How to Become Less Overcommitted at Work

how to become less overcommitted at workYou are probably wondering how to become less overcommitted at work.

So why do you seem to default to agreeing to more?

Many of us keep falling into that same trap.

After all, it seems like most organizations these days are running thin, trying to “do more with less.”

With that sort of frenzy going on constantly, it can be hard to stem the tide as the requests keep rolling in.

With every yes, you risk taking on too much. Letting the quality of your work suffer. Missing deadlines.

That can lead to problems. And, of course, it can hurt your professional reputation.

Saying no is the obvious answer. But it’s surprisingly hard to do in real life.

With every no, you risk being seen as not a team player, not good enough, or unable to handle stressful situations well.

work harderNone of those are great for your reputation either.

Fortunately, there are some reliable ways to navigate this all-too-common dilemma. And once you learn them, you will begin to have great success in this area.

Because you will reduce your stress while enhancing your reputation.

The magical trick in this situation is to to perform the graceful maneuver of being helpful without overcommitting.

Like a kung-fu master, you learn to redirect the forces around you to work in your favor.

The energy around saying no

NoYou probably don’t like conflict. That’s a big part of the bad energy we feel around saying no.

And it can stop us in our tracks.

You want to fit into a group. That’s part of being human. And it’s an increasingly important part of the modern workplace now that job security is a thing of the past.

Saying no threatens to chip away at your ability to fit into the group by diminishing the value you offer, at least a little bit.

You have a kind of primal default to saying yes rather than no in this setting. Even though saying no is probably the more responsible and professional thing to do in many cases.

You want to appear competent, professional, and in-control. Ironically, overcommitting can threaten that image as much as saying no does.

That’s the dilemma of no.

The energy around saying yes

yesSaying yes can feel great in the moment.

You like to be needed. You like to be valued. You like to be helpful.

But you know, deep down, that you are taking on that same risk of looking unprofessional because you can’t keep up with all of your commitments.

You know you will regret your quick yes later. You will end up mad at yourself, and frustrated.

That’s the dilemma of saying yes.

Navigating the force of yes and no

The best way forward is to use the good energy of both yes and no.

You can be professional, helpful, and valuable–without overcommitting.

The first thing to realize is that your full answer to whatever is being asked doesn’t have to be immediate. And it doesn’t have to be final.

To navigate the yin and yang of the energy around your situation, you need to think in terms of negotiating.

You navigate around the world. But you negotiate a minefield.

You find your way through safely, by carefully working through, over, and around obstacles. One at a time.

Negotiating your way

negotiatingOnce you start to see things as negotiable, you will see a whole bunch of new possibilities.

You don’t have to face a big dramatic choice. But you will have to work through a little bit of a process instead.

Look at the context

First, make sure that you are listening carefully. Consider who is making the request and why. Look at what pressure they might be under. Understand their position in the organization and how that might add some perspective.

Of course, their position may be one of authority. Or not. It also may point to particular pressures they may be facing, and whether those are structural or situational.

Understand the goal

All too often, people ask for solutions. They have the answer and they just want you to do it.

That’s the sort of thing blindly agreeing to can get you in the most trouble. Their solution might not be the best way to meet their objective.

Make sure you understand the goal.

Find areas of agreement

A good starting point is to agree that the goal is important. Or that the need is urgent. Or that it’s important to find a good solution.

You need to find something to build on. This doesn’t mean that you, personally, need to be responsible for the solution. But you can always be helpful to the solution. (Being helpful is valuable and you will find it rewarding.)

Improvisors are trained to use a technique known as “yes, and” to build on whatever they are confronted with on stage. The energy of the show stops when there is disagreement. You can use a similar approach to keep the positive energy flowing for your situation.

Are there parts that you can say yes to?

Maybe there will be parts of the request that you can say yes to without agreeing to the whole thing.

An easy one, and a good test, is to agree to further discussion. You may need to setup a time to fully understand the goals, context, and to talk about potential solutions.

This has the added benefit that it also requires some extra work on the requester’s part. If they won’t take the time or don’t know enough details, then it becomes clear that they are not really ready to pass the baton just yet.

Requiring more of the person who is trying to require something from you is a good way to convey that, if they want your help, you expect them to help you to help them.

There also may be parts that you can say yes to that will really help and not require a lot from you. Sometimes you know something – the right person to connect them to, how a process works, or some specific knowledge – that can make a big difference.

Negotiate the deliverables and due dates

As you navigate a better understanding of goals, context, and component parts of the request, you can start to negotiate potential solutions.

Here again it doesn’t need to be an “all or nothing” venture. You’d be surprised at how much is negotiable, from the goal itself all the way down to specific due dates.

Talking this through and actively negotiating is not a bad thing. In fact, it is an excellent demonstration of your professionalism.

Professionals seek clarity, agreement, and results. Negotiating these details make you appear as professional as they come.

Your requestor may not be happy about all the details, but they will respect your professionalism. They will respect your desire to be honest and to shape an answer that you plan to stick to.

That’s way better than an empty promise or anything like it. They want to walk away with confidence in you and what you are going to do for them.

Renegotiate and re-evaluate

As you continue the conversation and maybe do some (or all) of the work requested, keep in mind that you should be revisiting these key aspects along the way.

Look at the context, goals, and points you agreed to along the way. Chances are one or more of those things will change.

You should revisit things accordingly. It might be time to cancel a project that you’ve agreed to. Or to re-evaluate the original goal in light of new information. Or to revisit due dates or deliverables. Or to enlist more help, adjust priorities, re-evaluate the approach.

You should do this for everything in your workload. Things change. Adjusting accordingly can open up lots of opportunities to save time and energy or to develop a more strategic way forward.


It’s not good to become overcommitted at work. But it’s not good to not be seen as a team player or competent professional.

You can make a good deal of headway by negotiating the field of requests for your time and talents more strategically.

You can formulate a response that is thoughtful, strategic, and professional by taking a different approach.

Instead of rushing to a yes/no answer, you can gain clarity on the goal. You can get a better understanding of the context. You can shape the approach.

You can agree to help with parts without taking on the whole thing. You can negotiate deliverables and due dates. You can reassess things along the way.

You can do this regularly, across many of your responsibilities. That’s how professionals operate. And that’s how you can continue to grow as a professional.

Because each negotiation and navigation provides insights and lessons on how you can do it even better the next time around.