Time management Monday: How to avoid overcommitment overwhelm

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Recently in one of the planner groups on Facebook, a woman asked for planning advice. She said she works full time which means including her commute time, she is out of the house 13 hours per day. She also volunteers, and has 3 active children in sports and other activities. And of course she has to fit in meal preparations, house chores, grocery shopping and other errands. She said by the time she’s done planning her week, she’s too exhausted to actually do anything! And when something unexpected comes up, all her plans are blown out of the water.

I suggested she is probably overcommitted. I recommended she do this exercise for a week: Use an hourly schedule and block out all the time you are awake with what you are doing during that time. Block out the time you get ready in the morning, travel time to and from work, work time, meal preparation, eating and cleanup time, taking kids to and from activities, etc. Track how long it takes you do to usual tasks and errands. (Time blocking shown below in the Trinote/ Septanote weekly format.)

At the end of the week, see how much “free” time you actually had. I said I guessed she probably had about 30-60 minutes each day during which she had assigned herself with about 3 hours worth of tasks. And those 30-60 minutes are probably not during a time of day when she is alert and focused; they are most likely at the end of the day when she’s tired (and probably should have gone to bed half an hour ago).

The truth is, we only have so much time in the day and the week to get everything done. It would be nice to be able to do everything we want, and that others want us to do. But the reality is, we have to decide which things are more important, and prioritize our time and energy toward those.

Here are some tips for avoiding overcommitment:

Cut things out. Admittedly, this isn’t an option for everyone. But if you are overcommitted and feeling burnt out, take a hard look at everything you are doing, decide what your priorities are, and let the lower-priority items drop. You might be worried about disappointing some people, but remind yourself that your family/ your health/ your other responsibilities are more important.

GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO SAY NO. For some people, this is the hardest part. Whether it’s a desire to please everyone, or just wanting to be involved in all the fun things, you need to lighten up on yourself and give yourself the freedom to turn things down. Nobody is going to hate you. (And if they do, that’s their problem!)

Remind people of your other responsibilities. People in one aspect of your life (work, for example) won’t necessarily know about your other responsibilities. And even if they do know about them, it’s hard for them to internalize how much of your time and energy is required. For example if someone is asking you to volunteer to help with a project that you don’t have time for, remind them that you have other responsibilities that come first.

If you are asked to take on additional tasks at work, remind your boss of your other ongoing tasks and projects, and ask him/her which ones you should prioritize. This will remind your boss of everything else you have going on, and will give them realistic expectations of how much you are able to do at once.

Be firm with your boundaries. Even after you have explained your other responsibilities, be prepared to stand firm against taking on too much. You might have to say no repeatedly as people test to see how busy you really are.

Postpone lower-priority activities. If you are scheduled to maximum capacity right now, it’s not a good time to remodel the kitchen. Put off things that are not urgent until you have more time.

What are your strategies for avoiding overcommitment?

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