An Invitation to Dump Your Obligations

It you're feeling overbooked, this simple anti-time management tool can set you free
by Achim Nowak for Next Avenue

Credit: Getty Images

It seems like the impossible dream: To carve out unobligated time.

We often complain that we don’t have enough time to do all the things we wish to do. For many of us, it’s a true statement. We truly don’t have enough time. We ardently desire a “time out” from our obligations.

Some call this time out “me time.” A faintly derogatory term. It smacks of self-indulgence and narcissism. I feel queasy when I hear these descriptors because I don’t wish to be thought of having either of those traits.

The moment we claim a slice of “me time,” we instantly obligate this time. We get the spa treatment we have postponed for months. The facial that is overdue. We finally play squash with our buddy Raul. Go to see the French movie with our friend Lori that she has raved about. All cool things, I know. Still obligated time.

What Is Unobligated Time?

But what about carving out unobligated time? I’m talking about something more radical here. A chunk of time for which you make absolutely no plans. Not a single one. Because you do not yet know what your state of mind will be come Saturday morning. What you will wish to do. What you may not wish to do.

Imagine. You wake up in the morning. You may go for a run. You may not. You may drink a cup of coffee. You may not. You may read a book. You may not. You will eat not because it’s time to eat, but because you’re hungry. You may lie in bed for 30 minutes and stare at the ceiling and do nothing. You may get in your car and drive nowhere in particular. You get to stop wherever you wish. You get to leave again whenever you want. Most importantly, you get to ignore the story of what you should be doing with your time: The Obligation Story.

Instead, you get to listen to yourself.

It sounds strange, I know. You have a family. Your children need you. Your spouse craves quality time with you. And you love your family and your children and your spouse. Your friends are itching to congregate with you, and you love them, as well. More story. More reasons to unobligate yourself.

Your Unobligation Experiment

But I dare you to try it: Unobligate, just for a sliver of time. A day, perhaps. Half a day. You decide. Schedule your unobligated time. A paradox, I know. But guess what? The folks you feel obligated to will be just fine.

Here’s what unobligated time will do for you. You get to hear yourself. You get to say “yes” to your desires. More imperatively, you get to notice. Every thought, impulse, hunch, craving, whim, body signal. You get to be real with yourself.

And you get to choose. Moment by moment, you begin to liberate yourself from the tyranny of time. You unravel the story of what you should be doing with your time. You rediscover the freedom to be yourself.

It may feel a little uncomfortable.

If you have ever been to a silent retreat, you have had a glimpse of unobligated time. A silent retreat is usually organized by a spiritual group or community to facilitate your quiet contemplation. It does so by ensuring that your basic physical needs are met. The organizers may impose varying degrees of structure on how the quiet time is spent. Most importantly, a silent retreat removes your access to familiar distractions. You stop doing and more doing. The exit doors are closed. You get still.

A silent retreat is like running a personal-wisdom marathon. The insights keep coming and coming. And yet, you are still in obligated time.

Unobligated time is the most radical personal choice you will make. You get to be silent if you so desire. You get to cook a brilliant meal for everyone you love. You get to create whatever you wish to create. You get to observe your desires. All exit doors are open. You get to play on a vast inner canvas. And you get to roam an infinite outer world.

Just for that sliver of time, you get your choice back.

What you hear, what you act on, what you walk away from during unobligated time infiltrates everything that follows. Because when we get real with ourselves, we get real with others. Each subsequent moment is enriched.

Unobligated time is a magical playground in which we approach every second with the curiosity of a child and the wisdom of an adult. And pardon me if this is obvious, but unobligated time feels pretty darn good. Why not give it a shot?

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