Want Better Results for 2010? Commit to Fewer Things

Are You Juggling Too Much?

My new motto for 2010, inspired by Cal’s similar suggestion, is to work hard, but commit to less.

To be fair, it isn’t a new motto. I’ve been running with this one for the latter half of 2009, so it isn’t exactly a resolution, but an affirmation of what I’ve already been doing. However, even in the last 6-8 months following that motto has helped me enormously.

How I Learned This Lesson the Hard Way

To be honest, the simplicity movement never really struck a chord with me. I’ve always been trying to live a more interesting, adventurous and accomplished life, not eliminate stress. I wanted to do more, not less.

So, when I had new opportunities, I signed up. When I was offered the position of managing a Toastmasters’ club, I accepted. I took on a volunteer fundraising position. Signed up for an intense project-oriented class which required a lot of travel and a full-time work load.

At first managing a business, full-time classes, full-time projects, volunteering and other activities was fine. But after eight months I was starting to slip. My goals slipped from being accomplished to merely surviving the grind.

The results of this overcommitment binge weren’t impressive. This business went from supporting me full-time in 2008, to struggling painfully in the early part of 2009. I broke up with my girlfriend. My fitness level dropped. Stress was at an all-time high.

I learned my lesson. Everyone has their limit, and I got to know mine.

The Distinction Between Hard Work and Commitment

Later, I learned I could have been saved some of this anguish if I had made a simple distinction in my head: the difference between working hard and committing too much.

The reason I rejected the simplicity movement is, to me, they seemed to ignore the importance of hard work. I didn’t want the 4-hour workweek, I wanted to know how I could work more on the things that mattered to me.

However, hard work isn’t the same as commitment. Commitments are the things you’ve promised to do, maybe to yourself, but more often to other people. They are the things you’ve said “yes” to beforehand, so you can’t say “no” later.

My fallacy was that I assumed working hard and committing to many things were the same. But in practice, the two are often opposite goals.

Why Overcommitting Leads to Underworking

I’ve accepted that as a rule of human nature: have-to’s always dominate shoulds. The things you have committed to always take precedent. Even if they won’t have a long-term impact in your life.

As a result, when you commit yourself to obligations in the future, you reduce the energy and time you have to focus on the really important things. When I signed up as a volunteer, that time and energy was stripped from my day before I could consider working on personal projects.

Sure, I could have just ignored the obligations. But that would mean breaking promises and hurting people that needed me. Not a happy decision to make.

Commitments are like taxes. They get taken off your paycheck before you get to touch them, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a bit back in April. When I overcommitted, I found all of my energy and time was spent before I could touch it.

2010 Motto: Work Hard, Commit to Less

My solution in the future is to pick only one or two things that matter to me and commit to them. That doesn’t mean I can’t pursue other goals, activities or interests. Just that I don’t make a commitment to them.

For example, when I did my annual review, I had only two goals:

  1. Return my business back to a reliable full-time income and exceed the income levels of 2008.
  2. Speak French fluently. Fluency is hard to define, so my goal is to be comfortable reading, writing and speaking in most casual situations.

Both of these goals are achievable, but only if I can spend a significant amount of time and energy working hard on them.

This doesn’t mean I won’t have other interests or side-goals. Simply that they will come second. Some people were confused after this article, believing I advocate doing all of your interests with equal commitment levels. Completely the opposite: having multiple interests is possible only if you know which 1-2 of them are absolute musts.

I have many different side-goals I work on in my spare time, but aren’t commitments for me. Here are a few I’m currently working on:

  • Doing a hand-stand pushup (without aid of a wall)
  • Learning to cook
  • Practicing web programming
  • Self-studying economics and philosphy

The point is that I put zero pressure on myself to work on these things. I do them because I enjoy them and they correspond with activities I already do as a habit.

Commit Less Must Be Paired With Hard Work

If undercommitment isn’t paired with hard work you just have laziness. This is probably why I rebelled against so much simplicity oriented advice. It didn’t match my reality.

Committing to less can enable you to spend time each day on hard focus. Or it can enable you to play video games all day and crawl Facebook. The will to work hard at the few commitments you do keep is equally important to a philosophy of simplicity.

So my 2010 is a continuation of the latter part of my 2009: work hard, commit to less. What’s your motto for 2010?

  • Mark


    Great post. I agree that having too many commitments is stressful and just not sustainable. It’s better to commit to just a few things that are important to you. We can always do other things as well, but by not making these other things into commitments, we can do them when we have the energy. If we start to feel a little burned out, we can set them aside for a while and recharge.

    One of my commitments is my new blog:

    I’m trying to make this a priority. I am passionate about the topics that I will be writing about, but I don’t want to distract myself by having too many other commitments. It will already be challenging enough since I already work 40+ hours a week as an accountant (for now anyway).

    On a side note, I noticed that you have been a critic of the 4-hour workweek, but I think you misunderstand the main point that Tim Ferriss was trying to make. He wasn’t recommending working 4-hours and then being a slug for the rest of your hours. He was recommending that we radically reduce the hours we spend doing things we would rather not do. The point is to free our time to pursue things that excite us. Tim Ferriss lives the philosophy he espouses. The guy is incredibly active and is constantly challenging himself, whether it is learning new languages, competing in dance contests, competing in martial arts contests, or whatever. He also does “work,” but it is work that he *wants* to do.

    Anyway, great post. Good luck in 2010.

  • Henri @ Wake Up Cloud

    It’s amazing how many synchronicities I am running into today. I’m also in the exact same mindset. I have started eliminating a lot of tasks and just focusing on the stuff that produces results.

    So far it is working extremely well and gives me peace of mind as well.

  • Brianna

    Would you put a number on the number of goals you should make? I have many goals, both financial and personal, but I’m not sure which should take precedence. I’m not sure that I could choose just two main commitments. I see your point, though, and wish everyone luck.

  • Brett – daretoexpress.com


    This is like the 80/20 rule applied to commitment. Cut out 80% of what you do, and focus on that 20%, and the results will improve across the board.

  • Jon

    Bingo! Well said Scott

  • Ana

    Hi Scott,

    I am also planning to learn French. Starting this next semester I am going to be taking the first class in the series at my university (i’ve heard the class is intense – 1hr lecture every day – so I am quite excited). I was wondering if you have any advice for learning strategies/techniques that you have found particularly effective in learning a language? (I just recently read “Learn More, Study Less”, awesome by the way :), so feel free to refer to things mentioned there if you wish).

    My primary effort is to put as much effort as possible in implementing the idea of holistic learning since it is extremely applicable in my field of study as all concepts are very well (logically) interconnected. So I guess to answer your question about the motto, I guess I’d have to say it is:
    “Learn Holistically” 🙂
    I have started to gradually implement it already in order to clear up the mess in my head and fill all the holes that have formed through the years. But let me not run off with the explaining…

    Thank you for giving us a glimpse of your beautiful mind!

  • Scott Young


    I love Tim and his books, so the criticism isn’t against his writing (which arguably isn’t about working only 4 hours, but ruthless efficiency applied to your work). My criticism is against the more pervasive attitude of trying to work as little as possible.


  • Julian Summerhayes

    Scott, I think this is a thought-provoking piece and it does reinforce the need to focus on priorities. A key component though has to be time management, and that is particularly so if you have committed to returning your business to profitability or increased turnover. I would recommend Edward de Bono’s book on Simplicity (and I am sure there are lots of others) for those people who want to take this concept to the next level. Simplicity can be fostered in almost everything we do but seldom do people look for the simple solution assuming that it will be frowned upon as perhaps the easy or soft option. I always ask the question is this the best use of my best time when starting something and if it isn’t then I have to question if it is something that should be avoided all together.

  • Richard Shelmerdine

    This is exactly what Ive been saying recently. Just commit to one goal at a time accomplish it and move onto the next thing. It’s easier, simpler and things actually tend to get done. Great post.

  • Titluciole

    “Speak French fluently. Fluency is hard to define, so my goal is to be comfortable reading, writing and speaking in most casual situations.”

    Génial ! Peut-être qu’un jour j’aurais la chance de pouvoir continuer à parcourir ce super blog dans ma langue maternelle au lieu de m’échiner à essayer de tout bien comprendre en anglais 🙂

  • Tammy

    Very wise. I’ve started 2010 by dropping my participation in some “promotional” groups because last year I was working on marketing, but not creating anything new to market. This year, I’ll be focusing on real work, and what’s important.

  • Scott Young


    Peut-être pas en français, sur ce blog. Mais, merçi pour la message!


  • Heather Williams

    My motto is to explore my current reality as best I can, and expand my mind to understand my fellow humans and myself on a deeper level.

  • Avish

    Great post – I actually decided to that this year in lieu of making the traditional giant list of goals and activities, I picked three basic goals, each from a different area in life. For my business, I let go all of all the marketing activities I felt I “should” be doing and picked just two (which are related, so almost seem like one) and am throwing myself fully into those.

    You are very right about needing to to pair fewer things with hard work. It’s only been a week and a half, but i am finding that having fewer things makes it easier to work harder on those things.


  • lftc

    Attention Scott, il n’y a pas de c cédille à merci et le mot message est masculin. Anyway, it’s great you’re starting learning French, I am learning English and I’ll be curious to take a look at the progress you’ll make this year !

  • David @ A Happy Pocket Full of

    Spot on! Love it! It is true, the power of focus is amazing. And I always say, focus on what you love, what you are strong at, and forget about fixing weaknesses (make improvements, instead, to your pre-existing strengths, where you can add new skills and technologies and processes and attitudes to them). Focus focus focus. It is lean, clean, and fun… plus effective.