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« Overcommitment and the Catch-All List | Main | Theme for the Day »

Overcommitment - and what you can do to prevent it

Overcommitment is one of the recurring themes in the Forums on this website and is something which I have been warning about ever since my first book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play.

It’s very easy to know if you are over-committed. The tell-tale symptom is that you can’t keep to an inbox zero policy.

You should be able to maintain in-box zero in all areas of your work. That means that you can clear your paper, empty your email in-box, be up-to-date with all reading, writing and project work, and take action on all incoming tasks every day.

There are of course going to be days when you have less than the usual amount of discretionary time. You have meetings, visits, courses and all the rest of it. But the point is that these “interruptions” are a normal part of your work and you must allow for them when assessing how much work you can take on. You should be able to catch up without any difficulty.

In my book Do It Tomorrow I draw attention to the basic formula:

Average work coming in each day must equal average work going out each day.

You can express it in a slightly different way:

Backlog = (Average work coming in each day) - (average work going out each day).

This is a simple fact - not something I’ve thought up specially to annoy you. You cannot get round it. If you have six hours of work coming in on average per day and only output an average of five hours per day, by the end of the working week you will have five hours worth of backlog. Where are you going to find the five uncommitted hours to do that work? By the end of a month you will have 21 hours worth of backlog. Where’s the time for that going to come from?

It’s no wonder people have such trouble with backlogs and long lists of undone work. It’s the result of ignoring this basic formula.

How do we stop this happening?

The funny thing is that we don’t have any problem identifying what to do when supply doesn’t equal demand in any other aspect of our lives. If we keep running out of petrol for our car, we know there’s something wrong with the way we are going about deciding when to fill the car up. If we keep running out of food at home we know there’s something wrong with the way we are organizing the food shopping.

In other words there is a systems failure.

In exactly the same way, if we keep running out of time to do our work there is a systems failure. There’s probably not much we can do about the amount of time we have available, so we know there’s something wrong with the way we take on new work.

The way to deal with a systems failure is to examine your present faulty system to see where it is going wrong.

The first step is to look at what happens when you take on a new piece of work. How exactly does something new succeed in getting written on your to-do list?

Where does it come from?

How does it arrive in your life?

Exactly what mental and physical processes do you go through when this piece of work arrives?

How do you make the decision to accept it or refuse it?

What sort of gatekeeper procedures do you have?

Once you’ve analyzed what happens when you take on a new piece of work, you can start to make some changes to the system. You should identify where the system is going wrong and put it right. It’s usually not that difficult to do this once you’ve taken the time and trouble to identify where the problem lies.

It usually comes down to the fact that you have not been prepared to say NO at critical points in the process. You can often solve a lot of the problem just by having a default position of NO instead of YES.

It’s normal for employees to blame their overcommitment on their boss. But consider this - most self-employed people are at least as overcommitted as employees are. And it’s proverbial that when someone retires they quickly become busier than they were when they were working. The truth is that you are the one who is responsible for your own workload - no one else.

Who’s the most difficult person to say NO to? Yourself! 

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