Are You Committed? Should You Be? - Next Action Associates
Fire Hose

Image: US Navy via Flickr

So the flip-flops are put away, the digital snaps are posted to Facebook, and you’ve had maybe a few weeks back at the office. Are you still feeling the restorative effects of your holiday?

I’ve always found this time of year a bit overwhelming, especially these first days back at work. On holiday some of the biggest decisions I needed to make were “Which restaurant for dinner?” But, inevitably, after the break, the fire hose of reality was turned back on. Now I’m faced with a lot of gaps between my “current states” and my “desired states”. It just seems there’s so much to do.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but this year it got me thinking. What determines how much I have to do? Peter Drucker, one of the finest business thinkers of the last century, said that as knowledge workers we define both our work and its results. This would imply that we somehow have control of what’s to be done.

But if that’s the case, why do we feel so out of control, so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work? Did Drucker have it wrong?

I think Drucker was on to something. Despite how it might feel some times, we do have mechanisms available to control the volume of our work.

At its core, the amount of work we have to do is determined by the number and size of the commitments we’ve made. We’ve agreed to be hired into jobs that are demanding. We have a lot to do at home. The boss, colleagues, clients, our families and our own creative thoughts provide a constant stream of potential new commitments.

Put simply, when faced with the fire hose of reality many of us choose to swallow too much. We say yes to too many commitments. This ultimately leads to failure, frustration and disappointment for us and others.

Don’t get me wrong, we often over-commit for commendable reasons. We want to be helpful and to act with integrity. We want to be team players at work and to support our families and friends. But if we continue to take on too much, something’s gotta give. Sleep, relationships, stress levels and the quality of your deliverables might all be expected to suffer.

So what to do? How can we better hone our decision making so that we don’t overcommit?

First, be clear about all of the commitments you’ve already made. It helps to document this, so draw up a list of all of the projects on your plate. To make this as complete as possible, use the definition of “project” from David Allen’s work: a project is any outcome you would like to achieve within the next twelve months, either personal or professional, that will require more than one step to complete. If you use this definition you’ll probably find that you have between 30 and 80 projects. Keep your project definitions brief and to the point, for example: “Prepare 2013 budget”, “Hire new PA” and “Get roof repaired” are all good examples.

By the way, drawing up such a list is not for the faint of heart. It may be that coming face to face with the commitments you’ve already made will itself feel overwhelming.

But your projects list is a great defensive weapon in your battle with the fire hose of reality. Keep it handy and keep it up to date. Refer to it from time to time so you’ll be ready when the world offers you opportunities to make new commitments. Ask yourself the question, “can I reasonably add to the list of commitments I already have?”

And when you complete projects, tick them off with relish. There’s nothing like acknowledging success to add a bit of motivational juice.

As you use your projects list to determine how much to take on, it’s best to pair it with a safety valve: a back burner list of things you may do in the future, but which you’re not committed to doing anything about for now. We refer to this as a “Someday/Maybe” list and it can provide real relief for the overcommitted. As you agree to take on new commitments, ask yourself whether anything on your projects list should migrate to Someday/Maybe to leave space for the new arrivals. And be sure to review your Someday/Maybe list from time to time to see if you’re ready to make anything active.

Take your projects list with you to meetings with your boss. When the boss asks you to help out on that new project, you’ll be equipped to have a reasoned conversation about whether you have the bandwidth to help and which other project on the list might need to get deprioritized, or possibly moved to Someday/Maybe.

We may have limited control over the volume of things coming at us, but if properly equipped we can be more selective and intelligent about what we commit to.

And by the way, don’t forget to add that all-important project to your list: “Plan 2013 holidays.”

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