Death By a Thousand Commitments
I’ve never read Gulliver’s Travels, and yet I’ve always struck by the powerful metaphor of the all-powerful giant being bound down onto the ground by hundreds of ropes. The story goes, so I’m told, that Gulliver was asleep when dozens of Lilliputians seized the opportunity to stake ropes over each part of his body until the collective force of this web exceeded the overall strength of a giant. He wakes up from his slumber to find himself incapacitated and unable to take action.
Can you relate? I certainly can.
We Are Gulliver
No, we are not literal giants standing head and shoulders amidst a population of people a tenth of our size. We are, however, powerful beings. We can dream. We can decide. We can create. We can achieve. We can become. We can also do the exact opposite. We can fear. We can overcommit. We can procrastinate. We can self-sabotage. We can stagnate.
While the metaphor of Gulliver can apply to each of these areas, I’ve found overcommitment to be the one that I’ve battled with the most in the last decade of my life. While we are not bound by literal ropes, each commitment becomes an invisible connection between our inner resources (time, physical effort, emotional energy, mental thinking, etc) and some person, company, organization, project, hobby, endeavor, career, etc. The list is limitless. And this imbalance between infinite opportunities and finite inner resources can start a chain reaction where we continue to take on more than we can complete. There are only so many hours in a day; only so many days in a year.
The process of overcommitment can start slowly and subtly. After all, each individual connection appears benign because each is tiny and insignificant. Yet left unchecked, the results can be fatal. Hell, even the strongest among us occasionally burn out or experience the debilitating effects of a full blown panic attack. Worse, these individuals may work in professions where these types of stress-induced outcomes have become normalized in our expectations and our language. They are casually thrown about in conversation like it’s no big deal.
It is a big deal. It’s a huge fucking deal. It crushes my spirit to see someone with such inner and/or outer strength pinned down to the ground, unwilling and unable to move. It’s difficult to look into their eyes. Hell. I hate to even admit this, but sometimes it’s me looking into my own eyes in the mirror. Instead of seeing strength and resolve, there is a blank stare. You can literally see the pain past the pupils as the person begins to doubt themselves. Am I broken? Is this my new reality? Is this permanent?
The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. We are still powerful beings that just happened to get tied down while we were (even if just for a moment) asleep at the wheel of life.
How Did We Get Here?
It should be noted that there is no shame in finding yourself in the situation. In fact, many of you probably started down this road through a series of good intentions or as a result of a healthy dose of ambition. It’s only once you got past a point that shit got real and now you find yourself feeling trapped in a prison of your own creation. Take comfort in that fact that you created it because that presupposes that you were an active participant and therefore can make new, better decisions in the future to change the course of your life.
I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person. At the very least, I have standardized test scores and degrees from colleges that society could be used as evidence for such a belief. Despite these indicators, I’ve fallen into the overcommitment trap more than once. You might call me a repeat offender. Despite thinking that I’ve learned my lesson, I somehow think I might be able to game the system the next time around. Maybe my optimism gets the best of me or I just believe I can just combine enough willpower and coffee to plow through anything. However, even Gulliver had a threshold, and so do we. We may be able to keep a dozen commitments or even a hundred commitments. But 1,000 commitments? 10,000 commitments? There is always a threshold.
We get to the land of overcommitment through a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s simply unrestricted ambition. The feeling that we’re superhuman and can just take on everything at once. Sometimes it’s lack of awareness. It’s easy to say yes to a new commitment if we have no sense of the quantity of commitments we already have and what they mean. Sometimes we simply lack a system for organizing and tracking said commitments. And other times we simply don’t have the disciplined
Much has been written on this subject. I highly recommend reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism if you want to dive deeper into the ways in which we trick ourselves into overcommitting.
Freeing the Giant
“Hi I’m Rick and I am overcommitted.” Like any good 12 step program, admitting there’s a problem is the first step towards correcting course. Fortunately, you don’t have to walk another 11 steps before you can start to feel relief. You will, however, need to make some tough choices and have some tough conversations. Do not let this stop you. You are not doing anyone a favor by disempowering yourself, and you owe it to yourself to get yourself back on your feet.
Here are 4 steps you can use to start your journey of reclaiming your power.
While you may be one of those rare individuals that can keep a running list of every commitment straight in your head, chances are you have no idea just how many there actually are. That’s ok! The point of this exercise is not to overwhelm you, but to help you become bone crushing honest with how much you’re already on the hook for. For some people, this acknowledgment is necessary to have the courage to proceed with the next steps.
Take as much time as you need and be as thorough as possible. Everything from weekly chores to hobbies to work responsibilities. If it’s something you have to do, it’s an open loop.
If you take this step seriously, it will probably take you a minimum of 30 minutes and may require several hours if you get into granular detail. I once generated a list of over 300 different projects (using David Allen’s definition of anything requiring two or more actions to consider it complete). That certainly was an eye opening experience!
Did you complete your inventory? Great! Now scan the list to find anything and everything you added to your list as a whim but that no longer is something you or anyone else cares about. As ruthlessly as you can, eliminate them from your list. Scribble them out. Crumble up paper. Thrown out any representation of the project or the task and get it out of your psyche. Make peace with the fact that at one point it sounded like a good idea, but you simply don’t have the time or desire to make it happen anymore. Feel relief that you have no freed up a significant amount of time and mental capacity to focus on what is more important.
Sometimes you simply cannot eliminate a task outright. For example, if you’re a parent you simply cannot say “well I’m done feeding my kid because I just don’t want to put up with it anymore.” However, there may be an opportunity for wiggle room by redefining how you approach the task. Or you may be able to renegotiate the commitment with someone else. Often we take on a commitment months or years prior without understanding the repercussions and we then never re-evaluate whether or not it’s serving ourselves of others. While it may not also be possible to eliminate it entirely, there may be degrees of freedom that you haven’t fully explored.
Complete One Open Loop
One of the challenges of overcommitment is that it can paralyze us to take action to complete the very things that would free us up. However, if you have taken steps towards eliminating the non-essential and renegotiating a few of your other obligations, you have no doubt freed up some of your inner resources. Here is where I recommend not trying to be a hero and taking on the entire list at once. That can put you back into a state of overwhelm. Instead, I recommend picking one commitment (ideally something you’ve been delaying on for some time) and focusing on it exclusively until you can get it to a completion point.
This approach accomplishes several things. First, you will probably experience some level of surprise at how good it feels to close an old open loop. It’s been sucking energy away from you this entire time, but you’ve just become used to it. Second, you will start building some momentum and that might provide just enough motivation to roll into the next task, and the next task. That will do wonders for your self-esteem and self-confidence. Third, you will prove to yourself that progress is possible.
A final benefit: if you find a particular commitment is uncomfortable to take on, use that as motivation to be more specific and discerning the next time you make a similar commitment. You have the ability to influence the types of commitments you take on or not, and it’s important to use this feedback to take on the commitments that matter and avoid the ones that don’t.
I’ve been meaning to write this article for weeks, but I kept putting it off. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted it to make a positive impact in the lives of those that read it. These goals put me into a state of resistance because that’s a high mark to hit and I started to overthink it. So I renegotiated with myself. The reason I write is to clarify my own thinking, to improve my skills as a writer, and because I enjoy the creative process. Putting myself in a state of writer’s block served none of these purposes, and so I changed the goal. I wrote and shipped this article, and feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment as a result.
You can do the same. You can reclaim your power by eliminating, renegotiating, and/or closing one open loop at a time.
About Rick Manelius
Quick stats: COO of newmedia and its sister companies DRUD and 1FEE.com; Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD); Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast; Overall life long learner and explorer. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey.