Why we over-commit (and how to stop it, already)


If you ever worry about getting enough done and/or getting the most out of life, at some point you'll over-commit and experience the feeling of not getting much out of anything. Whether it’s signing up for too many classes, saying yes to too many work responsibilities, or making plans with friends every night in a given week, we all make the mistake of overestimating our capacity.

Today, I’m going to talk about why it happens and what you can do about it.

Why We Over-Commit - The Question You're not Asking

The “why” might not be what you expect. The question isn’t “Why do I commit to too many things?”, it’s “Why do I keep committing to too many things, even though it stresses me out?” In my experience, there are three things that keep me in this cycle:

  1. I overestimate my capacity and underestimate the amount of time/energy everything takes.
  2. I get anxious at the idea of missing out on something important or fun.
  3. I’m not awesome at saying no.

Example: I was taking an online class earlier this year. A month or two after it started, another class opened up with tons of valuable information I felt like I really needed to be successful. Since I was handling the workload from the first one okay, I thought it wouldn't be a big deal to add one more.

What happened? I went from submitting my homework on time every week to defaulting to “I’ll get to it later.”  I couldn't take advantage of all the available support and resources because I was already trying to juggle too much. I got exposure to a lot of concepts, but I didn't dive deep with many of them and as of today, still have a fair backlog of exercises and worksheets I'm meaning to work through.

In this case, I don’t regret taking either class. However, I do regret not having the time and energy to give 100% to either one (or get 100% of the benefits I was paying for).

What We Can Do About It

Over time, I've identified a few basic practices that keep me from going into complete overwhelm. Here are my favorites:

  • Three to four things a day.

This is one of the biggest changes I made when I transitioned to self-employment. At some point, I realized my brain and energy can handle about three to four commitments a day, total. That includes work projects, client meetings, and social events. When I try to fit more in, I often end up cranky and drained, which carries over into the next day.

My loose definition of a commitment is anything I would write on a to-do list or calendar that takes an hour or more. Today I’m writing this article, meeting with two clients, and doing a free strategy call. Anything else that gets done is a bonus.

If you had to distill your day down into three hour-long tasks, what would make it? What would get cut? Before you start freaking out, keep in mind: most 8-to-5ers are actually only productive 70% of the time, anyway. Your optimum commitment number may vary from mine (maybe you can comfortably fit 5-6 things in, you superhero), but I still recommend that you start with 3-4 just to see what drastically limiting your priorities does to your energy.

  • Know your triggers and energy drains and plan accordingly.

I only get hypnotherapy sessions on days when I don’t have clients later, and I try not to schedule too much right before or after I travel. This is because, after many years, I’ve learned to stop shooting myself in the foot where my energy levels are concerned.

We tend to treat time as though it’s a flat reality - all hours are created equal. But you and I know that an hour at a movie is very different than an hour of meetings, don't we? Some activities energize us, while others drain us. What makes you anxious, sets you back, and distracts you? And are there ways you could give yourself extra spaciousness around those commitments? Here are some ideas:

  • If traveling stresses you out, don’t schedule anything urgent the day before you leave or the day after you get back. Aim for what I think of as "bare-minimum days."
  • If you have a meeting with a difficult co-worker or client, set up your appointments so that you have a nice buffer of time before and after.
  • If being late gives you hives, plan in plenty of travel time.
  • Don’t schedule multiple stressful appointments on the same day (performance review followed by a dentist appointment, anybody?).

The big thing here is not shaming yourself around your reactions. It’s easy to say, “Shut up, you big baby, you’ll be fine,” but every time you do that, you are sending the signal to yourself (and everyone around you) that your feelings don’t matter. Instead, try asking yourself, “If I really loved myself, how would I take care of myself in this situation?” (FYI, You don't actually need to feel love for yourself in the moment for this to work; just be curious about what you would do if you did.)

Knowing the things that stress you out (and how you can take care of yourself) gives you a huge advantage in other areas of your life. It makes the actions you take more deliberate and effective, and it makes you appear more confident and relaxed. Super sexy.

  • Practice saying no.

Try this with small things and work your way up. Ask: Is it vital to my happiness or success? Is it in line with one of my core values? Does it sound like fun? What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t do it?

  • Use your experience.

One of the reasons we keep getting caught in the “oh no, not again!” trap is because we fail to revisit what happened last time we tried something.

In my case, I’m going to be very wary of participating in more than one online class at a time again, because I want to actually absorb the material. I also know that more than three nights out in a row makes me cranky and overstimulated, a day out freelancing often requires a day of recovery, and a flurry of productive days will often be followed by a period of lethargy.

It took me years in some instances to identify these patterns (hello, high-school breakdown!), but now that I know about them, I'm rarely caught by surprise. So anytime you’re on the fence about whether to add one more thing to your plate, look to your experience. Is there anything in your past that might speak to whether or not you can handle it gracefully?

  • Beware of faulty rationalizations.

The mind will often say, “But it’s different this time!” because it’s still operating on the three reasons I mentioned at the beginning (under/overestimating capacity, fear of missing out, avoiding the “no”).

(Side note: This mental voice sounds a lot like six-year-old me trying to persuade my parents that shotgunning a whole milkshake and eating my weight in french fries wouldn't give me a stomachache this time.)

What if you responded, “Oh, really? How is it different, exactly?” and actually made a list? (This is also an amazing tool to use when you’re trying to make a decision and afraid of the past repeating itself.) How do you have more time, resources, or support at your disposal than the last time you added something and got completely overtaxed? Bonus: maybe things are different! Maybe you can do the thing!

In conclusion: Sometimes, you just over-commit anyway.

Like I said before, I don’t regret taking both of those classes, even though I might not have gotten as much out of them as if I’d taken them separately. I understand that I took a small loss there, and I gratefully accept it in exchange for the information I got.

Confession time: sometimes I stay out later than I should and spend part of the next day recovering. Sometimes I still say yes to an intensive work assignment and end up freaking out over how long it's taking. But I’m moving towards making those kinds of situations the exception, not the norm, and it's not just because I'm trying to get better at loving myself - it's also because it helps me do better work, in less time, without getting overwhelmed.

I also understand that if you're working for someone else, you don't have 100% control over your workload and schedule. However, I'm willing to bet that you have a little more leeway than you might think. I've helped others with stressful work situations, and I'd love to do the same for you. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a client call in 15 minutes that I need to prepare for. Buffer shields activate!

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Image credit: freeimages.com/Charles Thompson

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