“If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” Benjamin Franklin
“What is the biggest obstacle facing the family right now? It is over-commitment; time pressure. There is nothing that will destroy family life more insidiously than hectic schedules and busy lives…” James Dobson
Is my to-do list ready for tomorrow? Is there time between work and the committee meeting to grab dinner? When will there be time to do the laundry? I need to get to the grocery, we have nothing to eat.What if the boss needs me to stay late tomorrow? I promised to meet with the group to help with the revitalization project on Wednesday. What did I say I would pick up for the school fundraiser? I really need to get my notes together for the job proposal. I wonder if my wife could take the car to get the oil changed.
You should have been asleep hours ago. There’s just so much to think about sometimes. What happens when we are so busy worrying about the future? We miss out on the present and the gifts it offers.
Two quotes, and both of them speak to a problem that has lived among us for generations: over-commitment and busyness. Years ago, I watched a young woman over-commit. She had been successful in her job with one event, and other groups must have assumed she’d be a good person to lead their charges, too. I guess they were following Franklin’s wisdom–she was a busy person, and she was good at getting things done, for a while. Pretty soon, she wasn’t getting things done as well as she once had, and important items were falling through the cracks. My husband and I had agreed, “She is so over-committed she’s not doing a good job anywhere.” Several years later, I found myself doing the same thing. How could I have not recognized in myself what I had witnessed several years earlier?
Dobson’s quote tackles the problem of over-committing as it relates to the family, but I believe the bigger truth is that being over-committed threatens every relationship. When we over-commit, we take ourselves away from every relationship that matters, friends, family, or work. So, why do we over-commit and why should we reconsider our commitments?
Studies have shown a variety of reasons people over-commit. For some, there is a burning desire to have a calendar that isn’t empty. There is just an appeal to have all of the blocks filled in. For most women and some men, there is a thought process learned in childhood that they should be helpers if they are able, even if it is an inconvenience. That thinking certainly carries over to one’s agreeing to be on the committee of a worthy cause, even though you are already helping three other worthy causes.
Research by business school professors from UNC and Duke show that people over-commit because “we expect to have more time in the future than we have in the present. Of course, when tomorrow turns into today, we discover that we are too busy to do everything we promised.”
If you’ve ever been the one who has over-committed, you probably recognize the feelings of pressure, guilt, embarrassment, and general frustration that are worn by people with too much on their plate. The key word from those professors for me is present. Consider the stream of thoughts of the person(s) at the beginning of this article and notice what is missing. The thoughts are all about future events. There is not one mention of the present, the here and now that will be the past in the blink of an eye.
Recently, I have become very aware of relishing the present. The first place I really found myself able to practice this was when I was walking our dog. Normally, I read or listen to a book while we walk—I want to accomplish as much as I can, after all. When I decided that I wanted to appreciate the present, though, we simply walked. I noticed birds in places I hadn’t seen before, trees and flowers that were beautiful but usually unnoticed, and details on houses I’d never taken time to appreciate before. I watched the way my dog walked and smelled everything and wagged his tail as he poked his nose at the worm wriggling after the rain. When we returned home, I felt like I had experienced life differently. I hadn’t missed a thing.
After spending several weeks trying to learn how to enjoy moments and not get caught up in the future, I’ve also been learning to say ‘No, thank you.’ to commitments that not only won’t serve me, but will not serve the group asking for my help. That allows me to say ‘Yes’ to a few things that will be good for everyone. There are times in each of our lives when stepping back to be present in the moment is more meaningful and more valuable to everyone involved than when we get caught up in fixing someone else’s future.
Ben Franklin might be right, that you should ask a busy person if you want to get something done, but balance that with Dr. Dobson’s assertion that over-committing is destroying families, and you are left with Susan Steen’s belief that people should only be as busy as is healthy for themselves and their relationships. That’s my wish for you, just as it is for myself. Look around you and be present where you are, before you move on to where you think you must be.