Career

Overcommitted? Here’s How To Deal

You’re looking at a to-do list down to your knees, things are slipping through the cracks and you’re contemplating cutting unnecessary things such as eating and sleeping from your life. Yup, welcome to overcommitment.

In a climate where companies expect more for less and millennials often juggle two jobs, studies and *gasp* a social life, it’s easy to try and fit more into one day than there are hours. But when you’ve got work coming out of your ears and your head’s about to explode from stress, here’s what you need to do.

Get organised

This might sound like a no-brainer but the alternative can often seem more appealing – sit there and scream like Death Metal Rooster. Being overwhelmed and stressed affects productivity so it makes sense to get your tasks in order. For this, you can turn to the 34th US president, Dwight Eisenhower and his productivity matrix.

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According to his matrix, you should separate your tasks into one of four quadrants: #1 urgent and important; #2 important but not urgent; #3 urgent but not important; and #4 neither urgent nor important. This allows you to focus on the tasks in quadrant one. For tasks that are important but not urgent, put a do-by date on them and come back to them later. Urgent but not important tasks can be delegated; and finally, ditch the stuff in the last quadrant. You’ll be surprised by how much you can cut off your to-do list, either by fobbing it onto someone else, or getting rid of it.

Become more productive

The next step is to get stuff done. Don’t multitask; rather, focus 100 percent of your energy into the task at hand before moving onto the next thing. You can also try this 100-year-old productivity hack, that helps you prioritise and get the ‘big stuff’ out of the way.

It’s important to think about when to tackle your to-do list. Are you freshest in the morning? Deal with the tasks that require mental stamina then. Need a few hours and some coffee in you before you properly wake up? Power through the stuff that needs very little brainwork first.

When you’re under the pump, there’s no shame in enlisting outside help. Maybe you can call in a favour from a colleague (making sure to give them credit when your boss gives you the thumbs up for an awesome job), or delegate things in your personal life you don’t need to do yourself in order to focus on your work.

Start saying no

The reasons we overcommit are often complex. Perhaps we’re afraid of missing out on an opportunity. Or we want to prove we can do it. Or we don’t want to let someone down. While they’re valid, these reasons are often motivated by fear. The only way of getting ourselves out of this cycle of overcommitment is to confront our fears and start saying no.

There are only a fixed number of working hours in a day, which means that for everything you say yes to, you need to say no to something else. If agreeing to that weekend project means you’ll have to skip a friend’s engagement party, you’ll need to decide what’s higher on your priority list.

One way to free up time is to make yourself a don’t-do list, with things you do that cumulatively add up to hours of wasted time. Checking your Facebook feed, watching cat videos and bingeing on episodes of your favourite show in order to procrastinate should be on that list. It feels surprisingly liberating to tick off a list of things you haven’t done for the day.

Deal with the stress

So, you’re likely pulling long hours and life feels like a black hole that’s sucking you in. It’s tempting to cut back on sleep or skip that 15-minute afternoon break to get the work done. However, studies have shown that overwork is actually bad for productivity and lack of sleep affects our mental health. It’s important to take time out to recharge, either by going for a short walk, practising mindfulness or just texting a friend to say hi. And don’t burn the midnight oil.

Ask for an extension

If you’re close to deadline and haven’t made a dent in your to-do list, it’s not time to panic yet. The thought of asking for an extension might terrify you but provided it’s done properly, it shouldn’t cause lasting damage to your relationship with your boss or client.

Forget the waterworks, just be honest.

First, accept responsibility and admit that you’d either underestimated the amount of time, or overcommitted yourself. It helps if you give as much advance notice as possible, so if someone else’s workload is dependent on you getting your jobs done on time, they can reschedule. Then, offer a few options. Ask whether you can hand in the first half of the report by deadline, and the rest a day later, for example. Or see if there’s one task you can focus on and deliver first. You’ll still get in some breathing space but it’ll show that you’re keen to make good.

The new deadline that you agree on should be specific – not a vague ‘some time in the next few days’ – and achievable. Because moving it again will damage relationships.

Finally, be professional and appreciative by not letting it happen again. And remember Neil Gaiman’s advice: “People will forgive the lateness of your work if it is good and they like you”. So, you know, be nice.


Catherine Mah is an editor and writer based in Sydney, but she’s lived in Spain, Taiwan and Brazil. She’s written for publications like AWOL and The Guardian Australia, but secretly dreams of creating bizarre flavours of ice cream as a full-time job.