Committing to No Commitments

A few years ago, I made a decision to stop committing. Long-term, at least.

Think of how many commitments you have in your life. Agreements and contracts and relationships that will be with you for years into the future.

Now imagine what life would be like without those commitments.

These days, monetary commitments are a big part of what make large purchases viable. An iPhone would cost upwards of $600 off-contract and not locked into any particular phone company. Commit for two years, though, and you get it for a fraction of that cost.

Unfortunately, these are the types of commitments that are harmful long-term. Not only are you locked into using a particular network for two years, you’re also committed to paying a certain amount of money every month for that amount of time. Your overhead has increased, and will stay increased, regardless of how your life changes in that time period.

Similarly, most people rent apartments for a year or more at a time. This is the kind of decision that impacts everything: you are stuck in that apartment for at least a year, and short of breaking the contract (which can be tricky to do), you have no way out. You owe a certain amount of money each month for at least a year, you will live in the same place for at least a year. Your year is pre-planned, and nothing that happens during that year can change that.

If you want to scale down — make less money for a bit, but take more time for yourself — you can’t, because you’ve got a set amount of money you’ve committed to paying every month.

Commitments can be positive things, of course — it’s nice to know how long you’ll be living someplace so that you can plan ahead — but they do limit your options significantly, and perhaps more than most people even realize.

One of the most common complaints I hear from people who tell me about what they want to do with their lives is that they’re locked into a certain lifestyle. They have a job, they have an apartment or house, they have a phone plan, they have loans, they have pets and relationships and gym memberships.

There is nothing wrong with having these things, but it’s important to realize that having them limits your options. It may make sense to spend $100 and take on a new two-year contract so that you can enjoy an iPhone now, but doing so results in your paying more over the spend of the next two years, and results in you being stuck with that phone, and that plan, for the same amount of time.

Think back to who you were and what you were doing with your life two years ago. Are you the same person with the same needs? Were the technologies at the time the same as they are now? Were the variables in your life that guided your decisions the same as they are now?

Probably not.

The decision that I made a few years ago was not to eliminate commitment completely, but to put a ceiling on how long my commitments would last: six months.

Six months is the maximum amount of time I will commit to anything. In work, in relationships, in subscriptions or services, the most I’ll be locked into is six months. After that time, I can reassess my life and my needs and decide whether or not to continue working with that company, dating that person, or living in that apartment, but giving myself the opportunity to check-in and make that assessment has made all the difference in the level of freedom I enjoy.

There are things I’ve had to give up as a result of this rule, but generally it’s not too big an issue. If I want to rent an apartment, I have to look a little harder for someone who will rent for a shorter term. If I want to have a mobile phone plan, I choose the monthly option and only use unlocked phones. If I want to date someone, I take the time to explain the philosophy behind this concept. Adapting this kind of lifestyle comes with limits, but they are far less invasive than the limits you remove.

This approach isn’t right for everyone, but for people like me, who value freedom over convenience, it’s the best I’m found so far. If you want to give it a shot, do what you can to eliminate existing commitments from your life, and accept no new ones beyond a certain span of time. It’s that simple.

At the end of the day, this is a lifestyle experiment like so many others that I’ve tried, but it’s stuck around longer than most I’ve undertaken. Thankfully, like everything else, this experiment is called into question every six months, as well, so if it ever ceases to suit me and the lifestyle I want to lead, I can easily cast it away, once again enjoying long-term gym memberships and discounted smart phones.

31 comments

  1. Colin, I agree that limiting the commitments is the way to go. There are way too many people willing to sign up for 30 years of mortgage debt or 10-15 years of student loan payments without thinking about the kind of drag this creates on your life.

  2. Yes, this! I completely agree. It’s amazing to me how easily people will contractually obligate their future time/money.

  3. This question becomes really interesting when you talk about relationships. I happen to enjoy the idea of re-evaluating relationships over time and walking away if it no longer suits one of the involved people. After all, this is his or her’s only life, and to demand that they ‘give it up’ for the keeping of a commitment they made ten years earlier, well, it strikes me as cruel. 
     
    But I know I am rare to think like that. Most of my friends hate that idea and long for the security of a unbreakable marriage. To me, it looks like putting up a barrier for your partner so he or she can’t leave you, the clipping of a wing to keep the bird from flying away.

    •  @The Modern Nomad I think people act from a fear of scarcity…this is all I have or am likely to have, and so they insist on “locking in their rates” on all sorts of things, including relationships.  If one partner is not happy, why try to keep them?  If you love them, then you want them to do what is in their best interests.  If you want them to do what is in your best interests, you may not really love them.  Let them go.  It is much more satisfying to stay together because you both give a resounding “hell yes!” than a mmm….it’s okay.  Live life with a HELL YES mindset.  We need to stop being so afraid…it makes us stupid.

      • Hear, hear! I would like to add that I haven’t actually been in a polyamorous relationship yet, and perhaps my jealousy would rises like the leviathan to throw all my nice theories out the window. But, it is what I strive to be.

  4. I’ve done this for a while and I highly recommend it for people in their early twenties. I have to admit though that I’m finally slowing down a little and excited about committing to things. I’ve done a lot of travel and am very happy with the past few years of my life, but am a little tired of always being on the move. I’m finally allowing myself to commit to things, slowly though… I still don’t own any furniture, but did just get an iPhone ;)
     
    Great post! I hope recent college grads follow your advice!!!

  5. That’s a very smart tip Colin. We should put limits to our commitments and re-evaluate them after some time. We usually change our minds about things we thought they were the best fit for us.

  6. Yes but comittiing to limits is really no different than setting a limit to no commitments. The only true way is to live in the moment and being open to whatever is right for you in that moment.

  7. I have mixed feelings about this post Colin. On the one hand, it made me look at my financial commitments more closely and assess which ones I need and which ones I can live without. In fact I called my insurance hotline to ask about the terms of my policies etc. However, I think that there are certain commitments that I was born with, i.e., to family, faith, ambitions, etc., which at some point in my life I have questioned and re-weighed. I know that you have made the caveat that this is a temporary lifestyle experiment but I cannot help but think about the relationships I have had that could have had an expiration date (i.e., graduation, end of a temporary sojourn abroad, etc.), which have lasted to this very day and most likely to the day I die. I do not feel constricted, instead I feel comforted, by this.

  8. What about committing to not committing? BOOM! BURNT. Just kidding. This is great. You’re great!
     
    This rings so true to my own little trapped soul.
    Unfortunately “edumacation” is not something you can choose to simply… drop.
     
    It’s like I’m in limbo mode. Just existing. And waiting for the living to start.
    Then again, I am young – but it is extremely frustrating when you know what you want but can’t get it. For legal reasons.
     
    Damn.
     

    • Me too… I’m also on a career path I’m no longer interested in, but I have 1 (difficult) year of school left.
       
      @twix be happy!  You’ll get the life you know you want, even if it takes longer and you have a little adventure/detour along the way.

    • @Twix I know exactly how you feel as I went through that too. but when i was in law school, I saw my really fun college friends turn into these people who lived in the library and forgot all their other interests to focus on and excelling academically. I admired this a lot but I thought it limited their experience and to a certain extent impeded their growth. So I decided to go on the evening program, took a day job and cultivated all my other interests. It was a bit tiring but I promised myself that I would never ever let schooling get in the way of living. I think this really helped me develop wholistically. :) And I still achieved my goals. I did quite well in school and the bar. Most importantly, I didn’t miss out on the experiences that prevented me from practicing law in a vacuum. :D

  9. Just don’t forget to reassess your method of non-commitment on some interval as well. You’re beautifully young and are of a certain mode of thinking and freedom. One day a special person or purpose may be worth a little extra commitment. My point is to be open to the idea that this present conviction and zen-like purity may one day no longer serve your greater happiness :)

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  11. This is how we live our lives. Short term leases, pay as you go phones, and no big payments (actually, no payments at all). It gives us the freedom to travel almost at the drop of a hat, when we want.  
     
    Part of the problem people have with this, I think, is that our culture rewards or looks up to people with nice cars, big phone plans, and expensive houses.  And those are the exact things that require commitment in time and money, in exchange for freedom.
     
    So, it’s a trade off. We’ve traded freedom and travel for fitting in and social respect, I guess. I imagine that every long term traveller faces this at some point.

    •  @MickiatTheBarefootNomad You say that our culture rewards those with expensive houses etc. It does, but lets give ‘our culture’ some slack too. I’ve been met with almost overwhelming enthusiasm and respect for having chosen a nomadic life. 
       
      I no longer fit in, and I feel that I have earned respect from my former peers because of it, not despite of it.

      • That’s a very interesting contradiction, isn’t it? Like you, the personal reaction to our lifestyle that I’ve gotten from peers has been largely positive. 
         
        And yet, our wider culture, in North America, is so based on material things. I think it points to the real disconnect between what our larger culture is promoting as success, and what people, at an individual level, see as worthwhile.

        •  @MickiatTheBarefootNomad I think we’ve hit on something important here! :-) Right, that will be the topic for an upcoming blog post on The Modern Nomad, for sure!

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  16. Easiest way to do this is to consider my time permanently booked. I’m not available that way I can’t get redirected into some time wasting event that I don’t want to be a part of.

  17. wow, this concept of freedom , which most people Think they have when in reality they are chained to a way of life that is the way it is, you know things you can’t change because you are locked into contract and commitments.. 
    We are moving to panama in march 2013 or close to it and we have given our children the things we own and let our house go back to the bank. No contract cell phone and no debt over my head. The freedom that has provided us is amazing! retired rejoicing and relaxing except I’m still in Seattle. 

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  19. Even more liberating is giving up these material commitments. When I decided to walk away from a successful business, established home, contracts, insurance policies, furniture, possessions, pets and everything else that traps us into conforming – at first it hurt- then it felt as if a weight was being lifted from my chest, one brick at a time, as each one evaporated.  So? When are you coming to South Africa?

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