As I write this I am thinking of one person who has shared her feeling that she’s overcommitted this term, and didn’t manage to get any rest over the break, and is Never Doing This Again. I’m writing it to everyone and anyone though because I know she is not alone. She is one of the people who is really good at making time for what’s important. She writes regularly. She spends time with her family. She’s figured stuff out and she still managed to get overcommitted. It happens.
If you are really overwhelmed and can’t even focus to think about this, start with the Emergency Planning Technique. When you’ve taken the edge off, come back and read this to make a sustainable plan going forward.
Everything is renegotiable.
This sounds crazy but it’s true. There may be a cost. That cost may be too high. But everything in your schedule is renegotiable.
Furthermore, the cost of failing to honour a commitment is usually lower if you do it well in advance, than if you let that ball drop at the last minute.
Something’s got to go.
You have no choice. The only choice you have is whether you consciously set balls aside and do it gracefully, or whether you just let some of the balls drop.
This is hard. Very hard. That’s why you’ve been avoiding even thinking about it, pretending that the loss of sleep or family time isn’t really that important, or whatever you’ve been doing.
Magical thinking is protection against shame. There is no shame in overcommitting. You made those commitments in good faith. If your inner voice has been telling you that this really is TOO MUCH, trust that inner voice.
Self-care is a commitment
Sleep. Eating well. Exercise. Family time. Time to rest and recharge.
Those are all commitments you have. Furthermore they all underpin your ability to keep your other commitments and to do those other things well. Think back to the last time you were exhausted. Are sleep, eating well, exercise, and family time really a low priority for you?
Quality is a commitment
Being overcommitted affects the quality of your work. This isn’t just about the impact of exhaustion.
Have you really accounted for all the time and energy needed to do this thing-you’ve-committed-to well? Even if you turn up to everything you’ve committed to are you going to be doing your best work?
The importance of slack
If you are overcommitted you also have no slack in your schedule. Which means that when the inevitable unplanned or unexpected thing comes up, however small, you have no capacity to deal with it without dropping even more balls.
What happens if you catch a cold? What happens if your travel plans are delayed by weather?
The basics of renegotiating
Identify your priorities and make sure you have enough time for them in your schedule.
Priority means scheduled first, not fit it in if there is time leftover.
Evaluate the costs of renegotiating the things that don’t fit. If gremlins are telling you that the cost is DOOM!, ask if that is really true. They like to exaggerate. Remember, you are negotiating with yourself. That might be about quality. It might be about what your real priorities are.
Brainstorm possibilities. What, exactly, do you want to negotiate? Do you want to drop this all together? Or would you just like to change the timing? Or the way you do it (e.g. virtually rather than in-person)?
At this point you may have confirmed that you are going to do all this stuff. That’s fine. You are making a conscious decision which is always better than having unrealistic expectations and then arbitrarily dropping balls.
You may have identified one or two things on your list that are real “I have no idea why I’m doing this.” items. Clarify what that commitment involves, if necessary. And, if it really is a very low priority for you, back out. Now. While there is still time to find a replacement.
Backing out gracefully.
Do not over-explain. No matter how tempted you are, the chances that explaining will make it worse are extremely high. You don’t need their permission to back out. You just need to let them know. Graciously. You can do this in writing (by email) or by telephone. If you do it by phone, confirm by email.
Allow the other person to be angry, disappointed, or whatever. You cannot control their feelings. They had this thing all planned. You backing out is inconveniencing them. There is no way around that. They get to feel what they feel.
Be clear and brief. Edit this to sound like you without adding extra explanation:
I have to pull out of my commitment to [whatever it is]. I made this commitment in good faith but reviewing my commitments for this term I realize that I cannot do this well while keeping my other commitments. I apologize for the inconvenience.
If you have good suggestions for an alternate, let them know. It’s their thing. They can decide whether they want your suggestions or not.
Most importantly, do this as soon as possible. It is much better to pull out of a March commitment in mid-January than to imagine some magical solution that will appear between now and then to make this possible and then have to pull out at the last minute.
I sent the first (longer) draft of this to the person in the opening paragraph. She pulled out of one commitment. And paid for an exercise class to make sure she does that regularly. She feels better. Still busy. But better.
You can do this.
You do good work. You will continue to do good work. You will do better work if you are not overcommitted.
Would you like some support while you do this?
Planning classes are a core part of the Academic Writing Studio, which also includes regular group coaching sessions (called Office Hours) to help members figure out difficult decisions like this.
Tim Ferris: The Fear of No an episode of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking Everything podcast.
Edited 26 October 2016 and 30 March 2022.