The inevitability of overcommitment

January 18, 2005

Every year, I toy with making a New Year’s resolution to stop biting off more than I can chew. I have this fantasy that somehow I’ll find a way to have a simpler, less stressful life where I never feel that constant sense of being behind in everything.

But this year, instead of making totally empty promises to stop overcommitting, I’m experimenting with the idea of trying to find the perfect amount of overcommitment. Like clearly you don’t want to be so stressed out that you can’t get anything done because you’re running from one project to the next trying to figure out which one delivers the biggest guilt charge. I’ve definitely been in that headspace where I was simply incapacitated by looming obligations (helloooooo, graduate school!). On the other hand… do I really want the stress-free life? I’ll sleep when I’m dead, you know? There’s way too much interesting stuff to do right now.

Purely by accident I discovered a decent way to figure out if I’ve got the right level of anxiety working. Once a month or so, I write down like 4 or 5 goals — and then I don’t look at them for awhile. Then I get all stressed and guilted out like usual. After some time has passed, I run across the goals in my notebook and realize I actually accomplished most of them — and a bunch of other stuff too. The knowledge of this helps keep me from panicking next time I take on too many tasks.

2 Responses to “The inevitability of overcommitment”

  1. slow_lorus Says:

    Just a quick note to say that I love your blog. Even though I know nothing about programming or web development…I read your old posts on Shetland shawl construction, then your post about Said followed by a few random posts here and there (mostly tech talk I would normally find uninteresting) and I love the depth and breadth of your blog.

    Yup, that’s it.

    Best,
    Delia


  2. Hi Fishy,

    Read your this thing about over commitment. I read an article which also deals with the same problem. I thought you would love a reading too. So just dropped in to drop it in.

    Senthil
    INDIA

    Structured Procrastination
    by John Perry

    I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally
    doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have
    papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee,
    dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not
    doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured
    procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts
    procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all
    that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All
    procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination
    is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that
    procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators
    seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like
    gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will
    reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the
    procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing
    something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to
    sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the
    procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important
    tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more
    important.

    Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has
    to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind
    will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important
    are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on
    the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up
    on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the
    procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can
    even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

    The most perfect situation for structured procrastination that I ever had
    was when my wife and I served as Resident Fellows in Soto House, a Stanford
    dormitory. In the evening, faced with papers to grade, lectures to prepare,
    committee work to be done, I would leave our cottage next to the dorm and
    go over to the lounge and play ping-pong with the residents, or talk over
    things with them in their rooms, or just sit there and read the paper. I
    got a reputation for being a terrific Resident Fellow, and one of the rare
    profs on campus who spent time with undergraduates and got to know them.
    What a set up: play ping pong as a way of not doing more important things,
    and get a reputation as Mr. Chips.

    Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize
    their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they
    will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the
    basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source
    of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most
    important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This
    is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

    At this point you may be asking, “How about the important tasks at the top
    of the list, that one never does?” Admittedly, there is a potential problem
    here.

    The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list.
    The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to
    have clear deadlines (but really don’t). Second, they seem awfully
    important (but really aren’t). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. In
    universities the vast majority of tasks fall into this category, and I’m
    sure the same is true for most other large institutions. Take for example
    the item right at the top of my list right now. This is finishing an essay
    for a volume in the philosophy of language. It was supposed to be done
    eleven months ago. I have accomplished an enormous number of important
    things as a way of not working on it. A couple of months ago, bothered by
    guilt, I wrote a letter to the editor saying how sorry I was to be so late
    and expressing my good intentions to get to work. Writing the letter was,
    of course, a way of not working on the article. It turned out that I really
    wasn’t much further behind schedule than anyone else. And how important is
    this article anyway? Not so important that at some point something that
    seems more important won’t come along. Then I’ll get to work on it.

    Another example is book order forms. I write this in June. In October, I
    will teach a class on Epistemology. The book order forms are already
    overdue at the book store. It is easy to take this as an important task
    with a pressing deadline (for you non-procrastinators, I will observe that
    deadlines really start to press a week or two after they pass.) I get
    almost daily reminders from the department secretary, students sometimes
    ask me what we will be reading, and the unfilled order form sits right in
    the middle of my desk, right under the wrapping from the sandwich I ate
    last Wednesday. This task is near the top of my list; it bothers me, and
    motivates me to do other useful but superficially less important things.
    But in fact, the book store is plenty busy with forms already filed by
    non-procrastinators. I can get mine in mid-Summer and things will be fine.
    I just need to order popular well-known books from efficient publishers. I
    will accept some other, apparently more important, task sometime between
    now and, say, August 1st. Then my psyche will feel comfortable about
    filling out the order forms as a way of not doing this new task.

    The observant reader may feel at this point that structured procrastination
    requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is in effect
    constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly. One needs to
    be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance
    and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and
    urgent. This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have
    excellent self-deceptive skills also. And what could be more noble than
    using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?


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