Thinking about hard commitments and soft commitments, and adapting my life accordingly


In the process of experimenting with different types of businesses, I’ve been learning a lot about different types of commitments. There’s a spectrum of commitment-hardness, from very hard (spend money if you have to, but Make This Happen) to very soft (it’s nice to have, but no big deal if it doesn’t work out).

An example of a very hard commitment is speaking. If I commit to giving a talk at event, I need to prepare the talk, and I need to be there. Doesn’t matter if I have a cold. Doesn’t matter if I’m running late because of another meeting and have to hop into a cab. Doesn’t matter if I’m feeling out of it. I need to show up and be professional, which means energy and connection. I can collapse afterwards.

An example of a hard commitment is sketchnoting an event. I promise to be at the event on a certain date, and if I miss that, the opportunity is gone forever. It’s not as big a deal as speaking, since sketchnoting is usually an extra. I write my agreements so that I’m only responsible for refunding the client’s payment if something falls through instead of being liable for loss of business or other costs. I’ve never had to invoke this clause, but I’ve turned down gigs because of uncertainty.

An example of a medium commitment is freelance development. If I’m working with other developers, then I usually need to work at specific times or at a specific pace, but there’s often some leeway in what I can do and when.

Conversations are also medium commitments. They’re scheduled in the calendar, but we can reschedule if necessary.

An example of a softer commitment is illustration. Someone is counting on the images, and sometimes there’s a deadline. I’m free to do the work at a time of my choosing, though, aside from the occasional meetings that are more like hard commitments.

The kind of consulting I’ve settled into is another example of a soft commitment. I have a few meetings (usually mid-day or early afternoon), but I have a lot of flexibility in terms of how many hours I work each week. We keep a long, prioritized list of things to work on, so I can usually choose what I want to work on at a particular time.

Writing is a very soft commitment. No one cares when I do it, so I can write whenever I want. I can write a whole bunch of posts in one day and spread them out for consistency and variety. I can slowly accumulate thoughts or resources for books. I care about writing at least a little bit each week, but that push comes from me.

Oddly enough, compensation isn’t always proportional to the hardness of the commitment. Most of it has to do with the underlying skills rather than how strict the commitment is.

I vastly prefer softer commitments over harder ones. Some of the things I’m working on have unpredictable schedules, and I’d rather be able to reschedule or move things around if something comes up. I minimize the number of hard commitments (business or personal) I need to plan for, and keep a stock of soft commitments that help me take advantage of spare moments. Soft commitments make it easier to match interest or energy with choice of activity, so it’s easier to focus and get things done.

I’ve been taking on fewer events, working on consulting and writing instead. After all, if I can get away with it, why not work with less stress and more happiness? =)

What’s the mix of commitments in your life? Do you want to shift it one way or the other?
  • I hear you. I do like the energy and adrenaline I get from being up on stage, talking to people, having fun, and doing a show out of it. But it is hard work, and up to the event/presentation I’m usually very stressed, tired, un-focused, and finding other “More important things” to do (like suddenly deciding that learning how to set up a specific ITTT recipe is the most important thing in the world). And this of course stupid, since it for sure does not improve my final performance. And people around me (especially family) are just waiting for it all to be over, so I’m my self again. And of course, the additional peak of stress, really get’s me tired afterwards.

    I’ve tried and tried and tried so many times to change my behavior. But haven’t really succeeded. I think its just part of my nature. So what is the solution? Well, actually the same as you I guess — less events. At least that was my plan.

    But now I can see in my calendar for the fall that I have several internal as well as external events (HARD commitments) so I guess I need to give the behavioral change a new kick in the butt. Any suggestions?

    (Btw, great bumping in to you again Sacha. I believe the last time — which is like 7-8 years ago — we both were on an IBM conf with the author of On the back of the napkin. I can see you have really taken your doodling on to a new level!)

    • I know what you mean! I get such a buzz out of giving presentations or attending conferences – that perfect moment when you’re almost physically in tune with people and they resonate with your excitement. But then I feel light-headed and exhausted afterwards, and I sleep for at least half a day. Plus there’s all that stress in the run-up: is this going to be worth their time? Will people learn something new? Aren’t there so many much better speakers out there?

      It turns out that quietly sketchnoting at a conference or presentation is a different, slightly lower-stress way to create value. (And even lower stress if I haven’t committed to anything, if I’m just surprising people with it afterwards.) So I’ve been leaning more towards that.

      I’ve found that it gets easier to say “No” the more I say it. When people ask me if I’d be interested in doing X, Y, or Z, I smile, say no, and refer them to other people. When I was at IBM, I used to get my manager’s help in good-cop-bad-copping incoming requests: “I’d love to help you, but my manager wants me to focus on A right now.” It didn’t work for everything, though. One of the things I like about being independent is that I can say yes or no to projects more freely.

      On the other hand, if you can’t wiggle out of it, delegate it, or transform it into something you like more, perhaps you can just embrace the current sprint of high-energy high-commitment things, build in time for recovery, and figure out how you can avoid getting into that situation in the future. I found that filling my plate with other important things to work on helped me say no judiciously. It’s a trick I picked up from a time management book: when people come to you with a request, show them what else is on your plate and ask them what to delay in order to prioritize theirs. (For bonus points, send them to the initial requester or your manager and make them negotiate the priorities.)

      I remember that Dan Roam talk! So many great ideas, but of course we were fascinated with the hardware and software he used to make the presentation. ;) (I ended up getting the same kind of tablet PC – good buy!)

  • Diana Yee

    determining firmness is an interesting way to figure out what your priorities are or should be. but life is always a balancing act of family (especially with children), work which I think most people give highest priority too, health which I think most people tend to neglect and self nourishment (which most mothers with ignore or it is paired with guilt).

    • Thinking about the firmness of commitments – or, as another metaphor has it, which of the balls you’re juggling are made of rubber and which are of glass – helps me remember to not overcommit myself, and to find alternative ways that can accommodate more flexible commitments. As for priorities, I follow the airplane emergency procedures: put your own oxygen mask on (take care of yourself) before helping others. Can’t build good relationships or do good work if you’re stressed out! So my overall priority list is to take care of myself, then relationships, then work. This is how I can get away with semi-retirement without going crazy – my identity isn’t wrapped up in a job title. :)

  • This is a great post about the firmness of commitments!

    I have done many speeches in my Toastmasters club and a few presentations in industry groups and conferences. Preparing and rehearsing a speech does take a lot of energy, time and commitment and I always feel drained after giving an important speech. A new alternative is recording videos at home – video podcasting. I guess you are doing this with your blog in writing.

    Now that Google Hanhouts, Video, YouTube and GotoMeeting are so popular we have to learn the skills of presenting to a video camera or webcam.