Avoiding overcommitment

A blog post draft.

By Oskar Flygare in evergreen

September 1, 2023

Here’s a reminder I need every day: You will not be able to do most of the interesting projects you encounter, and you will actually do a worse job at each task by spreading yourself too thin.

It feels terrible to miss out on great opportunities, especially now when I am still trying to establish myself as an independent researcher and thinker. But learning to select the projects that will truly matter, and regulating the number of commitments, will probably turn out to be one of the most important skills to develop.

Why is overcommitment such a big issue?


The overhead accompanying each project will eat up your schedule and leave less time for actually completing the tasks. There will be coordination activities in the form of e-mails, meetings, forms to fill out and other miscellaneous things which are all related to the project and often necessary to keep things going, but they are not what will actually push the needle.

Cal Newport calls this phenomenon an overhead spiral: When you have so many commitments that the overhead from each one means you don’t have enough time to complete the tasks. You fall behind, more things are added to your plate, and the spiral continues.

A secondary effect of this is that the day will be full of interruptions and attention switches, which severely hurt your focus. Not only will there be less time to do the important tasks, but they will be more difficult to complete after all these interruptions.

What to do about it

First, being careful about project selection. The basic formula is that the project should either allow you to develop new and valuable skills, establish or strengthen productive collaborations, or be part of your job description to begin with. In junior roles, the specific projects may have already been selected, but there is often at least some flexibility regarding side-projects or focus within a larger project.

At any one time, keep the number of active projects reasonably low. I try not to juggle more than three or four projects at a time where a significant amount of work is required of me. Of course there are more projects than that in total, but the others are in a state of waiting for feedback, or where my contribution is minimal.

Posted on:
September 1, 2023
2 minute read, 385 words
See Also: