temptation to just let things run as they are. Status quo.
But if you do not make intentional decisions, the world will make the decision for you. When you get too busy, you start dropping some commitments and your reputation may suffer as a result of that.
Here is a simple question that I used in evaluating each commitment: “Which among these pursuits are impactful, sustainable and scalable?”
If I do this pursuit, will it help me reach a good number of the people that I want to reach? Will it make a difference in my life and in the lives of the people I will serve? Or is this just a “nice to do on the side” kind of project? This criterion helped me think about my personal goals and the goals of the project/commitment I am evaluating. I also thought about my values and my potential contribution to the world. If a commitment/project only serves to make me feel good about myself, or it does not have the impact I hope it will have, then it gets scrapped.
Is this project sustainable? Can I do it without going bankrupt? Will it also yield some form of financial return? Idealism isn’t only about giving yourself until you are depleted, it is also about being strategic and planning for the long-term. Please take note that the plan to be sustainable is not the same as the plan to become “rich” or even to become greedy. Being sustainable means that your needs, as well as that of your family and/or dependents are taken care of.
Can this project outgrow me? Can it grow bigger and can it be replicated elsewhere? What will happen to it if I end up pursuing a different path? Under this criterion, it is also worth looking at your personal role. Is your role in the project something that could be given to someone else?
When you let go of a project or a commitment, it’s sometimes amazing to see how it grows without you. We tend to overestimate our contribution and role in a particular organization or commitment. We sometimes think that without us, the project will stop, or that it will not rise be great!
And so, on top of the three questions already mentioned above, the following question is also worth asking:
Am I the right person to pursue this? Coming up with an idea doesn’t mean I’m supposed to pursue and execute it.
As I went through every single commitment item, I thought about my role in it. I am an idea person, and I get excited with the potential results of a good idea in my head. But as I have realized and learned in the past decade or so. I may come up with a good idea, but it doesn’t mean that I am the one best suited to pursue and execute it.
The Art of Dropping Commitments
Take a look at your notes for each commitment. Are there tasks, projects, and commitments that could be bundled together?
When I did this exercise, my goal was simple: streamline commitments and simplify my life. That meant letting go of all commitments except the ones that truly matter.
This requires a good understanding of what you want to do in life. It also depends on the stage of your life. Remember that I did this as a married man with a soon-to-be-born son. This may not apply to you if you are in your early twenties and still in the process of building your career. (Read the recommended blog posts I listed at the end of this post for more insight.)
Letting go of commitments: it’s very difficult!!
Let me warn you now, letting go of commitments is tough! It is difficult to disengage mentally and emotionally, especially if you are already invested in it. It’s like a child letting go of his favorite toy. But it is important to let go of these commitments intentionally.
By doing this, you are actually choosing to say goodbye properly, allowing for smoother transition and preserving the relationships you’ve built with the people you work with.
If you do not do this intentionally, circumstances may decide for you–you may have already promised, or you may promise things that you cannot fulfill. And if that happens, you will cause more harm to yourself, to the project, and to the people you’re working with. That will be a cause for bitter partings and burned bridges.
You run the risk of burnout and your loved ones may also suffer as a result.
As much as possible, don’t go cold turkey, talk to the friends and people you’re working with. Don’t just disappear from their lives. Explain your side and just let them know you are cutting back on your commitments to simplify your life. Most friends will understand. If they don’t, then that’s just the price you need to pay for simplifying your life.
If you have a full time job, stick to it and devote the time it deserves without sacrificing your relationships with loved ones.
It took me two years!
Yup, that’s how long it took me to really disengage from side projects and side commitments. I have relapse every now and then, just because I care for our church and I ended up committing to some event, some special project here and there.
I started this process in late 2012, and I felt like I finally got a handle on it by the end of 2014. And then, something else came along, I applied for a new position and got accepted by February 2015. My family and I then moved to the United States in August 2015.
Little did I know that the process of letting go of my side commitments was a prelude to some transition. To this day, I am still learning the lessons from this exercise. But I am doing much better. I am glad, too, that I have more time for my wife and my son now.
Recommended Reading: Books
If you also want to move away from being over-committed to a simpler life, I heartily recommend the following books.
The One Thing by Gary Keller & Jay Papasan.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
The One Thing and Essentialism both encouraged me to think about what is truly important in my life. They contained some motivational pieces, but also some practical suggestions on how to focus on the things that truly matter and avoid distractions.
The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss talks about the concept of “Lifestyle Design” and how he simplified his life using outsourcing and setting up systems for one’s life and business.
How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen
Another book that helped me think about the long-term impact of my life.
Recommended Reading: Blog Articles
This is a short post from Derek Sivers that encourages people to commit only to the things that they are really passionate about.
This is a thoughtful post from Tim Ferriss about saying no and maximizing impact. Here are the questions he explores. These questions are worth asking ourselves:
- ARE YOU DOING WHAT YOU’RE UNIQUELY CAPABLE OF, WHAT YOU FEEL PLACED HERE ON EARTH TO DO? CAN YOU BE REPLACED?
- HOW MUCH OF YOUR LIFE IS MAKING VERSUS MANAGING? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE SPLIT?
- WHAT BLESSINGS IN EXCESS HAVE BECOME A CURSE? WHERE DO YOU HAVE TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?
- ARE YOU FOOLING YOURSELF WITH A PLAN FOR MODERATION?
- ARE YOU OVER-CORRELATED?