Overcommitting is easy, and saying no is hard. But a lot of times, doing the right thing is also doing the hard thing. If you can keep yourself from being constantly overcommitted, it will improve the quality of your life and your relationships.

Why We Overcommit

Overcommitment is rooted in good intentions. No one likes to disappoint customers, employees and colleagues let alone friends and relatives. However, saying yes when you’re thinking “oh no!” or without thinking at all doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself. We all want to be the good guy, the go-to guy and the one who always pulls it out of the bag.

We’re also human, and there are only 24 hours in a day. In our eagerness to say yes, we don’t often think through how much time the commitment we just made will actually take. Overcommitment puts us under a lot of pressure to do what cannot realistically be done.

Sometimes, we feel pressured at the moment a request is made, and a yes comes out of our mouths before we’ve even given it a thought, let alone analyzed how important and truly doable it is. It feels good to be the superhero who swoops in and “gits ‘er done” when no one else can.

The Fallout of Overcommitment

The problem with that mindset is that overcommitment has consequences, and none of them are good. If we continually overcommit, we put ourselves under unrelenting pressure and stress. Long-term stress can lead to myriad mental, physical and emotional health issues.

Managing employees, finances and customers is stressful enough. Habitually making commitments above and beyond the ones that are necessary to keep your business going can increase your stress level exponentially. It can also damage your reputation and relationships.

Overcommitment as a Weakness

Overcommitting yourself will inevitably lead to disappointing people and making you feel guilty. People who overcommit tend to wait until the last minute to bow out of social commitments or admit that they’re just not going to be able to meet a deadline.

There’s a tendency to believe against all odds (and the facts) that you’ll be able to pull it off up until the last possible moment. If you make overcommitment a habit, you’ll soon develop a reputation as someone who can’t be counted on or trusted.

Fortunately, conquering overcommitment is possible if you have the right tools and you’re committed to doing it (pun intended).

1. Make a Mental Sieve

We pour semi-liquid foods through a kitchen sieve or strainer to separate the liquid from the solid stuff. A yes/no sieve is an efficient system for filtering requests into a liquid yes and solid no.

Take 10 minutes tops to make your mental sieve. It should be no more than five steps. Your system has to be relevant to your business and who you are, so there’s no fixed way to do this, but focus on quantifiable factors.

For example, say a customer has asked you to supply 10 dozen mixed doughnuts every Wednesday for the school district’s meetings. Naturally, he’d like a discount based on the quantity he's buying and the fact that it’s for educational purposes. Your sieve might look like this:

  1. How much will it cost in dollars and time?
  2. How much revenue will it generate and by when?
  3. How will the increased work affect my employees and current customers?
  4. How much goodwill will it generate?
  5. What does my gut tell me?

2. Say No to Good Stuff 

Saying no doesn’t always mean rejecting bad ideas or outlandish requests. To get a grip on overcommitting, there will be times you’ll have to say no to things you’d really like to do.

Steve Jobs was the king of saying no. He said, “You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

The bottom line is: You can’t do it all. Your sieve will help you differentiate between good and bad ideas, but you may have to work a little harder to differentiate between good and great ideas. If what’s being asked of you won’t generate value in the form of increased revenue or improved customer or community relations, the answer is probably no.

3. Triple the Time You Need

This one is hard, but if you can do it, you'll be absolutely amazed at how much your stress dissipates.

When we commit to something with a deadline, we usually think in terms of exactly how much time it will take to complete. We rarely stop to consider the unexpected distractions, emergencies and other drains on our time that inevitably crop up. When people ask us for things, they rarely think about how much of our time and effort it will take. Work this one to your advantage and just triple your estimates.

If you wind up needing every minute of the tripled amount of time you’ve set aside, you’ve met your deadline. If you wind up not needing every minute, you’ve completed the project early, and your customer won’t forget it.

4. Yes Means Yes

This is critically important. When you do commit to something, follow through and do it. Nothing will damage your professional reputation more than saying yes and not producing or not showing up.

Texting and instant messaging have made canceling easy for us. We don’t have to face the person on whom we’re bailing. We just send a quick text and a sad-faced emoji. However, saying yes and not coming through is way worse than saying no.

Think of how you feel when an employee has agreed to work Saturday but calls in “sick”, or a friend cancels the dinner plans you made a month ago. Unless he has an excuse on the level of “my wife just went into labor” or “my septic tank blew up”, you’re probably going to feel ticked off and let down. Don’t do this to people. When you say yes, mean it.

5. Check With Your Inner Mom

Check with your inner mom or dad or whoever set limits for you when you were a child. They’re the ones who encouraged you to think by posing questions like, “If Tommy jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” and “Do you want your face to freeze like that?”

They did this to get us to think about what we were doing or were about to do. This is a habit you want to cultivate when you’re faced with yet another request: Stop and think.

Take time to consider the consequences before responding with a knee-jerk yes. Remember, you can’t please everybody. If you try, you’ll wind up pleasing no one, including yourself, all of which leads us to the invaluable “maybe.”

6. It’s OK to Say Maybe

If you’ve used your yes/no sieve and it hasn’t given you clear-enough direction, it’s OK to buy yourself some time by saying maybe. There’s no shame in not immediately having every piece of information you need with which to make a good decision.

Here’s where the old tried-and-true “sandwich technique" comes in handy. Start and end by saying something nice (the two slices of bread). Put the negative or neutral clause in the middle (the meat or veggie patty):

  • I’d love to do that for you. I’ll have to take a look at the other commitments I’ve made this month to be sure I have the time. Thank you so much for thinking of us.
  • That sounds great. I’d like to give it some thought and get back to you next week. I really appreciate the invitation.

The Good News

If you implement these six ways to stop overcommitting, you’ll soon feel a lot more in control. You’ll also develop a reputation for being honest, reliable and trustworthy. It may feel uncomfortable for a while, but you’ll get used to it. Before you know it, you’ll be reaping the many benefits of putting the kibosh on overcommitment.