How to (Back)Pedal Like Lance

By Heather Baldwin

One of your sales reps just asked if you’d read through some new customer letters he just put together. Then your boss asked if you’d mind sitting in on a meeting for him and your wife called to see if you could take the kids to the dentist late tomorrow afternoon. Being the hard-charging, go-to person that you are, you enthusiastically said no problem to all the requests. As you sit down and face the mound of papers and deadlines on your desk, however, you have the sinking feeling that you’ve just over-committed yourself. Now what?

Now you sit down with pen and paper and create an inventory, says Donald Wetmore, president of The Productivity Institute, time management and personal productivity specialists ( List all the things you have to do and all the things you want to do, along with the deadlines for each item and the amount of time you estimate it will take you to do each one. Then schedule the time to accomplish these items on your calendar, like any other appointment. If you’ve got space left over on your calendar, you know where you can start fitting in the optional tasks – the things people have requested you do for them but that aren’t on your must-do or want-to-do inventory. Knowing when you can fit them in by scheduling everything also will show you when you can realistically have the projects completed.

But what if you’ve scheduled time to work on all the tasks on your inventory and you don’t have any time left over? Or worse, you find you can’t even fit in the items on your list? Then it’s time to pick up the phone and call the people to whom you committed your time for a project not on your inventory of must-do and want-to-do tasks, says Wetmore. “Get on the phone – or see them in person if that’s how you communicate with them – and say, essentially: I screwed up. I made a commitment to you and I’m not going to make it. Circumstances came up that I didn’t anticipate and you’re not going to get what I promised,” he says. Take responsibility for the fact that you can’t do what you promised and then offer a resolution. For example, you might offer to have the request completed in three days instead of one. Or you might suggest pulling in someone else from the team to help out. Or maybe you offer the names of people who would be just as qualified to carry out the request and suggest the person contact them. Whatever you come up with, it’s essential that you offer a resolution if you’re going to need to back out of a commitment. Also, it’s essential that you do it as soon as possible to give the other person time to react.

Finally, you can ensure you don’t fall into the over-commitment trap in the future by maintaining your inventory, adding new tasks and deadlines as they arise and scheduling the time to complete them on your calendar. That way when a colleague asks you to proofread a report, you’ll be able to look at your calendar and show her, in black and white, that you could do it but not until next Thursday morning. If she says that’s fine, you can say yes with confidence that you’re not over committing yourself. If she needs it sooner, you have the ammunition to respond, guilt free that you’re sorry you can’t help with this one.