Many of us have a tendency to over-promise. Over-promising is produced by being over-optimistic about our abilities and under-pessimistic about the possible difficulties and problems we are likely to meet along the way. Some of its symptoms include:

  • Setting impossible daily to-do lists every day that can’t even be accomplished in a week.
  • Underestimating expenditure, over-estimating income or spare cash, and taking no account of unexpected bills.
  • Presenting visionary plans for the future of one’s church, business, career, etc., which would require numerous co-ordinating miracles to pull off.
  • Committing to so many meetings, speaking engagements, and writing projects that none are done well, or some are done very poorly.
  • Promising friends, family, church members that you will be in touch soon to meet or talk and yet the list keeps getting longer rather than shorter.
  • Taking on more and more when already at capacity without reducing any commitments elsewhere.
  • Raising people’s expectations that can never be met.
  • Starting exercise programs that you can never sustain.

Over-promising produces mega-stress in the one making the promises and huge disappointment in the ones receiving the promises.

So how do we fix it? Here are 10 cures:

1. Do a time audit. For a couple of weeks, write down every task that you do, time it, and record the time immediately. You’ll probably be amazed at how long certain routine tasks like making phone calls, writing emails are taking you. From reviewing the audit results you will be able to schedule more realistic times for these tasks in the future, thus relieving pressure.

2. Build margin. If you think something is going to take 30 minutes, schedule 45; if you think it will take you three days, schedule four, and so on. If it takes you less time you can fill the time with something else that’s useful. If it takes the full time scheduled, you can finish the job with less stress and you don’t have to cancel or postpone anything else.

3. Expect problems. Over-promisers tend to think everything is going to go smoothly. No interruptions, no unexpected bills, etc.  This despite almost every indicator to the contrary! To some degree, you can plan for the unplanned and expect the unexpected. Optimists need some pessimism to help them maintain their optimism!

4. Say “No” more often. I love what Seth Godin said about this last week:

If you believe that you must keep your promises, overdeliver and treat every commitment as though it’s an opportunity for a transformation, the only way you can do this is to turn down most opportunities.

No I can’t meet with you, no I can’t sell it to you at this price, no I can’t do this job justice, no I can’t come to your party, no I can’t help you. I’m sorry, but no, I can’t. Not if I want to do the very things that people value my work for.

No is the foundation that we can build our yes on.

Decide what you are good at and called by God to do, and ruthlessly say “No” to everything else.

5. Do less than you think you can do. Over-promisers tend to over-estimate their abilities. “Sure I can do that conference, write that article, go to these meetings, chair that committee, review that book, and so on.” Sometimes it’s only one commitment too many, and your mental state could be transformed by one cut of the pruning knife.

6. Spend 20% less than you think you have. And while you’re at it, save 20% more than you think you need.

7. Don’t make specific public commitments. Unless you are forced into it, and unless are you are almost 100% sure you can accomplish something, don’t say to someone “I will do X by Y.” Even if you think you can do it, say something like, “I can do X-20% by Y+20%.”

8. Schedule. Instead of just listing all the things you are going to do today, schedule them. Put them on a calendar and block out the times you are going to spend on each item. You’ll probably quickly realize that you don’t have 48 hours in a day or that you can only spend 10 minutes on one-hour projects. So, it’s out with the knife!

9. Review. I’ve just started this, but already I find it a huge help to take 10-15 minutes at the end of each day to review what I planned and whether I accomplished it. Michael Hyatt also recommends an hour or so at the end of each week, and a day or so at the end of each quarter. Look at what you hoped to accomplish at the end of the day/week/quarter, and compare it with reality. You’ll probably be amazed that you ever thought you could do all you’d planned, and you’ll be forced into more realistic aims in the future.

10. Accountability. It is so good to have someone who will speak into your life and say, “David, why did you ever say that? You know we can never do it, or at least never get to it within the next few years, so why even bring it up?”

Over-promising is usually well-intentioned but ultimately self-destructive. It frustrates others in your life and eventually makes them skeptical of your promises and doubtful about your vision and plans. It also adds huge stress and anxiety to your life as well as diminishing the quality of your work.

So why not promise to stop it!