5 min read

You Have Chosen...Wisely?

You Have Chosen...Wisely?
All credit to Paramount Pictures, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Such a classic movie

I feel obligated a lot.

What I mean is, I feel obligated to do things, both personally and professionally. To follow through on what I said I was going to do and to meet expectations that I've set for myself or that others have set for me.

But I don't often feel good about it.

At best, I feel neutral for doing the thing that was expected. At worst, I feel terrible for letting myself or someone else down.

My first thought, when I get reflective like this, is to wonder what I could do about the situation to make myself feel better.

But, as I continue to reflect, my thoughts turn to others and whether or not they feel the same way. The natural destination of that mental train, is to wonder whether or not I'm creating the right environment as a leader to give people what they need in order to be happy and effective.

So, strap in for another self-reflective post with a sprinkling of leadership musings.

Choices. I Hate Those Things.

For me, there is a distinct difference between choosing to do something and feeling obligated to do something.

When I choose to do something, especially something unexpected, I feel great. For example, if I go for a run when I wasn't planning to, or I spend some time improving this blog on a Saturday morning, I always get a buzz from it. Like I made a difference. Like I used my time wisely and invested in something.

Unfortunately, if I tell myself ahead of time that I should do something, or if I keep doing a thing I've been continually doing for weeks, months or years, I don't get that same buzz.

I don't understand this at all.

Surely the underlying benefit is the same? I'm investing in something, I'm using my time wisely, I'm moving forward and making a difference dammit, so why am I not getting the good feelings?

Sometimes it feels like I have to sneak up on my brain, to trick it into doing the things that make the nice chemicals, which is an insane thought because I am my brain.

I really don't like filling my life with things that make me feel neutral at best, so I feel like I should do something about that. You might even say I feel obligated to do something about it :trollface:

This Is A New Experience For Me

I'm not actually sure how to fix the problem.

I've seen references to five thoughts that you can have if you are faced with an obligation:

  1. You can frame it in terms of denial, using the phase "I won't". This doesn't really work for me, because I honestly believe that any obligation I've acknowledged has a valid reason for existing, but maybe that's not always true
  2. You can frame it in terms of resignation, using the phrase "I have to". I use this one a lot and it's basically my default. I told myself I was going to do something so I'll damn well do it. This costs willpower though, which is a limited resource
  3. You can frame it in terms of acceptance, using the phrase "I need to". This is very similar to the second option to me, so I'm honestly not sure what I think. I suppose needing to do something implies that you are conscious of the value that it imparts? Perhaps I could be better at evaluating the value of an obligation?
  4. You can frame it in terms of desire, using the phrase "I want to". I've done this a few times, repositioned an obligation into a desire and it's fairly effective. I don't always want to do things though, so it feels a lot like relying on motivation in order to get a good outcome
  5. You can frame it in terms of agency, using the phrase "I choose to". This is the most interesting and potentially the most healthy option. It implies that you have looked objectively at the thing in question and have made a conscious choice to do it

All of this is well and good, but it's hard for me to mentally reposition myself when I'm faced with a strong sense of obligation. It's something I need to practice at in order to get better, but finding opportunities to practice that don't just reinforce the negative feelings is hard.

It feels like it's one of those things that you slowly get better at over time, but there is no step change or epiphany, so it's hard to keep doing it consistently.

Kind of like getting stronger or losing weight, day to day you don't really notice a difference, but then you poke a memory from three years ago and realize that you can do chin-ups without vomiting now and it feels pretty good.

The False Choice Will Take Life From You

Reflecting on all of this makes me think about what sort of professional environment I'm creating for the people I'm responsible for. Is it obligation heavy? Or does it allow them to feel like they are making meaningful choices. To have and enjoy that feeling of agency.

At a high level, I don't think I am creating such an environment.

I've always got a hand in what projects people are working on, how they are prioritized and what their success criteria area. I take a collaborative approach, listening as much as I can, but that doesn't mean I'm not creating obligations for people that hang over their heads like some sort of Sword of Damocles.

At a lower level I think I'm much better. I don't really care how something is done these days (though I might have opinions), I just want to clearly set boundaries and then unleash the people smarter than me to do whatever is necessary within those boundaries to solve the problem.

Is that enough though?

I don't know.

The other side of the coin is paralysis of choice, where you have too many options open to you and not enough structure to really feel comfortable. It can be just as hard to feel fulfilled in an environment that has too many paths, as it is in an environment with only a single path that happens to feature a crushing sense of responsibility.

At the end of the day, it probably comes down to personal preference. To the needs of the individual and what they require in order to be happy and fulfilled.

And as a manager it's my job to understand that, and to understand myself enough to strike the right balance.

No Ticket

I suspect that without a strong sense of obligation, I wouldn't actually get anything done. I feel like fundamentally I'm an incredibly lazy person, who would choose doing nothing over basically anything else.

I base this off what I was like earlier in my life, but maybe that doesn't give me enough credit for growing and changing as I get older.

Still, the fear of being that person again is a powerful motivator that forces me to establish all sorts of checks and balances against myself so that I don't have to rely on being consistently motivated to get things done.

Because, like I said earlier, motivation is fleeting and cannot be relied upon to make a meaningful difference over the long term.

What motivation is useful for though is establishing patterns and obligations, which brings me back to the crux of the problem, obligation, in a nice sweeping circular motion.

So I have to find a way to mitigate the complex feelings I have about obligation. I think I need to do that by turning them into a positive experience that reinforces the fact that I am moving forward and making a difference and I am doing that because I choose to.

To confirm that I am not the lazy, worthless person that I once was.

Because I wasn't happy then either.

My proof-reader has noticed that this blog is becoming something of a diary for me, to explore my own feelings and to shout them into the void. I can't really argue with that. I hope that you find value in these words all the same.