Browsing the archives for the overcommitment tag.
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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


Too Many Priorities

Strategies and goals

If I were to have to pick the one largest problem I have getting things done in my life, it would be having too many priorities. Maybe you can relate … though I hope you can’t!

Roots of overcommitment
Part of the problem has to do with my personality: I love to consider new possibilities and think about new ways to do things, so I often come up with ideas that seem likely to pay off handsomely if I invest some time and effort. Though sometimes that has been the case and sometimes it hasn’t, usually it’s much easier to consider whether the idea itself is worthwhile than to consider whether or not it really fits in with my primary goal at that point in my life.

And I do mean “goal,” singular. We can adopt a lot of different priorities in our lives, but if we really want to achieve something difficult and effortful, like starting a new business or losing 50 pounds or learning Swedish from CDs, our chance of success plummets unless it is the only big goal we’re currently pursuing.

Why only one goal?
Accomplishing any big change in our lives means changing habits, and changing habits takes time (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“), effort, attention, and thought. When we try to pursue more than one major goal at a time, all of these resources get divided among the goals, and this takes a difficult but doable process and makes it so overwhelming that few of us can possibly succeed. It’s as though we are trying to defend a city with a small army that should be just barely up to the job, but then divide our troops in two or three or more parts and send them to defend other cities. All the cities may be worth defending, it’s true, but in this kind of situation, all of them are likely to fall.

When it’s hard letting other goals go
While knowing this has helped rein in my enthusiasm for new projects, it hasn’t prevented me from going in too many directions at once. Ironically, writing this blog makes it more difficult for me to let go of multiple priorities: it’s hard to write about self-motivation and not feel as though you should be able to create it in all aspects of your life at once, even if what you’re writing is that this is an unsuccessful way to proceed.

And of course all of the different project I pursue do feel very important to me. It’s hard to look at any one of them and think that I should let it go, especially after I’ve put a huge amount of work into it.

Yet sometimes letting things go–or at least putting them away temporarily–is exactly the best thing to do. Even a goal that’s put aside can benefit from this, because instead of unending effort toward too many goals that fails to ever fully succeed, we can have efforts that succeed in getting us somewhere, and once we’ve reached a certain level–the new business is running smoothly and there are no immediate crises, or new eating and exercise habits have become second nature, or communicating in Swedish is going well–then we have the mental capacity, the time, and the focus to spend on something else, which might well turn out to be that goal we had to sideline to get things going.

But getting to that point, for those of us who are used to trying to juggle lots of new projects or priorities, is hard. My natural response to the idea that I have to cut back on projects is that all of my projects are too important to cut back on. Yet not setting some of these projects aside means that I’m only considering them important enough to half-try and then fail at. It may be painful to give up on the car being rebuilt in the garage, the new artistic effort that had so much promise, or on the professional development effort that promises a better job but takes too much time and feels too draining–but that’s exactly what we end up needing to do if there’s something else that really needs to take priority.

Ongoing priorities
There are also things many of us do on an ongoing basis that really aren’t that important, and it’s very rewarding to experiment with not doing these. These may be things like participating in clubs or groups that don’t add much to our lives, watching TV, or spending a lot of time and effort on vacations. Many of these activities will be related to entertainment (or in some cases, just killing time), which sounds a bit as though I’m advocating a life spent having no fun, but in truth, the activities that are most enjoyable to us as human beings are often the ones that are the most rewarding, like helping out friends, engaging with our families, or doing something that you do very, very well.

However important existing priorities, even though they make demands on time and attention too, don’t need to be discarded to work on a goal. If you decide that the essential thing for you to do is to buckle down and really finish the renovations on your home, that doesn’t mean it’s time to ignore your spouse and children, stop paying attention to your job, drop out of your twice-weekly basketball games, or cut off communication with friends. These ongoing priorities are not goals in the same way that something that requires a change of habit and a significant new investment of time is a goal. While any or all of these things may slow down accomplishing a new goal, if they are already priorities in your life, they aren’t going to require new habits to develop on a large scale–and it is that brain-changing process of habit change that makes goals happen.

Photo by Auntie P

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Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips

Habits, Strategies and goals

Do you have to have an organizational system in order to motivate yourself? No. Does it help? Hell, yes.

In order to motivate ourselves toward specific goals, we can identify a set of factors that we either need or at least benefit a lot by. Among these are a few important ones that organization helps with in spades, specifically:

1. Setting and prioritizing goals
2. Understanding what needs to be done, and
3. Getting regular, meaningful feedback (in the form of checking things off)


If I’m pursuing a big goal (whether it’s completing a book proposal, renovating a house, or learning to speak Bantu), in many cases the most productive thing for me to do is to break that big task into steps, and the steps into smaller tasks, until I get down to the level of tasks that can be done in one pass. This is less important with goals that are more repetitive (for instance, speaking Bantu: if I set up regular lessons and study times, I should be fine) than with goals that are made up of a wide variety of little things (like cutting window glass, taking down cabinets, and painting for that house renovation) that may be hard to keep track of. If I’m doing one big task of the second kind, organization becomes important. If I’m doing several big tasks like that, or lots and lots of little tasks, organization becomes the difference between being productive and being driven profoundly, dramatically nutty. Anyone who forgets to do important things, does low-priority things when they would rather have been doing high-priority things, feels scattered or overwhelmed, or doesn’t know where to start on the mound of things ahead can probably benefit from better organization.

It’s important to realize that organization itself requires self-motivation to be trained into a habit. Since we’re motivated to do things that we feel happy about and tend to avoid things that we feel anxious about, it’s very helpful to consciously associate the organization you do with the relief it brings, whether that’s at the “Well, at least now I know everything I have in front of me” level or at the “Hooray, I’m finished!” level of achievement. If you find yourself avoiding your organizational system, try taking a step back and thinking of the benefits of your system, of anything it has helped you do in the past, or of people whose organizational skills you admire. Thinking positively about organization makes doing organization much more appealing.

Which organizational system you choose will also make a lot of difference. A paper system can work if you don’t have a lot of tasks or if you don’t mind writing and rewriting things a lot, but electronic systems make things much easier by helping group and prioritize tasks, dropping completed tasks from your list, and so on. Many electronic organization systems also allow you to keep different categories of tasks, which is important: ideally, you want to categorize your tasks so that at any given time, you’re only looking at the things you could conceivably get done right then. It can be anxiety-producing to look at a monumental list of tasks, 90% of which you can’t do now because you’re in the wrong place, have only a limited amount of time, etc.

Because of this, I tend to break out my own task lists in four ways: first, by where I do them, in that I use a completely different organizational tool for work compared to home, since it’s rare that I’ll have the choice of doing either of those things at the same time. Second, by theme: I have one task list of things to do with my son, another of strictly writing-related tasks, another of financial tasks, etc. Third, by task length: I tend to keep a separate list of very quick tasks that I can get done when I just have a few spare minutes. And fourth, by importance: I find it helpful to keep a list of top tasks so that they don’t get ignored in favor of easier but much less important ones.

Of course, this results in a lot of lists, but then, I don’t categorize every single task in all four ways. For instance, my most important tasks just go in the “top” list regardless of other concerns, and my “quick win” short task list contains both important and unimportant tasks (although it’s prioritized within that).

The goal of all this separation of tasks (which is probably overkill in that form for most people, as I tend to have a lot of complex things going on at any given time) is to have a set of task lists that I can choose from whenever I’m ready to do something productive. If I’ve blocked out time for writing, I look at the writing list. If I have a few spare minutes, I look at the “quick win” list. If I’m going out to run errands, I look at my errands list. And so on.

With any luck, your list of things to do is much shorter than mine, and you would need at most only a few categories.

Any task management system needs to be one you can access conveniently and often. A computer-based one is no good if you’re rarely at the computer, for instance. And any system that makes it hard to figure out what you should be doing (like a paper system where you have to sift through a pile of notes) or that takes too long for you to access (like a computerized system that takes a long time to start up) or that makes it hard to read or enter tasks (like a task list on your cell phone when you don’t have an alphanumeric keypad on your phone) is probably the wrong one.

In terms of my favorite tools, here’s what I’m using at the moment.

First and foremost, I use Todoist, a completely free, online system that offers one of the easiest, most natural, and most convenient user interfaces I’ve ever seen anywhere. While it does offer ways to prioritize and schedule due dates, generally speaking the main thing I care about is typing the task in as part of the right category. To do this takes me one double-click (to open the shortcut to the Todoist site on my desktop), one single click (to select the project I want), and one keystroke (“a” to staring adding a new task). Once I have the task in, it’s easy to edit, schedule, prioritize, move between projects, or move to a different place on the list with drag-and-drop.

Of course, fully using Todoist means I need to be at the computer, but when I’m not I print out my tasks if I need to consult the list, and write down a list of any that I need to add–which it’s then essential that I add as soon as possible, so that everything stays up to date. On top of that, though, since I have Web access on my phone, I can get to the mobile version of Todoist through that, which is very limited in terms of functionality, but where I can easily view my tasks and add new ones.

In terms of my calendar, to my own surprise this year I’ve adopted a simple, paper-based planner booklet. I find it much easier to see what I’ll be doing at a particular time by flipping to a page rather than by having to look something up on the computer, and writing things in a schedule doesn’t have the drawbacks of keeping tasks on paper, because old events are just ignored as you flip to the new page. One major limitation of this system, it should be noted, is that you don’t get reminders, but I address that by checking my planner often to keep myself aware of my schedule. If I really, really needed a reminder, I could enter alarms into my cell phone.


A good alternative for both of these systems is a PDA (personal digital assistant), like a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry. Older Palm Pilots that are still completely functional can often be gotten on eBay for $30 or less. The main reason I’ve stopped using my PDA in favor of these other systems is the niggling details of convenience. Since it’s much easier for me to enter tasks into Todoist or events into my planner than to enter either into my Palm Pilot, I find I’m more reliable about keeping information up to date when I use these methods. The benefits of “convenient” for things that we sometimes don’t feel like doing are hard to overstate.

Finally, a note about overcommitment, an issue I struggle with: if you have chosen to do more things in your life than you’re willing or able to find the time for, not only will you never feel caught up, but you’ll fail to do things you had wanted or promised to do. That is, if you choose to do more than you can realistically get done, you really won’t get it all done, and what you don’t get done will be chosen by circumstance instead of by you. The only completely sane solution to this is to take a hard look at your commitments and decide what you can do less of. The temptation is to promise yourself you’ll do less of the recreational stuff, and often this can be a good way to go for at least part of the problem–but it can also be hard, because every time we sit down to watch a television show or kill some time randomly surfing the Web, we’re acting not only on habit but in response to some internal desire, need, or gap. Tackling these kinds of issues takes mindfulness, self-examination, and willpower, and fortunately this blog is designed to help in all of those departments.

Of course, there are uncountable organizational systems, tools, programs, practices, and paraphernalia, and what works best depends a lot on the individual person. Do you have something that works very well for you? I’d love to hear more about it in comments.

“Drowning” photograph by Quinn.Anya.


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