The Overcommitment Cycle

Overcommitment is a perennial problem for me. And I’m betting it is for you too.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

  • You feel productive so you start taking on more projects
  • At some point you realize you’ve taken on too much, you’re stressed out and on the brink of burnout
  • So you go on a mission to complete or renegotiate most of those obligations and return yourself to a reasonable number of commitments
  • But given enough time, you always return to that same level of overload again

The overcommitment cycle repeats.

A Common Phenomenon

It turns out overcommitment is a common phenomenon among knowledge workers. Apparently, they tend to take on about 20% more than they can handle.

Overcommitment affects students, pastors, writers, or anyone whose work takes place on a computer. The source of the problem is the intangibility of our work.

Overcommitment sneaks up on us more easily than the auto mechanic. When he can’t fit another car on his lot because he’s taken too many appointments, he’d be foolish to keep adding more. But without physical reminders of how much time our current obligations actually require, it’s easy to say yes to one more thing. Before we know it we’ve got way more than we can handle.

But even if we recognize this pattern in ourselves what are we supposed to do about it?

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A Scary Solution

In a recent blog post, Cal Newport proposed an interesting option for countering the cycle of overcommitment.

What if you purposely aimed to work 20% less than you felt you had time to handle?

Naturally, you might read that and recoil. I can’t work less! But Newport asks another probing question:

“Here’s what I want to know: how much would this hurt you professionally? As I move deeper into my exploration of slow productivity, I’m starting to develop a sinking suspicion that the answer might be ‘not that much.’”

Would slowing down actually hurt us as much as we think it would? I suspect he’s onto something.

In fact, for the past several months I’ve been writing this phrase in my work notebook:

“Less but better.”

It’s a reminder to slow down, do less, and go deeper on the stuff that really matters. I want to be intentional about optimizing for quality over quantity, choosing focus over frenzy.

A Faithful Lifestyle

I believe God wants his children to be faithful, not frantic.

It’s true that God has called us to work hard. But while taking on more than you can handle might feel like hard work, more often overcommitment is working at cross-purposes to faithful work (not to mention our health).

When you’re overloaded, you tend to leave promises unfulfilled and sacrifice quality. And even if your work doesn’t suffer you instead pass the burden on to your family, friends, or church. If you have so many commitments that to be faithful to your work obligations, you have to be less faithful to your commitments at home, there’s a problem.

If we want to be faithful, we have to embrace our limits as finite creatures. When the juggler has too many balls in the air, some of them have to fall. It’s better to decide for yourself which balls to drop, instead of waiting for the inevitable.

Maybe it’s time to step off of the cycle of overcommitment.

Maybe the best way to glorify God with your life isn’t by doing more, but by doing less but doing it better.

Helping people get more done for the glory of God. Creator of Redeeming Productivity, husband, & father of two.

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2 comments
  • Yes, it is very real how we lean into the satisfaction that comes from more. I think part of it is that to get to “less” there is so much more discipline called for — in intention and prayerful discernment for what to do. Sometimes doing more is just being lazy. And I’ll humble myself and say that that is at least for me. Good thoughts! And like the “Less but better” direction.

  • Great post Reagan. I suspect that when I take on more than I could it is driven by either:
    * Pride – I think I can do it better or only I can do it, or I want everybody to honor me when I do it.
    * Fear – If I don’t do it and somebody else does it, am I expendable or somehow not as valuable, which may lead to less opportunity and security in the future.

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