Tackling Too Many Projects

Being overcommitted at work and home can damage both your performance and your body, says emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now.

Kim is an executive assistant at a large state university. Trying to impress her boss, Kim took on a variety of responsibilities beyond her job description. She reorganized the office. She volunteered to work at a weekly event she was already responsible for planning. She even began walking her boss’ dog during her lunch break each day.

In her personal life, Kim was just as overcommitted. She was training to run a marathon for charity, served on the board of her daughter’s preschool, and was organizing a fundraiser to support repairs to her neighborhood church. As time went on, Kim found it increasingly difficult to balance these responsibilities. She had trouble focusing, and while she collapsed, exhausted, into bed each night, she had difficulty falling asleep.

Kim is not alone. Chronic overcommitment seems epidemic these days, an increasing  source of stress and burnout. Many of us, out of a desire for praise or building social capital, take on more projects than we have time for each day. Yet constant busyness makes it difficult to give any single endeavor our complete attention and effort, let alone the damage it does to our relationships.

Our bodies are designed to have a jolt of energy to handle a sudden emergency, and then need to rest and recover. But if we constantly stay in emergency mode with no time for recovery, our brain secretes too many stress hormones. While these neurochemicals prepare us to face short-term stress, if they build up they interfere with our ability to work well, to learn, to innovate, to listen, and to plan effectively.

The cost of chronic stress also extends beyond performance. An “allostatic load”–in which the damaging effects of stress hormones predominate–throws our endocrine function off-kilter, creating imbalances in the immune and nervous systems. In addition to mental fog and trouble thinking clearly, we have trouble sleeping, which makes us more likely to get sick.

One way to take control of our stress: prioritize how we use our time. Kim worked with a coach to eliminate commitments that didn’t bring her meaning or joy. At work, Kim spoke with her boss about delegating her more complex tasks and shared her yearning to take on more responsibility in their relationship. Kim also found an intern who was more than willing to walk her boss’ dog each day.

In her personal life, Kim identified family and community as her top priorities. Dropping out of the marathon—which she had felt pressured to commit to—gave Kim more time to focus on the fundraiser for her church. And instead of serving on the board of her daughter’s preschool, she volunteered to read to the class each month. This lessened time commitment also gave her a chance to spend quality time, not just with her daughter, but also with her daughter’s friends.

By replacing sheer busyness with focused effort, we can find better balance in life. And when we spend our time on commitments that have most meaning for us, we increase our well-being.


Click here to learn about Daniel Goleman’s facilitated online courses.