It’s easy to back out of an obligation if technically it’s not yet an obligation. When someone asks for your help on a project, you can thank him for considering you, explain that you are not the best person for the job, and recommend an alternative person or method for getting the help he needs. However, we don’t always say “no” when we should and sometimes it’s not until we’re involved in a project that we realize it’s the wrong project for us.
For those times when you’re carrying more obligations or the wrong obligations, you need a management (and possibly an exit) strategy to regain control of your time.
- Ask for help. This could mean going to the project organizer and requesting that he assist you in prioritizing and scheduling your work, or it could mean picking up the phone and asking someone to step in and lend a hand. Know what resources are available to you, and don’t be reluctant to take advantage of them.
- Identify the problem. Is it the time commitment that is driving you bonkers or that you were misled about what you would be doing? Maybe the problem is that you were once interested in the project, but you’re ready now to move on to something else? Knowing exactly why you want to change your relationship with a project can help you find the solution.
- Change your mindset. Often times, just deciding to feel differently about an obligation can improve the situation. Instead of believing you have to do something, you change your thoughts to acknowledging you get to do it and the stress goes away.
- Manage expectations. If you think you’re going to miss an upcoming deadline, tell those who are depending on you about it as early as possible. “We spent all last night in the ER after my kid wiped out on his bicycle. My work today likely won’t be as productive as it normally is. Just giving you a head’s up that this might alter the deadline.” Keeping your team members in the loop has the benefit of reducing your stress levels. Don’t whine or exaggerate or act defensively, just communicate the facts. People understand that life happens.
- Know exactly what needs to get done. The stress of an obligation is sometimes greater than the actual obligation. Identify exactly what action items you need to take, and maybe your stress levels will reduce.
- Create a detailed exit strategy. Similar to planning any project, you’ll need a roadmap for where you’re going that is complete with action items and milestones. Want to get off a committee at your daughter’s school? Your plan for how that will happen might look like: 1. Complete all current work assigned to you, 2. Find a replacement committee member or alternative method for getting the work done in the future, 3. Craft your resignation note, 4. Buck up and resign, but be gracious (a small gift of appreciation for the committee chair might be in order).
- Know your priorities. There are times when the obligation is a good one, it’s just not good right now. I’ve recently been asked to serve on a curriculum committee for an organization that I value. I’m honored they considered me, and would love being on the committee, but can’t do the work right now. I told the organization this and also said that once my son starts pre-school in a couple years that I hope to be able to participate then if they still want/need my help. Spending my free time with my son is more important to me right now than serving on this committee.
No matter what route you take to getting out from under the stress of being over-committed, be respectful of the people who will pick up the work that you are no longer responsible for completing. Even though you might want to burn some bridges, it’s never a good idea to just abandon your obligations. You wouldn’t want someone to do it to you.