Recognizing and Overcoming Overcommitment


Overcommitment: What Does it Look Like?

Have you ever felt like you were a circus clown, barely able to juggle five objects at a time when another two are thrown into the mix? At first you may integrate the new objects seamlessly, but the next thing you know you drop an object, and then another. You can’t seem to find your rhythm for successfully completing this task let alone any task. If you can relate, you may have had an experience with overcommitment.

Overcommitment occurs when someone takes on more than they are capable of achieving or sustaining. As students, it’s very easy to say yes to new opportunities on campus. If you describe yourself as an overachiever, you may be excited by the variety of activities, projects, or leadership roles outside of classes. Or, maybe you have FOMO (fear of missing out). While balancing commitments may not be new to you, estimating time investment, time costs, and skills needed may be new. Overcommitment can be a consequence of underestimating your time.  It can also be a consequence of being unable to set reasonable limits for yourself or say “no” to others.

It’s also easy to get caught up in the culture of being busy. Have you ever told someone you were busy with a, b, and c and their response was something like “me too—I have x. y, and z going on”. What you were seeking was someone to acknowledge that you are doing too much. But instead, you are met with a response that normalizes or one-ups your busyness.

Regardless, being overcommitted is stressful, and it is hard to recognize that it is happening. Some people describe it as not knowing how or when they will get everything done. Others describe it as finishing tasks, but not to their liking or to the quality others expect. Still other people describe sacrificing things like sleep, exercise, or basic self-care needs just to get everything done. To an observer, someone who is overcommitted may seem anxious or overwhelmed. They can also present as unreliable or not good at following through because they cannot accomplish what they commit to. They may over-promise and under deliver. Some overcommitted people may also be easily distracted. They may have too much on their mind and can’t focus.

The stress of overcommitment can be harmful for your health and success. Your body amps itself up because you are reacting to your competing commitments as a threat. If you are consistently experiencing this, other areas of your physical and emotional health and well-being can be impacted.

Overcoming Overcommitment

Between classes, your social life, and any other activities in which you participate, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed with commitments. If you are feeling this way, there are things you can do to bring a healthy balance back to your life.

First, practice some strategies to manage stress. A breathing exercise, going for a walk or run, doing a few yoga poses, practicing gratitude, or doing something positive for another person are all simple, short duration practices that can reduce stress in the moment.

Second, let something go. Take a look at your commitments or activities. Which are necessary for you to maintain your studies? Which are grade-dependent? Which are you successful at and which are suffering?

Give yourself permission and learn how to say “no” or stop participating in an activity. It’s natural to want to please others, but you also need to focus on your own goals and needs. Sometimes people may feel they have failed because they have to say no. It takes great strength and self-awareness to acknowledge your capabilities. Your experiences should be about quality, not quantity. They should provide balance, not detract from it, and they should complement your goals, not someone else’s. Here are some instances where it is okay to say “no”:

  • If an activity or request does not align with your goals or values
  • If it will take too much time or you don’t have the time to spare
  • If you don’t find it important or urgent (see below)
  • If your gut instinct is to say no
  • If it doesn’t make you happy
  • If it is costing you your balance
  • If you are unable to be successful at it

Finally, prioritize your tasks and projects. Some people find the Eisenhower Matrix to be a helpful tool:What's important and what can wait

This method asks you to identify and differentiate between tasks and activities that are urgent and those that are important. Using a grid, one axis measures importance and the other measures urgency. The matrix contains four boxes, one for items that are both important and urgent, one for items that are important but not urgent, one for items that are urgent but not important, and one for items that are neither urgent nor important. Plotting your tasks into each of the quadrants may help you to identify what you can let go of and plan your time to help make everything more manageable.

The items that are urgent and important are ones that probably relate most to your grades or positions on campus. They are time-sensitive. As a result, these are the items you want to address first because they are higher priority. Items that are important but not urgent can be scheduled into your daily or weekly routine. Things that you designate as not important but urgent may be items you can delegate to others or ask for help with. Finally, the q items you indicate are both not urgent and not important are the ones you can eliminate or set aside until your time permits.