Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Overcommitted: Not Enough Time


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.

Prioritization helps–somewhat
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.

Letting go
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



  1. Janci  •  Dec 6, 2011 @2:56 pm

    I’m expecting my first child, and when I found out I was pregnant I already knew I was overcommited. If I couldn’t handle all the things in my life already, I certainly couldn’t handle all of them and a child, too. So I did what you describe in that last section. I made a list in priority order. Then I set about chopping off the second half of the list. It was very painful, but having un-overcommitted myself, I feel better than I have in years–maybe ever. I still have the list. If I find, once I have an infant, that I’m overcommitted again, I’ll do some more chopping. But now I know that I can do it, and that it is so, so worth it.

    I think my main motivation to do this was that I knew if I didn’t, the important things were going to be the ones to get lost, and I couldn’t have that. That perspective made the process a lot less painful.

  2. Luc  •  Dec 6, 2011 @3:02 pm

    Thanks very much for posting, Janci. I’ve snipped off items from the bottom of my list now and then, but nothing like you’ve described. I keep thinking that if I just exercise more restraint about starting things, that will make a big difference–but I think I need to do a lot of work on my perspective before I can make a significant difference in that direction. I am continuing to work on the problem, though, so maybe it won’t be too long before I’ll be able to try what you’ve tried.

  3. Debs  •  Dec 7, 2011 @8:48 am

    This couldn’t have come at a better time, Luc. I over-commit in terms of stories I want to write (all self-imposed, by the way) which leads to me writing all the time, and neglecting the other things that need to get done. Which sometimes leads to aniexty.

    So what I do, when I feel like this is an hour by hour schedule. Making sure I put in other things apart from writing. I don’t know why but somehow I stick to it.

    There’s something magic about writing things down.

  4. Luc  •  Dec 7, 2011 @4:13 pm

    I get a lot of juice out of writing things down, too, Debs. But I’m curious about your hour-by-hour schedule. If you have a chance to describe what you do, I’d be interested to hear.

  5. Debs  •  Dec 7, 2011 @6:23 pm

    Sure. I use it when I’m feeling anxious about having to much to do. In the morning I’ll jot down on a scrap of paper what I’m going to do during my time. This week I felt that I hadn’t done much towards organising Christmas, or researching secondary schools for my son, so I wrote down:

    8.30-9.30 School run and grocery shop
    9.30-10.30 Christmas online shopping and practice making starter for xmas.
    10.30-11.30 work on story.
    11.30-12.30 online research for secondary schools
    12.30 -1.15 Walk and buy birthday present for my niece
    1.15-3 work on story
    3pm pick up children from school.

    Then after that I might sneak in a bit more writing, but it’s not timetabled. So a light writing day for me today, but I feel good that I got the other things done. I’ll probably do the same tomorrow.

    It’s a technique that I only use if I’m feeling overwhelmed. If I hadn’t written it down I would probably would have spent 9.30-3pm working on my story (the most enjoyable of the tasks).

  6. Luc  •  Dec 23, 2011 @2:32 pm

    Debs, do you often run into the problem when you schedule things like this that unexpected priorities disrupt the plan? Someone calls and you’re stuck on the phone for half an hour, you realize you have to get a check to the bank to prevent being overdrawn, etc.?

    Also, what happens if something goes over?

    I ask this because these are the only two problems I can think of off the top of my head; it sounds like something like this could be very useful under the right circumstances. How has it worked for you?

  7. Debs  •  Dec 29, 2011 @3:46 am

    Hi, Luc,

    Well I try to stick to it a much a possible. If something unavoidable happened, then I’d do it but it had better be very important.

    As for going over the time, I don’t tend to. Even if I’m in the flow. The list is the list and should be adhered to.

    It’s a powerful tool for me. I might do it today.

  8. Luc  •  Dec 29, 2011 @10:38 am

    Thanks, that’s pretty interesting–I’ll have to give it a try myself!

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: