Three Reality Checks Before You Commit

Image of 12 coloured Push Pins all on the 22nd of an unnamed month on a calendar to signify being overcommitted

Do you have trouble saying "no" to requests from others? Do you add new projects faster than you can complete them? Do you love to go above and beyond on your assignments? If so, you're like me. You tend to overcommit. 

The standard advice we are given is, “Just say no." But when should you say no? These additional commitments often seem like a good idea at the time. A small act of generosity strengthens a relationship. A side project can further your lifetime goals. More time on an assignment can make it excellent. These extras are tempting because they seem to be worth the effort. And yet, taken together, they overload you and make it difficult to follow through on your top priorities.

There are many tools for dealing with the overload once it occurs. But what you really need is a way to see in advance that a potential commitment is likely too much. Here are three reality checks that help you do that:

First, commit to a task only if you would be okay with its being harder or more unpleasant than you anticipate.

This reality check helps you avoid committing to relatively unimportant tasks that are likely to conflict with higher priorities.

I figured this out one day when I was frustrated by a task that took more work than I expected. I realized that I only promised to do it because I thought it would be easy. But there are so many ways that a seemingly simple task can become more difficult or unpleasant — and then you regret having made the commitment in the first place. 

Maybe you are overly optimistic about how quickly you can finish. Or maybe routine difficulties may slow you down. You go to send a promised file and you discover that there is a version problem. Or it turns out you need something from someone else who is slow to respond. In any case, what was supposed to be a 10-minute task turns into an hour, which you would not have committed to.

How do you figure this out in advance? The Cold Test. Would you commit to doing this task even if you had a bad cold? If not, don't commit. 

You can work when you have a cold, but only at a slow pace. And when you have a cold, you don't want to do anything that isn't truly important. 

If a task fails the Cold Test, yet it's something you'd like to do, you can always make it a maybe. Maybe you'll fit it in if all goes well. A maybe is something you will do opportunistically if you have time and energy. It's not a commitment. That makes it easy to drop without breaking your promises to yourself or others when you need to adapt to unforeseen events.

Second, commit to your health and wellness first.

At the risk of being trite, there is nothing more important than your health. Those of us who overcommit can lose sight of this. 

With your health, you can achieve many great things. Without it, you are severely limited. 

It is illogical to commit to do something that you believe will impact your health even in the short term. And yet, when I ask people if a goal is doable, they often tell me, "Yes, I know if I pull out all the stops, I can do it. It will kill me, but I can do it. I've done it before." In other words, they will crash immediately afterwards. They will need a sick day, or maybe a few sick days, to recover physically from the overwork.  Recovering mentally takes longer. The psychological effect of overworking yourself to the point of pain or exhaustion is that you train yourself to hate the task. This will create all kinds of resistance to doing this important work in the future. 

A goal that burns you out is not doable. A doable goal is a goal you can achieve with your current knowledge and skills — without harming your health or sabotaging your motivation! As one who has had three major medical problems due to overwork, I can attest to the destructiveness of this process. And as a warning from someone who learned this the hard way: don't just think you can take a couple of days off to recover. You do not know how big the crash will be until it happens. 

So what to do? The fact that you're tempted to risk your health means that you think the task is very important. 

Here's the alternative. Commit to an important goal with a co-commitment to yourself that you will find a way to do it that is consistent with your well-being. This likely means you need to adjust the quality target or the finish date or both. That is not the end of the world. Rather, it is the way to achieve your goals — all of your goals.

If you want specific advice for how to navigate that time-quality conflict, I recommend a tactic I call "planned evolution." This is a general method based on the engineering approach to developing new products. My free webinar in March will introduce it.

Third, make sure the commitment is an end in itself, not a test of something more important.

Sometimes people set goals as tests. The commitment matters less than what it will prove about themselves. They think things like:

"If I can get these customers, it proves I can support myself." 

"If I get all of this done, then I am worthy to go on vacation." 

"If I write this paper, it will prove I'm worthy of respect."

These are all backwards. The commitments in these cases should be to supporting yourself, scheduling a vacation, and respecting yourself. Your own skill, self-respect, and self-care are what truly matter. They deserve your commitment. They should not be contingent on hitting specific targets.

Moreover, turning these tasks into tests of your worthiness blinds you to the real values at stake in doing these tasks. For more on this, read the article I wrote recently about having a means-end perspective instead of a duty perspective on goals. 

You need to use a means-end approach to choosing tasks to ensure that you have the flexibility you need to do what matters most. We rarely see our way directly to our most challenging goals. It is our ability to course correct that enables us to achieve them. If you mistakenly commit to one way that you "think" is going to work, and then motivate it by making it a test of your worthiness, you just set yourself up for failure.

I hope these principles help you commit to what really matters in a way that you can always meet your commitments. Ambitious people are tempted to overcommit because they love to achieve. The more success the better! But if you want that success, you need to give a commitment these three reality checks.

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