How to stop overcommitting your time — and start doing what matters most.
Veronica Arreola’s schedule seemed to sneak up on her. Her job at the University of Illinois at Chicago required long hours, and she did some pro bono freelance writing for a local nonprofit. Weekday mornings, she drove her 6-year-old daughter to school and picked her up after work. She also fit in errands, housework, and social obligations. It felt manageable — but just barely. She was constantly running behind schedule.
Then things got out of control. Commitments and tasks seemed to fill every moment of her day. Arreola started cramming work and chores into her evening hours, cutting into her sleep. She wasn’t eating well and self-care fell off her list, even after she started experiencing severe migraines.
“I was always wishing I had time to get a massage — and, really, I probably did have time,” she recalls. “I was always putting off things that would be good for me.”
Eventually, her mood and her relationships began to suffer, and her depleted vitality affected her work. “I was working hard to keep up,” she says. “But I wore myself out, got sick, and fell behind because of missed time from work.”
Arreola’s plight is familiar. Too many of us pack our calendars full. We commit to more than we can handle, assuming that we’ll squeeze it all in somehow. Often, we ignore the consequences until, like Arreola, we become so exhausted we can’t keep up, sometimes to the detriment of our health and relationships.
So once you’re committed to all these commitments, how do you stop overscheduling?
Admitting you’re overloaded is the first step.
Then, breaking the addiction to overscheduling requires three things: acknowledging your limits, observing your patterns, and clarifying the values that make your life worth living in the first place.
The world of work has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. People do business across far-flung time zones 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instant communication with smartphones and email has dissolved the built-in boundaries that once surrounded the workday. We’re awash in electronic interruptions, which can make it hard to complete even simple tasks.
Meanwhile, many of us aren’t good at estimating how long activities are going to take before we commit to them — and then we overcommit because we can’t accurately take stock of how busy we are.
“People overcommit simply because they don’t know everything they’ve committed to,” says time-management guru David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “Their self-regulating mechanism has blown a fuse.”
All this adds up to a schedule that not only runs you ragged, but regularly throws you curve balls and prevents you from focusing on what matters most, says Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and author of Time Management from the Inside Out.
“When you are overscheduled, you have no time to reflect on your priorities and your to-do lists,” Morgenstern notes. “Then you easily get caught up in — and spend an enormous amount of time on — things that are not necessarily important.”
Making commitments consciously — instead of reactively — is the first step to creating a manageable schedule. This means taking time to reflect on what tasks you really need to accomplish now, and what commitments can wait or be dropped entirely.
Once you prioritize, here are some additional tips for taking control:
Build in buffer zones. When you’re scheduling, add a “buffer zone” on each end of an activity — say, 15 to 30 minutes — instead of planning items back-to-back. This builds in the breaks you need to be effective, acknowledges that most tasks require mental and physical transition time, and helps you tend to unexpected items that crop up (travel time, extended conversations). Meetings, in particular, tend to involve both preparatory and subsequent tasks. Creating a floodplain keeps those obligations from triggering a cascade of lateness.
Know when you work best. Everyone has peak times of energy, creativity, and mental focus — and times when those resources lag. Pay attention to this ebb and flow and schedule accordingly. Working with natural energy patterns allows you to accomplish more in less time, and with less effort.
Understand your limits. Most of us don’t know how long it actually takes to complete routine tasks. Morgenstern suggests timing yourself doing the same task on three occasions, then determine the average. This will give you a guideline to follow when making future time commitments. Alternatively, double the amount of time you think something “should” take. This will probably get you close to the actual time requirement, and you can always use any leftover minutes to get a headstart on your next task. Finally, avoid scheduling more than one ultra-demanding task on a given day.
Use technology to stay on task.Before you begin a work session at the computer, turn off your phone ringer and email-alert beeps, and close down any social networking or instant-messaging tools. Set a timer to alert you when your allotted time for that session is almost up. If you notice you are running behind as the day progresses, proactively reschedule or delegate items that can’t be accomplished — realistically — within the confines of your current schedule.
Uni-task. Multitasking actually works against effective time use, says performance psychologist Jim Loehr, EdD. “People get the sense — because there is so much on their plate — that they have to be able to do a number of things simultaneously,” Loehr explains. “But the energy signal in a human’s focusing system is binary. You are either focused or you are not. If you have 10 balls in the air, nine of them are in free fall.”
Honor the priority of the moment. Designate specific hours for work, family, and self-care, and don’t let them overlap. Answering emails while trying to interact with someone you love doesn’t give either commitment the attention it deserves — and frustrates everyone involved.
Back On Track
Arreola’s migraines finally convinced her to rectify her schedule. Now, in addition to limiting her after-work obligations to two per week, she has begun leaving her work at the office more often.
She is also trying to become more attuned to her body’s signals. “The migraines raised the ante,” she admits. “Now, if I don’t listen to my body, there’s a bigger consequence.”
Arreola still has a lot to do, by choice and by necessity. But she’s learned that overscheduling works against her.
Today, Arreola takes the planning of her self-care activities and downtime as seriously as she does her professional commitments.
“If I’m making time for a board meeting or some other obligation,” she says, “then I know I can make time to go to yoga.”
Illustration by Stefano Morri.