Why We Overcommit

We Think We'll Have More Time in the Future, Say Researchers

Feb. 10, 2005 -- Packed calendars and ceaseless schedules are sure signs of a tendency to overcommit. But what makes us cram so much onto our to-do lists? Why do we consistently push to maintain a pace more appropriate for the round-the-world reality show The Amazing Race than for normal, daily life?

Apparently, we believe we'll have more free time in the future, say researchers. It rarely happens, but we hardly ever learn from the experience. Instead, we keep piling on commitments, and then we stress out trying to keep our word.

Sound familiar? Don't feel bad. Even top-notch university professors make the same mistake.

"Many of us have accepted invitations weeks or months in advance to do a review for journal ... serve on some committee ... or travel to give a talk, only to regret our decision when the time arrived," admit Gal Zauberman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and John Lynch Jr. of Duke University.

"'Yes' was often followed eventually by 'Damn!'" write the two business school professors in February's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

"If the same invitations had required more immediate action, we would have said, 'No, I'm too busy.' But when asked in advance, we imagine that we will be less busy in the future. Why do we fall prey to the same mistakes again and again?"

Time vs. Money

To find out, the pair led seven experiments with college undergraduates and MBA students. Each test presented fictional scenarios tempting the students to commit time and/or money for future projects.

For instance, UNC undergraduate students weighed a hypothetical request to donate time or money to a charity. In some cases, the requests were made for the next day; others gave two weeks' notice.

The students were less realistic about time than money. They overcommitted their time when no action was needed for a couple of weeks. But they were less likely to blow their budgets on upcoming events.

We're better at predicting our finances than time, say the researchers. For instance, people know how much they'll need for rent and how much they'll earn, unless their situation changes suddenly. If worse comes to worst, money can be borrowed.

Keeping Time

Time is a different matter. Everyone gets the same amount -- 24 hours -- every day, no matter how they use it. Time demands are pretty consistent, but we often forget it.

"On average, an individual will be just as busy 2 weeks or a month from now as he or she is today," write the researchers. "But that is not how it appears to be in everyday life. People often make commitments long in advance that they would never make if the same commitments required immediate action."

When a commitment is a safe distance away -- say, two weeks or more -- we often fool ourselves into thinking we can handle it. We don't learn from experience because when we overcommit and things go awry, we think it's a one-time problem, not a long-running pattern, say the researchers.

When to Say No

It's hard to change our overcommitted ways, and there may be times when it's worth maxing out your schedule, say the researchers. "People regret that they allowed short-term constraints to keep them from taking life-altering actions that would have been better in the long run," they write.

But if all you can win is fleeting approval -- with little lasting meaning or satisfaction -- you might want to stop and think it over, say the professors, who have already committed to more studies on the topic.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Zauberman, G. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, February 2005, vol 134: pp 23-37. News release, American Psychological Association.
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