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How to Cut Down on Obligations That Cause Stress

Simplify Your Schedule And Declutter Your Mind


Updated July 10, 2014


Cutting down on obligations can help you maintain work-life balance with much less stress.

Lisbeth Hjort/Getty Images

Obligations—those things we have to do in life—don’t have to be stressful, but if you find your schedule filled only with obligations (especially obligations that you don’t enjoy), you may find yourself lacking motivation, feeling overwhelmed, or even battling burnout. That’s because when we have little control in our lives, we're hit harder by stress. It’s important to have room for choices. It’s also important to have eustress, the good kind of stress that makes us feel challenged in life. If you’re feeling stressed, and your schedule is overly-filled with obligations, here’s an exercise that can help.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: Varies

Here's How:

  1. List. Make a list of all of the activities in your schedule. List every recurring activity in your schedule—going to work, cleaning the house, etc. This includes your obligations—the things you have to do—as well as things you enjoy and even the ways you waste time—the things you want to do.
  2. Categorize. Make a note of all of the activities that fall into the category of obligations, and note which activities are optional. Also, note what you enjoy doing, and what drains your energy.
  3. Eliminate. Look at everything you’re doing, and see if there’s anything you can cut out. When looking at obligations, cut out anything that isn’t absolutely necessary if it doesn’t bring you joy, satisfaction, or some sort of positive feeling. (A good way to gauge is if you look forward to doing it, or if you wish you could put it off and do it another time.) If it’s something that must be done, like your job that pays your bills, it obviously must stay. If it’s a voluntary activity that you’ve committed to, but just don’t enjoy it, see if you’re able to step away from this commitment.
  4. Evaluate. For activities that you enjoy, be sure that they’re really serving you. For example, you may find yourself watching a significant amount of television; if this is really enjoyable for you, great, but if there’s another activity that would help you relax more or be more enjoyable, you may want to consider cutting back on t.v. so you’ll have more time for things you enjoy more.
  5. Consolidate. Now look at what’s left on your list. Wherever you see obligations that could be combined, see if there’s a simpler way to get them done. For example, if you need to sharpen your skills at work and you have a long commute, see if you can listen to audio books in your field as you ride to work. (Hint: when multi-tasking, it can be difficult and counter-productive to focus your attention on two things at once, so don’t pair two intellectually draining activities; pair an activity that uses your mental focus with another that involves more mindless physical activity, and you’ll be in better shape.)
  6. Balance. Once you’ve created some space in your schedule by cutting out the obligations that drain you and can possibly be eliminated, and by streamlining what’s left, it’s time to fill in the holes with activities that feed you. Consider taking on obligations that get you closer to your overall goals, or fun activities that help you relieve stress and practice self care. Try to leave some space for down time and spontaneous fun. And repeat this practice every time you feel a bit overrun by obligations. It’s a great way to regain balance!


  1. Sometimes it’s just not possible to cut out obligations that drain you without suffering more stress from the consequences. If the obligations are short-term and are leading to a clear goal, it may be worth just powering through until the obligations are met and you’re free of them. However, if it’s an ongoing situation with no end in sight, see what you can do to release yourself from these obligations (if they’re causing you stress), or make necessary changes so that they’re less stressful and more enjoyable.
  2. If it’s difficult to write everything down at once, you can practice this activity as you go through your week, mentally assessing each activity as you’re participating in it, and deciding what can or should be changed. This can be a process that takes several weeks, and it will still be effective as long as progress is made.
  3. As you go through this process, try to envision a life that you’d like to be living, so the focus is more on what you want than on what you don’t want. This keeps things more positive and fun, and makes it easier to find ways to let go of obligations that are not completely what you want.
  4. For more ongoing help with stress management, subscribe to the free weekly stress management newsletter!

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