Do You Chronically Overcommit?

How to break free from the overcommitment trap

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Photo by Luis Pimenttel: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-pouring-water-on-white-ceramic-mug-9635654/
Photo by Luis Pimenttel: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-pouring-water-on-white-ceramic-mug-9635654/

Are you a yes-person? Do you find yourself in a perpetual state of trying to make good on commitments you made and coming up short (but not for lack of want or trying!) Commitments you made when you thought you’d have enough time. Commitments you made without thinking about the time required.

Tell me, does the cycle usually play out like this?:

  • You say yes
  • You add it to your to-do list
  • You hope for the best
  • You’ll do it “soon”, you say, but not now, because you have other commitments due sooner/happening today
  • As the deadline approaches, you realize you’ll have to move mountains to get it done
  • You sacrifice your free time, again, to make it happen, or you miss a deadline, or cancel at the last minute

Does that sound about right?

And, in the meantime, you’ve committed to even more!

This is the overcommitment trap.

And it can be a vicious cycle. You see your time swirling down the drain, but you can’t imagine how to stop it. You wonder “how can I create more time if I already have too much to do?” When will it stop!?

But here’s the thing: there is something you can do—any things actually—to get you out of this trap.

So let’s explore your options!

Change your default from “yes” to “let me check”

The first step is to start protecting your future self. And you can do this right now.

If you say “yes” by default, if “yes” is your reflexive answer, I want you to change that default. I want you to think a little bit harder before you say yes. So you might need to buy yourself some time to actually think critically and make a decision that works for you.

Going forward, don’t say yes unless the following criteria are met:

  1. It’s a “hell, yes” (it’s something you really do actually want to do, or truly have to do)
  2. You have time for it
  3. If you don’t have time for it, you’re willing to cut out something else to make room for it

What should you say instead of yes?

  • For personal stuff: “Thanks so much for thinking of me; let me get back to you.”
  • At work: “Happy to help! Let me see where this fits in with my current priorities and get back to you with a proposed timeline”

And if you want to deep dive on this topic, here are my best practices for how to say no.

Time block when you commit

Start blocking your time. And better yet, when you commit to something, block the time you’ll need to spend working on it. If you block the time you need at the time that you make the commitment, the next time you look at your calendar, you’ll be seeing a much more accurate picture of how your time is allocated than just looking at a blank calendar. (It won’t be perfect, of course, but it’ll be better!)

So often, we look at our calendars a few months from now and there are large swaths of open time, so it seems like we’ll have plenty of time for what we need to get done. But if your calendar doesn’t accurately reflect what you’ve already committed to, it’s giving you false information.

And if you’re new to time-blocking, or wonder if it can work for you, here are a few articles I’ve written on the topic.

Protect your calendar

First, determine if you can remove or reduce (in length or frequency) any recurring meetings on your calendar. Here’s how to do a full calendar audit.

Next, determine a set of criteria for new meetings to get on your schedule. Mine are “must have an agenda” and “must support at least one of my current goals”. Yours might be totally different.

Create buffer or slack in your schedule

Don’t plan ALL of your time. Why not? Well, you don’t know enough about the future to plan that granularly. You know what you can plan for? The unexpected, the unanticipated and the ad hoc. No, you can’t plan for specific instances, but you can plan for this in general. Because you know what? It’s coming. One thing you can be sure of is that something brand new will pop up today that has your name on it. You don’t know what it is (yet), but you know it’s coming.

But first, you might need to spend some time tracking how much time the unexpected takes each day. So, for a few days, or even a week, track how much time you spend on new, ad hoc work that must be done “today” that you didn’t know about before today. Then take an average. That’s how much buffer you need in your schedule.

How do you plan for that? Here are a couple of ways to create the buffer/slack your schedule needs for your to not feel constantly overcommitted:

  1. Create actually blocks of time in your schedule called “buffer” in the amounts needed. Don’t plan more to do during the day that you can fit in along with that buffer.
  2. When allocating time to other activities, multiply the time you think you need by your “buffer” multiplier. So, if you found that you need about 2 hours a day in buffer, that’s about 25% of your workday. When planning other work, multiply the time you think you need by 1.25 to make sure you’re accounting for the buffer you need.

What if you don’t need that much buffer every day? Fantastic news! You can always do something today that you’d planned to do tomorrow, putting yourself in an even better position. It always feel better to pull from tomorrow than to delay until tomorrow.

Looking for additional ways to gain time?

Here’s my 8 step framework for taking control of your time. And you can grab a PDF right HERE.

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