Overcommitment: A Happiness Killer


October 6, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

What kills happiness? It’s usually a series of simple little things, like saying yes too much when you really should say no. There is a saying, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” This makes sense; if you are a busy person, you are obviously organized and practiced at delivering results. Beware: There’s a fine line between taking on a lot and taking on too much.

It’s easy to see how people who are in corporate situations fall into the overcommitment trap. If you’re good at what you do and like your job, everybody wants to rub up against you in some way. They want you in their meeting. They seek out your opinions on their ideas. They ask you to run a project for them. You get assaulted with opportunities. This happens at all levels, high and low. It’s how junior employees advance more rapidly than their peers; their enthusiasm and ambition tempt bosses to pile on the work until the employees cry uncle, which they never do. “I can’t handle it” is the last thing a young ambitious person wants to admit. Eventually, however, the quality of their work begins to falter in a predictable but vicious circle.

It’s even easier to see how self-employed people fall for this happiness killer. Without the cushion of a steady paycheck, you fear that every opportunity will be your last payday. And in a faltering economy, this fear is even more intense. The result? You say yes to everything and find yourself unable to do it all.

I’m guilty of this. For example, when I speak to groups, I’m working for myself in what could be regarded as “day labor.” When someone invites me to talk to them or their organization, it’s a straightforward pay-for-work opportunity for me. So if I show up, I get paid. If I say, “No, thanks,” I don’t.

I fill my schedule with bookings months in advance, which allows me to see where the quiet periods are in my calendar. I regard these periods of unbooked days as valuable time reserved for reading or writing or relaxing with my family.

But inevitably, someone will call up and want to hire me. I say no at first, but they persist. They promise to work around my schedule; they flatter me. They are telling me, “We want you!”—and that they’ll take me on my terms. You have to be tougher than I am to say no when people are so accommodating and flattering. Plus, I think about the fact that the date in question is several months away. Who knows what the economy or my future bookings will look like then? What if a bunch of other things get cancelled or fall through? So I change my mind and tell them, “I’ll be there.” And that’s how I find myself on the road, unpacking my suitcase in another hotel, preparing to get up on a nice Saturday morning to talk to a roomful of clients instead of doing any of the other things I imagined I would be doing.

I’m not whining. I know I’m lucky and that I’m describing the kind of high-class headache that most people would be happy to have. I’m also not saying that the fine people who hire me under these circumstances get any less of my enthusiasm. I love what I do. But the simple fact that I question my decision to accept the bookings represents a threat to my happiness. It injects the potential for regret into the experience—and it’s just possible that a tiny drop of that emotion may bleed into my performance. If during the year I say yes too many times when I should be saying no, that feeling could compound to dangerous levels—and turn into burnout. That hasn’t happened yet—but it could. (Although I’m the guy writing this column, I clearly still have a lot to learn about avoiding overcommitment. How about you?)

If we chronically overcommit, our sagging spirit inside may well become obvious to everyone. Our formerly enjoyable job can become rote, our execution sloppy and halfhearted. The irony here—that our habit of overcommitting in terms of time has produced the unintended consequence of making us appear undercommitted in terms of spirit—is rarely appreciated by our customers or our colleagues.

We all feel overcommitted on occasion. We can all benefit by acknowledging that we can fall into this trap. Nobody wants to look like he’s weak, or not up to the challenge—even though everyone is working longer and harder than ever in the 24/7 economy. Perhaps we can’t resist when we’re asked to help out because it’s a validation of our skill and another way of being told, “We love you.” Perhaps we really do believe we have superhuman qualities and that nothing is too much. Perhaps we think “I took on too much” is not much of an excuse if and when we drop the ball (after all, it was our choice to say yes or no).

Before replying with an enthusiastic “yes” to that next request, think about what saying yes will mean. Is it about making others happy in the short term? It’s more important that you think about it in terms of whether it’s going to increase your long-term happiness and the meaning that you experience in life.