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Are You Overcommitted?

Taking on too much? Stop it!

High-achieving women commit. Then, they commit again. And then, they commit one more time. And then, another time. And each time they do, they inch a little further along that commitment continuum until they get to the bright red flashing lights surrounding overcommitment.

High-achieving women overcommit for so many different reasons and to so many different things that it’s hard to keep up some times—for them as well as others. They overcommit to their jobs. They overcommit to causes. They agree to do favors for friends or colleagues. They volunteer to help at their child’s school or a community organization (sometimes both). And while these acts—some selfless, some not—are certainly laudable, they can add hundreds of hours (and stress) to an already overscheduled life.

Overcommitment is often a consequence of “poor limit setting,” which is one of the biggest problems high-achieving women face. “Poor limit setting” means that you have trouble setting appropriate boundaries on your behavior or the behavior of others. In short, you have trouble saying no. A colleague calls for a favor, you do it even if you don’t have the time. The boss asks you to accept a new assignment, you accept it even if you have no time in your schedule to devote to a new project.

For most women, the problem goes back to childhood. Most girls are socialized to be helpful, accommodating, and polite in groups. If they can help out, they are taught that they should, even if it pulls them away from something they’re already doing or something they really wanted to do. And if they don’t pull away to help, they’re called selfish, uncaring, or self-centered, which usually leads to feelings of guilt over not being a “good girl.”

When this happens, it teaches girls the “roles” they’re expected to play in groups and this can carry over into their relationships with adults. When someone needs help, that little girl in them is likely to say, “Sure,” with a smile, even though it’s pulling her away from something else she is doing. But like most things in life, it can’t all be blamed on childhood. Sometimes, it’s pride or a need for speed or the need for achievement that impels high-achieving women to take on too many responsibilities. Some women carry their spilling-out-of-the sides planner like a badge of honor.

In the opposite direction, it’s sometimes insecurity that keeps high-achieving women from just saying no. What if I say no and he thinks I can’t keep up? Or what if I say no and she gets mad at me? Or what if I say no and they realize I’m in over my head? All unhealthy fears. All lead to bad stress.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, here are a few remedies for a bad case of overcommitment.

Resist Being Ms. Fix-It-All: High-achievers tend to jump in and fix a problem as soon as it hits their radar screen, even when it's not their problem. Resist! Let others take care of it. They may not do it as quickly or as good as you might, but I assure you, if you weren't there, it would somehow get done. And it will if you resist.

The Art of Saying No: Practice It! Sometimes, high-achievers commit to something because they're caught off guard when the favor is asked and they don't have what they think is a "good reason" to say no. The truth is you don't need a good reason to say no. But if you feel that way, then it helps to be prepared, and the only way to be prepared is to practice.

Think of situations that have come up in the past, and then experiment with polite ways to say no. Actually say it out loud so that when the time arises you're comfortable with the words. For example, practice saying, "That sounds like a really good cause, but I don't have the time to devote to it." Or "It's so nice of you to think of me, but I can't add anything else to my plate right now." Or maybe, "I'm sorry. I don't have any more room in my schedule to commit to something new." If it makes you feel better and you can do it right at that moment, you might even recommend someone else to do the job. For example, you might say, "I don't have time to take on another client, but my associate is accepting new cases."

Negotiate: If you feel strongly about a project or cause, but don't have the time right then to devote to it, try negotiating a time that will work better for your schedule. For instance, when I was writing High Achieving Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, a client called to see if I was available to consult on a new case. I wasn't; I had a deadline that I couldn't miss. But I wanted the case, so I negotiated for more time by saying, "I don't have any time in my schedule right now to take on any new cases, but if you can wait until April, I could take the case then." Not everyone will have that flexibility, but if they do, it could be a win-win for everyone involved. Just make sure to give yourself enough time. If anything, negotiate for more time than you'll need. If you're available earlier, the client (or whoever) will be happy and you'll feel less stressed. Most importantly, however, be prepared to walk away with a "no, thank you" if the time can't be worked out.

© 2013 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

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