Carmen is a new hire with lots of potential. Her last employer described her as a star performer, even right out of college. “She can handle anything,” her previous manager raved. “Whatever we threw at her she accomplished—and she did it well.” While her new position is a stretch-role, she’s confident she can do it all—or at least find a way to make it happen. She’s got lofty career ambitions and a reputation to uphold. Saying “no” is simply not an option.
Randy is a seasoned professional with a long history of top performance. All that success led him to his current management position where he leads a team of engineers on one of the firm’s most important accounts. The list of project deliverables is huge, almost impossible, but Randy isn’t about to let his track record slip. Even if his team can’t deliver, Randy will find a way to make it happen.
Randy and Carmen are the stars of corporate America. They’re the ones you want on your team and when the rubber meets the road, they’re the ones who deliver. And yet, while the Randys and Carmens on your teams are racking up professional success, they’re also incurring a heavy emotional debt that should not be ignored.
The Real Problem of Over-Committed Employees
Our latest research shows that Randy and Carmen are among the 60% of people who are completely overcommitted. Specifically, these people report their to-do lists contain more than they can complete in the given timelines. As a result, they feel overworked and overstressed, and that affects health and wellbeing. Respondents reported the following side-effects of their over-commitment habits:
- Stress: 50% are moderately stressed, 35% are highly stressed, and 9% are extremely stressed.
- Worry and Anxiety: 52% are worried about letting themselves or others down and 41% are unsure of where to start in their efforts to accomplish their tasks.
- Feeling Defeated: 46% feel overwhelmed, and 20% regret agreeing to so much in the first place.
What’s more, respondents said their to-do lists prevent them from being present, meaning they can’t show up for the people and activities that matter most. Specifically, 44% said they are “really present” only half of the time, and 37% said they are rarely or never present. Only 1% said they are in a position to be always present.
But if saying yes leads to burnout and bonfires, why do it? Respondents cite the following five reasons:
- Desire to be helpful, accommodating, and polite.
- Tendency to jump in and fix problems, even when not responsible.
- Ambiguous limits and unclear rules about accepting or rejecting tasks.
- Working with those in authority who make non-negotiable demands.
- Inability to say no or renegotiate commitments.
The takeaway is telling. People like Carmen and Randy sacrifice wellbeing, relationships, and productivity for the sake of, well, productivity. In an effort to contribute much they actually curtail their ability to contribute.
Our research and observations over the years suggest this over-commitment epidemic is the result of poorly designed workflow management systems. Without a system designed to capture and organize incoming tasks and the skills to negotiate commitments, you’re bound to find yourself a victim of an impossible to-do list.
But luckily, there’s a solution. In fact, there are a small number of self-management practices that can literally change a person’s life. When you learn to manage your workload efficiently, you’ll not only take control of your to-do list, but you’ll also avoid the anxiety that comes with carrying an impossible workload. As an added bonus, when you have a clear view of your workload, you’re less likely to commit to tasks you know you can’t complete and excel in the ones you’ve agreed to accomplish.
If Randy and Carmen’s stories felt a little too close to home, follow these five productivity practices to regain control of your to-do list without sacrificing performance:
- Collect everything that owns your attention. Capture all commitments, tasks, ideas, and projects in an external place rather than keeping them in your head. Use only a few capture tools you keep with you all the time, such as a notebook, an app, or email.
- Do a commitment audit. Capture all of your commitments on one page. Then go down the list and decide which to-do’s you will do, which you’ll decline, and which you’ll renegotiate. If there’s no way you can do them all in the time given, be realistic about what you can and will do.
- Identify next actions. Most people are overwhelmed by their lists because they are filled with vague phrases like “Budget” or “2019 Event.” These unclear projects discourage rather than motivate us to act. Clarify your to-dos down to the very next action you’ll take to move toward closure. You can break the habit of procrastination and alleviate stress by clarifying tasks into smaller, actionable steps.
- Do more of the right things by reflecting in the right moments. Rather than diving into your messy inbox first thing, take two minutes to review your calendar and your action lists. This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time.
- Review weekly. Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to resync, get current, and align your daily work with your higher-level priorities.
David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He leads the research function at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.
Brittney Maxfield is the Senior Director of Content Marketing at VitalSmarts.