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Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

Being Committed Is Not A Straitjacket: 3 Steps To Smarter Scheduling

This is the second part in a series of posts intended to lay out my basic thinking on getting your work done more effectively and sustainably, in a way that leaves you room to have a healthy life of your own alongside the building of your best work.

Today I wanted to talk at a slightly higher level about understanding how and why it can be so challenging to schedule things accurately, and how to avoid overcommitment so that the things we say we care about don't become straitjackets.

Don't Be This Guy

Being intelligent about your commitments is really a three part process--as with most worthwhile things, it's simple, but not easy. You have to make real commitments, you have to keep your commitments, and you have to guard your commitments. Stay with me here.

1. Make Real Commitments

Some years ago I realized something about myself: in my day-to-day speech I'd been doing a lot of bet-hedging.

If I was given the opportunity to join a campaign group planning a direct action, I would say "yeah, I can probably help with that." Who likes to say no to their friends and comrades, especially when we're doing work we believe in? But here's the problem--I'd say "yeah, I can probably help."

I wouldn't:

  • check my calendar to get a sense of my availability
  • try to get a bigger picture sense of whether I had room for a whole new set of commitments
  • take the time to map out what my role would be
  • figure out what my involvement would demand from my time and energy.

What started as a People Pleasing tendency--"yeah, I can help"--would end with exhaustion, work undone, and comrades in a lurch. Don't blow smoke. If you don't think you can realistically handle the demands of something new in your life, if a real peek into your availability shows that you're in fact really busy, be honest with yourself and the people you work with: say no.

Make real commitments. Figure out what you can really devote to a project by looking at your calendar in context before you jump on the next project bandwagon. Don't say yes to earn a smile. Say yes because you know you can make it happen, and you can look at a calendar and say "this is when it is gonna go down."

2. Keep Your Commitments

Here's the other side: all your best-laid plans (god, that calendar is pretty) earn you nothing if you don't keep your commitments. This is the real key, and though it might sound obvious, if you're used to making Mumbly-Mouthed Maybes all the time then you might be a litle out of practice with making sure you hold to your promises too.

I'm just sayin.

If you're hitting the end of your calendared time for Item 1 and it's time to start Item 2, stop item 1. Make a note of where you are if you need to, and then move on to item 2.

Thanks to Hofstatder's Law you'll probably quickly discover that you aren't budgeting yourself enough time to do the work you need to do. That's ok. You're making progress, and you're getting a better sense of the true time costs of what you do. Once you have that, you'll know how to plan even more effectively going forward. On top of that, you're strengthening your discipline at moving from one kind of focused work to another kind of focused work on your own terms.

3. Guard Your Commitments

This is all great advice if you work by yourself in a cave on a mountain in Tibet, but the reality is that you work with people--and people. will. walk. all. over. you. If you let them.

That means that to whatever extent you can, you have to guard the commitments you make to yourself. Obviously if somebody with a fancier tie and a longer title than yours comes in and drops something heavy on your desk and says "I need it a week ago," you have to make allowances and tradeoffs, and maybe shift the commitments you make to yourself. The key is that you make people--even Manager Fancy Tie--aware of the relevant tradeoffs: "Sure, I can get on this--I'm workin on the TPS reports now, so those will have to be a little late while I handle this here hot potato. Is that ok?"

If you start building a pattern of behavior this way, people might even come to see you differently. You'll no longer be Captain Overcommitment, the guy who says yes to everything and winds up with 30 broken spinner plates and a buncha hurt feelings.

You'll be the guy that knows when to say no--and the guy whose Yes really means things will get done.