3 Steps to Turn Draining Obligations Into Empowering Choices


What are you obligated to do? Comply with policies or regulations? Complete a report for your job? Perform mandatory tasks? Take care of people who depend on you?

How does it feel to be obligated when those activities seem boring, unnecessary or overwhelming?

For me, it feels stressful, irritating and draining.

Water running down the drain - shallow DOF

For instance, I remember working on a cross-functional project at work where other people on the team weren’t fully contributing.

I thought, “Not only do I have to fulfill my obligation to this team since I’ve already committed to it, now I need to do work that others should be doing!”

Feeling like I was forced and didn’t have control led to resentment. My resentment made me unpleasant and ineffective.

Lately, I’ve been reframing these have to, need to and must do statements. Those phrases imply that I’m a victim, lacking control or empowerment. Instead, I’ve been consciously replacing those words with choose to.

I’m realizing that, as a human being, ultimately, everything is a choice. When I reclaim my power to choose, I reestablish my humanity and freedom. And that makes me less stressed, angry and tired. It also makes me more honest.

For example, I recently had to chose to stay at work late because a client needed requested a proposal. When I explained my late arrival to dinner that night, I said to my wife, “I chose to stay at work late because a client asked for a proposal, and I want to win this work.”

The change is so simple. The impact is so profound. No one made me do it. I’m not a helpless victim of my job. I choose to do my job, take care of clients, work hard, fulfill people’s requests because I want to contribute, be helpful and earn a living. Framing it this way energizes me because I’m not a programed robot; I’m a human.

Think this is harder to do than it sounds? Then you might be missing these three steps:

  1. Hear your words. I remember when my Dad told me that I said “you know” too often as filler when I spoke. (He actually would make an annoying sound in response every time I said it so that I’d be more aware.) “You know” started to trigger alarm bells every time it went from my head to my mouth. Eventually, the alarm bells sounded early enough that I could stop the words from coming out at all. Do that with “have to,” “need to” and “must do” when you’re talking about your own obligations.
  2. Ask yourself why. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg tells a story of a school teacher who was frustrated and drained by having to follow the school’s student grading policy. She told Dr. Rosenberg that she hated her job because she “had to follow the school’s grading policy.” Dr. Rosenberg asked her why she chose to follow the policy. She said, “What do you mean? I’m required to follow the policy!” “No,” he said. “Why do you choose to follow the policy?” “Well, so I can keep my job!” “So,” he said, “you choose to follow the school’s grading policy because you want to work at this school. You are empowered to make that choice.” And so it is with us.
  3. Use empowered language. According to research from Dale Carnegie, feeling empowered at work is one of the four key emotions associated with higher employee engagement. And when people are engaged, they are likely to be 202% more productive. So don’t make people do things. Don’t make yourself do things. Discover the reason why, and then present the choice to do it.

Where do you feel stressed, angry or drained? Try changing the “have to” to “choose to.”

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