The Arc of Over-commitment

While a booming economy is, in most respects, a nice problem to have, the combination of an abundance of work to do and scarcity of qualified talent to do it often has us with more on our plates than can reasonably be achieved in the time allotted.  As a recovering knee jerk volunteer, I’ve learned the value of managing my time well, mostly through trial and painful error.  It’s led me to an understanding of what I call the arc of over-commitment, which usually traverses over the course of 3-6 months.

At first, when one ends up with more work on their plate than they can handle, it generates exhilarating, positive stress.  One moves from project to project and challenge to challenge with little overthinking and develops a sense of mastery in the process.  It feels good for about a month or so, until it doesn’t.

In the second part of the arc, the fact that we completed tasks quickly means that, inevitably, we made errors on some of them that have now come to light.  Thus, while the flow of responsibilities remains high, it is compounded by the need to go back and correct or revisit prior decisions and outcomes.  That sense of mastery we felt in the early phase is now being eroded, and the pressure is starting to mount.  Usually at this stage we begin looking for ways to become more efficient.  If one is in management, that often means making different choices about what one delegates to the team and how often one checks work.  When someone is in this phase of the arc the physical manifestations of stress become more apparent. They are often quieter or crankier than usual and have less time or energy for fun or small talk.

The third part of the arc, is when one begins to believe they are the only person who can do the work or solve the problem.  If you find yourself thinking, “It’s going to be faster  for me to just do this myself than to try to explain it to somebody else,” as a response to virtually every new task you’re given, chances are you’re in phase three.  This is when most people start to exhibit anger and frustration, often coupled with harsh judgement of colleagues, peers, subordinates that they believe don’t work as hard or care as much as they do.  This phase, left unchecked, is the precursor to a melt down.

So how does one manage staying on the productive side of commitment? I have a few strategies.

  1. No matter how busy I am, I start and end the week by assessing what’s on my plate and how much time it will take.  That way I don’t forget or miss deadlines.
  2. If I have too much on my plate, I engage my boss to help me figure out where to focus.  Those conversations go something like, “I have these five tasks on my plate an enough bandwidth for three of them.  Which two do you think I should push or delegate?”  When my boss helps me decide, they also help run interference when someone isn’t pleased with the adjustments we’ve had to make. (If I’m an owner, I check in with a trusted advisor or a peer owner to accomplish the same thing.)
  3. Always make some time, every day, just to breathe and/or meditate.  We all need to pull ourselves out of the fray and recharge.  Contrary to what you may think, it actually helps you to be more productive.

I’d love to hear from you if you have other strategies for retaining and/or restoring balance in your commitments.


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