The problem of overcommitment is the same whether we’re talking about not having enough time to write, not having enough time to exercise, or any other shortage of time. It’s a matter of deciding to take on more than you can reasonably do, and it’s a perennial problem for me.
One of my character flaws
My own experience of overcommitment seems pretty simple: there’s a lot of stuff I’m excited about, and I can’t walk three feet without running into another cool opportunity of some kind. I realize that there should be a non-fiction book about a particular topic, or get a story idea, or come up with an idea for a Web site to help do something that’s hard to do, or think about how I can help a cause that matters to me or improve our house or organize better.
Most of the time, thankfully, I ignore these impulses. I’ve probably thrown away a number of ideas that would have changed my life if I pursued them, but I’ve also thrown away a lot of just-OK or actually-pretty-awful ideas, and I’ve pursued some ideas that have changed my life (like starting intensive reading research about self-motivation or applying to study at Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp back in 2001). The root of the thing is that there will never be enough time to do all the cool things that could be done in the world. In a way, this justifies the fact that we’re all individuals. True, it means we sometimes feel alone and tend to repeat each other’s mistakes over and over, but on the bright side, by each pursuing our separate passions we can collectively do most of the cool things there are to do. If I can’t do all the cool things myself, it’s reassuring to me that someone can.
Just trying to do better doesn’t cut it
In a sense, it occurs to me, overcommitment is a bit like being over-motivated. Unfortunately, the results aren’t all good. Whenever I take on more than I really have time to do, I’m really giving up some of the things I think I’m taking on, because in the end not all of it will get done.
One thing I can do to deal with overcommitment is to become more efficient: to organize my time, focus my efforts, and learn good habits for getting things done, but this doesn’t do anything to address the underlying problem, because when I have more usable time at my disposal, I tend to take on more things to do. Even doing the things I’ve already got on my list tends to lead to me finding new things to do. For instance, I might work on getting the word out about my latest book and in the course of doing that find several new places on the Web where I could get involved and learn something or connect with new people. It’s true that I’m on my guard about that, but I don’t seem to have pared things down to anywhere near a fully manageable level yet. I get a lot done, but I also leave things undone.
One partly successful way to approach this–and this is an approach I’ve been using a bit–is to get really good at prioritizing. If you prioritize well, then even though you don’t get everything done, at least you get the most important things done, which is great.
Unfortunately, if I take this approach I’ll still have put some effort and attention into the lower-priority things that I never got to, so it’s still wasteful. Also, I won’t be able to say for certain what I will and won’t get done. It’s not very satisfying to have someone say “Can you do this?” and for me to respond “I don’t know: let’s see whether I get to it or not.” I can address that in part by bumping anything I’ve promised anyone to the top, but that means sometimes doing things that aren’t as important just because I talked to someone about them. That’s not the worst fate in the world, but it’s hardly ideal.
So really the solution to overcommitment is figuring out what to let go of and consciously letting go of it–keeping the workload down to a manageable level. This has a lot of benefits: you know what you will and won’t be able to do; you can make promises and keep them; you have a lot fewer things to worry about; and you concentrate your efforts on things you’re actually going to finish.
Sadly, this is much easier said than done. Even putting things in priority order is hard, because priorities change over time. Putting things in priority order and then hacking off the bottom of the list seems too painful and destructive to be borne–and yet it also seems like the required behavior. So I’d love to hear your thoughts: how would you change an overcommitted life so that you’d be doing less?
Photo by timailius