Four sanity restoring strategies for the over-committed

If you’re constantly pressed for time, it could be because you think you have more time in your day than actually exists or you can’t stop saying, “yes,” to every commitment that comes your way. If you’re being pulled in more directions than you want to be, now is a great time to start putting the breaks on the constant agreements and start being more selective with your time commitments.

None of the following ideas is revolutionary, and you have likely heard them before today. However, they’re good reminders for all of us, especially those who fall into the realm of the over-committed.

  1. “Let me get back to you,” should be the first thing you say in response to any request that comes your way. A little time between you and the request can give you some perspective.
  2. Make rules for your agreements — If the request is from someone very dear to you and the request is for her well-being, you will very likely accept the request. If the request is from an organization you find morally questionable, and you don’t want to do the work, you’ll say, “no.” Length of commitment, obligations outside of meetings, and the person or organization making the request should all be considered when creating your rules.
  3. Keep your attention focused on what matters most to you. (If you aren’t clear about what matters most to you, check out “Make a list, check it twice.”) Keep your eye on the big prize.
  4. Reframe your perspective. Saying, “no,” to a less-important action gives you the opportunity to say, “yes,” when a request you really want to accept comes your way.

18 Comments for “Four sanity restoring strategies for the over-committed”

  1. posted by Anita on

    These are all great tips for those who are pressed for time by commitments that were passed onto them by others.

    My over-commitment is mostly self-inflicted. It’s not others that are pushing commitments on me, I take on too much of my own initiative. And the kicker is that I really WANT to do all of that, and as a result I’m all the more disappointed if/when I can’t keep up, because all these projects are dear to me.

    So. Is there a cure for the over-enterprising, as opposed to those too likely to say yes?

    My solution so far as been to stop taking on new projects; I still think them up, but now instead of jumping to start them, I write them down and review the list once I’ve completed a project I already have on the go.

    In addition to that, I’ve started limiting myself to one project a day. I use a Moleskine planner, and for each day I write in one action, one piece of a project (that is feasible that day, and I make myself focus on that alone. It makes me feel less scattered.

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — I think your type of over-commitment should begin with a “finish it up” program. Don’t start any new projects until ALL of your current projects are finished. If you come across a project you don’t want to finish, ask around to see if anyone else wants to swap an unfinished project with you (you pass off a quilt that needs to be bound and she passes off to you her sweater that needs to be seamed and buttons sewn on to it … it’s a lot more interesting to finish someone’s sweater than your quilt sometimes). If swapping with someone isn’t appropriate, consider ditching the project in the trash (or frogging the sweater or selling the quilt top or whatever applies). Continue to keep the list as you have already started doing, and only work on one project at a time. Once you get your projects under control, then you can start to think about working on more than one at a time. Good luck! I struggle with this, too.

  3. posted by Dhakiya on

    Anita, I completely agree with you. I always end up taking on more than I should because I really WANT to complete all these tasks also.

    I enjoy helping people and knowing that I can be reliable. However, I always overdo it and end up stressing. It gets pretty bad.

    This was a very insightful article! #1 and #4 really made say, “Oh. Why didn’t I consider that?” For, #1, whenever I get a request, I always feel I have a short time limit and I’m confined to the answers “Yes” and “No”. I’ll test out “Let me get back to you.” It’ll gives me time to think. As for #4, it’s just hard for me to refuse any type of request. But I will keep this article in mind.

    I’ll have to check out “Make a list, check it twice” next 🙂

  4. posted by jodi on

    I am one with the opposite problem…I dream of having enough time to dream about projects! Next week I have 18 appointments – none of them can be avoided, and since most of my life flows at a rate almost that fast rescheduling doesn’t ever free up the schedule.

    I have found using a planner to be pivotal to managing my schedule. I also have (with hubbys agreement) decided to hire someone to clean our house once a week. (haven’t found anyone yet though, which amazes me in our economy!) As of right now, the scheduke of outside-imposed-unavoidable things is so overwhelming my husband has had to take time off work. I am able to read online while waiting in doctors waiting rooms etc. and that’s my “down time”

    Other than a planner or hired help, I would love any additional tips if there are any! This stage of life is what my friend calls shoveling while its snowing…

  5. posted by Allison on

    Learning to say no to things was my New Year’s resolution a couple of years back — I haven’t quite mastered it, but I’m still working on it, and #1 is absolutely essential for me. I so want to be helpful that I say “yes” almost automatically, then kick myself later… *sigh*

    Taking a step back helps, I’ll have to see if making rules for myself helps even more.

  6. posted by Kisha on

    If only I could get my husband to listen to this advise. He never says no, not even to me. It’s so frustrating because he’s so over committed!

  7. posted by Dee in BC on

    I wish I had Anita’s problem (That I was the one over committing)I’m pretty good about saying “no”. I have 2 fairly young kids , a full time job, try to work out daily( for health reasons) & am studying for university level professional acreditation. I really wish my hubby would understand that as these are my ( decided by both of us) priorities I DO NOT have the time , energy , or frankly desire, to be part of the local PTA or join the “soccer mom pool”or take my kids to skating lessons. Yes, I do spend time with my kids. I work the same number of hours as hubby- just a very compressed week (12 hour shifts – when behind these easily beccome 14-16 hours-with no overtime pay)My shifts are mostly opposite to hubby’s – so kids are only at daycare after school for about 2 hours, 1 or 2 days a week. ( Hubby works 8 hr shifts & is in a union)I work out of nesccessity- not choice. The days I am not physically at the office are spent with my kids, doing housework,looking after the pets,doing the usual doctor, dentist & pediatrician’s visits, working out ( for health reasons) & studying. Mostly the last 2 take place before the kids are up or after they are asleep. I try to relax in the few moments I have free.I don’t care if PTA is just 2 hours a month (minimum) or doing the soccer car pool is just 20 minutes every 3rd week ( spposedly- until it turns into ” Jane Smith’s 4 yr old is sick -So you can cover- right?” Nancy Jones is on vacation so you’ll do her rotation cause you’re the only other car pooler that doesn’t work on Tues. ) Adding more just isn’t possible.(for me) My manager even seems to understand “No”. My hubby just keeps pointing out women we know that seem to do more… I point out their homes are chaotic disasters/ they have lots of family to help/their jobs are much simpler or more flexible/ their kids are in daycare or older so they can get chores done.yet hubby asks “Why did we have kids if I don’t want to do anything with them ???” Even Hubby’s co-workers ask how on earth I manage – Hubby usually replies “She only works 3 days a week!”

  8. posted by Mike on

    This post is great advice.

    If you’re like me, you have many irons in the fire, each demanding time. In general, the time investment is worth it, as the completed projects either give you the desired output (money, free time, resolution of a problem) or give you the tools or knowledge to continue with a broader project. We’re unclutterers here, so we’ve gotten fairly decent at jettisoning time-sinks. That’s where we sit, if you’re like me.

    Now, if you’re even more like me, you have a panoply of friends and loved ones that have things going on — life things — and you’re either welcomed at such things, invited outright, or in some cases necessary! (think being in a wedding party or becoming a godparent at a niece’s baptism, etc).

    So you have a lot to do and not enough time to do it, the classic impasse. And you genuinely do want to spend time with the people in your life — after all, that’s a big reason you became an unclutterer — but the clock hours simply aren’t there.

    Something has to give. Taking time to consider conflicting demands before committing is a big step, and then prioritizing from there can get you in a position to be where you must and pass on where you aren’t really needed.

  9. posted by Anita on

    @Erin – thanks for the tips! I am definitely putting a moratorium on new projects until the “finish it up” stage is done. And revisiting the projects I have on the go to see if some can be dropped is a great idea too – as much as I’d like to think all my projects are brilliant 🙂

    I think I also suffer from the “sole owner’s syndrome” of total inability to delegate. With most projects I feel like “this is my baby, only I know how to take care of it properly, and having someone else do it would only end with me undoing/redoing their work to my satisfaction.” Part of it is from experience, but I suspect a big part is only in my head.

    I realise this is bad for me (and probably toxic to those around me as well) so I’m trying to let go little by little and let well-meaning people help. I CAN let someone else write a draft lease we’re proposing to a new landlord. My web designer friend CAN put a web site layout together better than I can, without me looking over her shoulder. My boyfriend CAN explain things to programmers and developers we’re looking to hire, without me writing out scripts for him. And they all WILL ask me for help if they need it.

  10. posted by Nicole on

    Kisha, I was going to say the same thing! Maybe we should print this article and leave it under their pillows.

  11. posted by Mletta on

    The ability to say “no” is one of the most important skills anyone should learn in their lives, whether it’s business related or with friends and family.

    Honestly, I have more respect and understanding for someone who just says “no” outright when they are struggling with work and life overload. From my experience, the folks who keep saying “yes” when they mean “no” often compromise the quality and/or timely completion of work projects (It’s great that you want to help but if you can’t, and don’t come through later rather than sooner, we can’t even get someone else to help) and other professional commitments. It would have saved everyone a lot of time and trouble if you just said “no” upfront. (We’ve learned how to do this with clients and yes, it’s hard. But it’s worse when you’re understaffed and can’t meet a deadline.)

    On the personal side, more people would probably say “no” if they didn’t get so much grief and guilt-ing from family and friends. Given the work and family and financial situations of so many folks today, even folks who really care about each other cannot attend some family events, etc. We miss them and vice-versa but there’s no joy when people have to go into debt to say “yes.”

    Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I’ve been in situations where others didn’t say “no” and when they did show up they were so tired, conflicted and clearly not happy to be present that I wished they had not shown up for an event or get-together.

    If I invite folks and they really can’t come for legit reasons (we’re not talking here about folks who really don’t want to come and just won’t say no; that’s something else), I encourage them to say “no.”

    In our private lives especially, we should allow people to opt out without grief or pressure or obligation. Friendship is certainly NOT about obligation but free will and choice. I derive no pleasure from a get-together with one or more people if those folks are so beleagured that they can’t enjoy our time together because they are busy worrying about work, home or something else.

    Families can make it very difficult to say “no” if not impossible. There’s a fine line between maintaining tradition (whether it’s your turn to host a holiday or something else), for example, and basically imposing your will on others.

    The old “if you loved me, you would (fill in the blank)” card gets used all the time and both short- and long-term, this does not help build and maintain relationships.

    The other problem with saying “no” is that in many groups, families, etc., if you’re the one who has the guts to say “no,” you get the most grief, from the folks who do not have the guts. It’s a double whammy.

    The inability to say “no” is part of a larger problem, the disease to please, in many cases. It’s about wanting to avoid conflict, to be liked, etc. Once you get over that and focus on what really matters, you’ll have a more authentic life. People who really care about each other WANT you to say NO when it doesn’t work for you.

    As for those who willingly overcommit, you need to really think about why you do it. Because your reasons may not be as altruistic as you think. A lot of folks join/commit to stuff for a simple reason: They have their own agenda or desire to control or run something. Or to get brownie points (work). But the bottom line is that nobody really benefits when you overcommit because you can’t say “no.” More times than not, projects, events and relationships are far more compromised or hurt than if you just said “sorry, no.”

  12. posted by chacha1 on

    I try to manage my commitments by using the long view.

    Say I want to work with someone a few years down the road. I might say “yes” to something that will put me on their radar in a good way. But I might say “no” to something else that would keep me on the radar but not in a way that adds value to the relationship.

    Because then I have to execute. I have a good reputation because I do what I say I am going to do … not because I say I will do everything.

  13. posted by Babs on

    @ Dee in BC

    Just say no to Hubby’s unhelpful comments (My DH is the same way). I think it must be some weird character trait. It sounds like the comments are stressing you more than all the stuff you have going on. You might remind him of your agreed upon priorities, then stick your fingers in your ears and sing LA LA LA when he starts in about PTA, etc.
    If you were to join PTA I can tell you that they would want more than 2 hours a month (a lot more!) And you would spend less time with your kids, not more.
    Good Luck

  14. posted by bytheway on

    Serious question that I hope will be taken as such: why can’t a father join the PTA or take the car pool, if he finds it so important? Part of the problem of overcommitment is that we only see things can be done one way…but another problem of overcommitment is we only see things can be done by one person. Recipe for disaster, IMHO.

    For the commenter who discussed going into debt for family obligations: I find a large bill in the card (and a very gracious note /sentiment) for the wedding/graduation/christening of the faraway family member gets me off the hook of going and I still save $ in the long run. There is only so much time and energy.

    One can say no in many different ways. I choose to say no in a gracious way, not speaking of my many burdens or harping about my endless other demands. In fact, I often do not give a reason any more. (I consider this, too, to be “uncluttering.”) A simple “thank you for thinking of me but I won’t be able to” often is all that is needed. If the questioner wants more, s/he can ask.

  15. posted by evelyn Cucchiara on

    Have you ever seen the napkins/t shirts/coasters that say “Stop me before I volunteer again?” Should be a staple in your gift giving arsenal for your friends!

  16. posted by writing all the time on

    @Jodi: When I’m trying to ride an avalanche, I drop everything that is not essential. Perhaps I’ve matured, maybe I’m just cranky a lot of the time, but it’s getting easier and easier to say, “Sorry, can’t do it right now”. I still do slip up every now and then, but way less than ever before.

    Saying ‘No, thank you,’ is like any other life skill, it takes practice, and at first it can be pretty uncomfortable. It gets easier, and it sooooo simplifies life.

  17. posted by Bryan on

    Great advice, the let me get back to you is the best, it lets the other person down but gently. I use it with family but everyone else gets a yes or no. Its always best to go with your gut though, if your not at least 90% sure that you want to do something, its best to leave it alone

  18. posted by Ashley S.C. Walls on

    I really needed this post at this very moment! Thanks for helping to keep my eye on the prize!!!!!

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