What Does Your New Commitment Compete With?

Acting on Priorities

Time management books talk a lot about keeping track of your commitments. Commitments are those tasks you have decided you are going to do, no matter what. They range from the trivial (mailing a letter today) to the profound (write a book). They can be personal (lose 10 pounds) or social (attend your child’s school play). When you set an intention for the future, you are making a commitment.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, many time management problems arise from being overcommitted — from deciding you are going to do more than you possibly can do.

When you first get an idea of something you may do, it’s often a “shiny object.” I can think of improvements for my website every time I go to check a page. At every board meeting I attend, we come up with 2-3 more activities that would enhance the volunteer organization we belong to. When I walk around the house, I can envision new projects for myself in every room.

When I first get these ideas, my spontaneous emotional reaction is entirely positive. I see the potential for achieving a value. If I don’t watch out, I can get myself so excited about the idea, that I plunge into a commitment. This is the state that a salesman tries to get you to — so focused on the benefits of some course of action, that it seems like a no-brainer to buy. But I’ve learned, and I hope you’ve learned, to slow down that process.

No commitment is pursued in isolation. What is this commitment in competition with? You need to know, if you want to make sure that this new commitment won’t undercut your ability to follow through on some pre-existing, more important commitment.

For large commitments, the competition may be obvious. Unless you have just cleared your calendar, it conflicts with other large commitments! You may need to reschedule from something or decommit from something to make room for it. And it may not be obvious which.

For example, I have put off my next public webinar for a few months, because I’m committed to drafting my book during this quarter. I see that I do not have time to do both. But I didn’t arrive at this conclusion using a 2-minute thinking process. I strongly wanted to do both, and my first expectation was that I could do both, if I worked out my schedule. I needed to experiment with the new schedule for a few weeks, before I reached a definite conclusion about what I would or wouldn’t commit to.

After a few weeks of carefully following a book-centric schedule, I learned two things. First, though the book goal was ambitious, it wasn’t crazy. If I stick to my guns, I have a real chance of finishing the draft this quarter. Second, because I was paying close attention to the schedule, I saw that all the routine work for the two businesses I’m running right now would take the rest of the available time. I would not have time to roll out the new class. With this information, I concluded that the book goal is the priority. It is the one that is most meaningful, most timely, most important for me this quarter. And I delayed the public webinar.

In this case, the real competition for the pubic webinar was the routine work, consisting of many small tasks. This raises the question, how do you decide whether to commit to a task when it’s small?

When a commitment is small, the competition is less obvious. If you are offering to call 10 people about an issue, or pick up a few things at the store, or meet someone for coffee, there are dozens of other tasks in competition with it. Any particular smallish task can be accomplished by nudging out some other smallish task.

That’s why I look at small tasks differently. Small tasks are competing, not for my time, but for my “crow” space, my mental capacity. Every little task needs some tracking. Every little task involves context switching. Every little task takes some concentration. If you undertake too many small tasks, you can tire yourself out, and not have energy for the big ones.

This is why I make a firm distinction between tasks I am committed to and those I’m not. Tasks I’m committed to now go on my calendar for the week. Tasks that I will do “maybe someday” just go on a list. Tasks that I would like to squeeze in, I will do ad hoc, such as a quick and dirty response to an email, on an as-available basis. But I don’t commit to them.

Not every task is worthy of commitment. Before you commit to a new task or project, see what it’s competing with. It may be pushing out another important project. Should it? It may undercut your effectiveness by making your routine work unmanageable. Is that what you want? Or it may be that it’s more important than anything else, and you are quite willing to change your schedule, modify your routines, and decommit from some less important tasks.

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