You are lying.
Okay, now that I have your attention maybe I should say that there’s a really good chance you are lying. No offense. It’s just that in my work I’ve noticed a large-scale self-deception going on.
What are we lying about? We’re lying to ourselves about how much we’ve committed to. We’re lying about how much we’ve piled on our plates. While we do have an unnerving sense that it’s probably a lot, we avoid getting up close and personal with it. It’s just too uncomfortable.
The most crucial thing I promote with my clients is becoming an expert definer of work. And by “work” I mean all the commitments, big and small, professional and personal, significant and less so. Becoming an expert definer of work means not only have you identified what you are committed to, you are clear about what you’re going to do next about it. So we’re not talking about simply writing down the ABC Project and calling it a day. We want to get to what you are actually, physically, specifically, really going to do about it (ala David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach).
What usually happens in the early stages of my workflow coaching with someone sounds something like this:
(The client picks up a sheet of paper on the desk or opens an email.)
Me: So what’s this?
Client: Oh, it’s something I have to do related to Peru.
Me: Is it a project – is it going to take 2 or more steps?
Client: No – I just have to review and send comments on this document.
Me: Okay, so let’s get that on your list.
Client: Well, this thing isn’t really that important. I don’t want it on my list.
Me: So you don’t really want to do anything about it?
Client: No, I do – it’s just not that important. It’s going to overwhelm me to see all those little things on my list.
Here’s the deal. Defining your work doesn’t increase the amount you have. It just makes you face the truth. I see this all the time: so many hidden commitments, tasks, wishes, resolutions that we don’t want to acknowedge, or get rid of. So, we secretly lug them around. Each thing may seem small and insigificant in and of itself. Yet, when combined, they weigh heavy on the shoulders.
Why do we routinely deceive ourselves about how much we’ve committed to? Maybe it’s because if you really looked at what you’ve committed to, you might see it’s actually not possible. And then there goes your neatly-kept, idealized vision of yourself. Perhaps you’re afraid of disappointing people. Or of dissappointing yourself. Of not living up to some I-can-do-everything self-concept. Or I’m-a-helpful-person mantra. Or I’m-a-team-player ethic. Or an all-things-to-all people MO. Or an I-love-being-needed secret motive.
This may seem obvious, but it bears saying: simply avoiding knowing whether you are over-committed is never going to change reality. If you have too much – regardless of whether you’ve acknowledged it or not, the ship is going down.
There’s a phrase I use all the time in my work ~ and it applies here:
The truth will set you free.
When you can look at everything you’ve committed to straight in the face, when you understand the practical implications in terms of your time and energy, when you can be honest with yourself: that’s when you have power. That’s when you are in a position to do something about it. You have the power to choose – whether it’s to rearrange your schedule, make choices to skip some meetings, see if there is someone who can help you, delay something, let go of something, or renegotiate with your boss.
On the other side, if you aren’t honest about everything you’ve committed to – an uncomfortable sense of overwhelm, anxiety and doom will perpetually pursue you. And, ironically, in that effort to not dissappoint others or yourself, you probably will.
So dissolve avoidance with awareness. Get clear about every single, little and big thing on your plate. Don’t hold back and don’t hide anything, even if it makes you temporarily break out in a sweat. Get it all out there and spell out the next actions. Then, step back and ask yourself: Is this realistic? Have I overpromised? Can I do all this in the timeframes I’ve committed to? If not, do I need to rearrange things? Or talk to my boss? Or my family? Am I doing anything that really isn’t mine to do? Is there someone else in a better position to do it? Is there someone who can help me with parts of it? Are there things here that actually don’t matter? Or that I’m actually never going to do? Do I need to renegotiate with anyone?
So, c’mon, let’s get real.