It’s easy to get overcommitted.
In addition to all the things you have to do, there are a lot of things you would like to do. You don’t want to manage your workload by dropping everything that makes your work meaningful. In fact, I encourage you to prioritize meaningful work.
Unfortunately, there is never a point where all the things you might do with your time in a given period are laid out before you to choose between. Opportunities arise individually. You look at the individual opportunity on its own, and see all the reasons you might say yes. If it’s really attractive, you probably engage in some magical thinking about how much time you might be able to find to work on it.
For a while, it’s okay. You are juggling a lot of things but you are mostly making it work. You don’t notice the point where you tipped into ‘too much’ until you are well past it. Now you are overwhelmed and frazzled. You’ve probably already missed a deadline or two. You might be worried you are not going to do a good job.
There is no point berating yourself for getting in this position. This is where you are.
The easiest place to start fixing this problem is by not making it worse.
Declare a moratorium on new commitments.
The basic principle is to make a big decision now that will make it easier to respond to any requests that come up over a defined period of time. You do a bit of emotional and cognitive work now to create a default response you can use later. (I explain this principle in Managing the energy you use to make decisions)
A moratorium means that your default answer to new requests is “no”. (Take a deep breath. It’ll be okay.) A moratorium is temporary (by definition). This is not forever. It’s for a defined period of time.
I’m sure some uncomfortable emotions are coming up for you. Saying yes to more things is not going to fix that. In fact, it will exacerbate some of them and add a few extras.
- You value your relationships with the people who are inviting you.
- You are committed to doing your share of peer review, supervision, etc.
- You are not That Selfish Bastard. You are not lazy.
- You want to do a good job of the things you’ve already committed to.
- You don’t have any more time for this kind of work.
- You cannot do it all.
- You do not need to consider any specific request in detail because you do not have the capacity to do it, regardless of how attractive or important it is.
- You can reassure the person asking that this is not personal, you are overwhelmed and not saying yes to anyone right now.
The emotional work is mainly about trust. Trusting that you will have other opportunities. Trusting that the choices you have already made are good choices. (If they really aren’t, it’s never too late to say no.) Trusting that your colleagues understand and will want to work with you in future. Trusting that your priorities are acceptable even if other people have different priorities.
It’s okay if you are not very good at the trust part. It’s hard.
It’s particularly hard to do this when you are overwhelmed and tired. You can always accept the fear that this is a really bad idea and do it anyway because you are so overwhelmed you don’t have much choice. Keep reminding yourself that it’s temporary. Use whiteboard markers to write affirmations on your bathroom mirror. Whatever gets you through.
Note: It’s okay to also seek professional help for this emotional work from a therapist or counsellor. It’s also okay to do what you can if that’s not accessible right now. (Check out your employee assistance program if you have one. If there is a waiting list, get on the list.)
Practicalities: How long to give yourself
The goal of declaring a moratorium is to give yourself some space to deal with the commitments you’ve already made. You want to do a good job of those things. You want to meet your deadlines or renegotiate the deadlines without having to do so multiple times.
Be generous with yourself. In my experience, if you are in this position, you need months not weeks. It took a while to get into this position, it’s going to take a while to get out of it. Ask yourself how long you’d like not how fast you could do these things if all the stars aligned. All the stars won’t align. Cut yourself some slack.
One of the things I’ve learned from yoga is that there is a difference between discomfort and pain. Your brain wants to protect you from pain and injury. If you push too hard, it can be counterproductive. You want to identify the edge that allows you to practice the new movement safely, so you can relax and it becomes easier to go a bit further.
Be compassionate with yourself.
Start with this semester. The whole semester. Notice how it feels to imagine not having anything new added to your plate over that period.
- What was your initial reaction?
- If you allow yourself to believe it’s possible, does it feel good?
- Does it feel too short? Or too long?
- Can you explore that range compassionately to find the range that is a comfortable stretch?
- Based on how it feels, decide on a length that works. (A semester. A month. 2 months. Until the reading week. Whatever.)
- If you declare a moratorium on new commitments for this period of time, how much time would you have available for your existing commitments?
- How much progress would you be able to make?
- How many of them would you be able to complete?
You can repeat these 2 steps — feelings then practical implications — a couple of times to arrive at a decision about how long your moratorium will last.
Identify the exact date you will communicate. You do not have to start saying yes on that date. This is the date when you will make another big decision to guide your responses going forward.
Communicating your big decision
Part of your goal is not to have to do this emotional processing every time an opportunity arises. You have created a default response. You want to communicate clearly that you are not taking on new commitments for the specified period. You might add that this is to allow you to meet your existing commitments.
Do not over-explain. You are not asking anyone to approve your decision. Nor are you inviting others to try to change your mind. Your decision isn’t really about them or their project, so the less said about that the better. No means no.
There are some people you can communicate your decision with to pre-empt requests: friends, close colleagues, etc. Something like “I have decided not to take on any new commitments until at least [insert date]. This has been a difficult decision. Thank you for your understanding.” Trust that they will respect your “no”.
You can also draft a template email to use for responses to specific requests. This reduces the emotional and cognitive energy you need to spend crafting each email, to just the bits that are specific to this person and this opportunity. (Tip: if your email program doesn’t have templates, you can use the signatures function to save text you want to use as a template.)
You are not responsible for making them feel good about your decision. Once you’ve communicated your moratorium, you do not need to engage in further discussion.
What to do at the end of your moratorium
Resist the temptation to reconsider your moratorium period every time you finish something. Your current commitments are too much. Just because you complete one of them doesn’t mean you now have capacity to take on more. You want to reassign that capacity to one of your other commitments. (Or, if you’ve been working long hours to keep up, reduce the number of working hours to something more reasonable.)
At the end of your moratorium period your first task is to reevaluate your commitments. If you are still overcommitted, you might extend your moratorium. If your commitments, to yourself and others, feel feasible, you want to consider when you might be ready to take on something new.
Your first decision is what feels like a reasonable number of commitments.
Just because your plate is not overflowing doesn’t mean you have capacity for more.
Some questions to ask yourself
- Where is the “too much” line?
- How can you check where you are in relation to that line regularly so you don’t go (too far) over it in future?
- What if you allowed yourself to be under-committed sometimes? How much space could you allow for exploratory work?
- Does everything need a deadline or other commitment to an output?
- Then you want to think about what your priorities are for new commitments. You can be flexible and open to opportunities you did not anticipate, but you want to make sure you are still going in the direction you want to be going.
- What is your vision for your research programme?
- Are there whole areas that you will continue to say no to?
- Are there people you’d like to prioritize working with?
- Are there people you would rather not work with again? Organizations?
Perhaps you want to create a list of your own questions to ask yourself whenever an opportunity arises to help you make decisions.
Stop defaulting to yes, and looking for reasons to turn it down. Assume you are not taking on a significant number of the things you get invited to do and work out what needs to be there for you to say yes.
This post was originally written for recipients of the newsletter on Friday 13 August 2021. To get exclusive first access to new content in your inbox, sign up to the monthly newsletter by clicking here.
In addition to the variety of linked posts throughout the text, here are some extras.