How to stop over-committing

Balance — it’s the Holy Grail of modern life. For many of us trying to live an authentic life, finding the right balance is the ultimate goal. Maintaining harmony between all areas of our lives — career, family, health, spirituality — is what most of us are striving for. But in our quest to have it all, are we over-committing ourselves? Are we simply trying to do too much? In essence, does trying to find balance in life become yet another commitment?

The busy society

It’s the curse of our modern society: a life filled with commitments. It seems the busier you are, the more you are achieving. In the current world of email, Twitter and the Global Financial Crisis, being busy is seen as a badge of honour. It’s the mantra of the busy mum and the overworked dad — weekdays are filled with school drop-offs, business meetings, play dates and swimming lessons, and Saturdays are known as the run-around days: ballet, soccer, birthday parties. Sundays, therefore, turn into family days, possibly the first time of the week when the pace slows just a little. That’s why Sunday newspapers sell so well — it’s often the only chance people have to take their time and read the paper over a morning coffee. Come Monday morning, though, and it all begins again.

Psychologists Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardener are based at Flinders University in South Australia and spend most of their working days helping over-committed PhD students and GPs manage their enormous workloads. They say it’s often highly successful and intelligent people who seem to over-commit and take on more and more; they’re also the ones who feel guilty if they are not busy.

“It’s like we have this brownie point system: we get these ticks of approval from somewhere or someone,” Gardener says. “It’s strange, because we can’t really identify where the brownie points are coming from; it’s just this internal belief that there’s going to be some reward at the end.”

Of course, the reality is there is no such reward. In fact, it can be the complete opposite — we become tired and run-down and very quickly realise that the busy-ness of our lives means we are missing out on the things that matter the most. As Hugh Kearns points out, “The reality is, once you start getting the brownie points, you quickly realise they really don’t count for much. Nobody but you really cares.”

Just another excuse

For some, over-commitment is also a form of self-sabotage. It’s a convenient reason for their failures or unhappiness; an alibi in a sense. “I’m just too busy to start exercising” or “I don’t have time to meditate”. There may be a genuine desire to lose weight, give up smoking or start meditating, but underneath that desire is fear — and having too much on your plate is the perfect excuse to avoid confronting those fears.

As Gardener and Kearns see with their PhD students, the “I’m too busy” excuse is usually hiding a fear associated with succeeding. What if it isn’t any good? What am I going to do when I finally finish? They are self-sabotaging and, whether knowingly or unknowingly, finding excuses for why they are failing. So if your excuse is you’re simply too busy, you may be over-committing in other areas of your life so as not to have to face your fears.

A physical addiction

There can also be a physical element to the need to over-commit. Being busy, having a hundred things on your plate and rushing from here to there can give you a physical high that can be quite addictive. Yoga teacher and maternal health nurse Caroline Murphy says this is one of the reasons the stillness of some of the poses in the practice of yoga can be too much for people who are over-committed.

“The reason we do more is to block out all our anxieties and worries. We do more because we get an adrenalin rush from it — a quick fix.” This is why so many over-committed and busy people prefer gym workouts and strenuous physical activity. The “burn” they get from running or lifting weights increases their adrenalin, the illusive “rush” they are seeking.

The antidote to this, of course, is the stillness of yoga and meditation, and for people who are over-committed, this can be very confronting at first. In fact, Caroline tells of people leaving her class after being too overwhelmed by just “being”. “We don’t stop and be in our bodies in our world. We focus on things outside of our bodies, things we can tick off a list. That gives us a sense of achievement — on the outside. But true happiness and contentment are all on the inside.”

Time to stop and take stock

Learning how to stop over-committing and start prioritising requires an acknowledgement that there is a problem. It’s important to remember there is no perfect state of balance or feeling of getting it just right all the time. Everyone will, at times, feel like they simply have too much on in their lives, but it’s about how you feel most of the time. It’s when the feeling of being stretched too far to focus on the things you value most is your permanent state of mind, or you feel like you are not achieving anything, that it’s time to take stock of your commitments.

Learning how to prioritise is not an easy thing for most. In fact, Gardener says that, for some people, having to prioritise in life is like moving through the various stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventually acceptance. In particular, people get “stuck” in the bargaining stage. They tend to say, “Well, what if I get up at five in the morning?” “What if I did it in my lunch break?” They don’t want to admit that it’s just too much to take on and by bargaining or negotiating a way to do it all, they are simply stretching themselves too far.

Be prepared for some feelings of loss at the realisation that you have to let some things in your life go for the greater good, especially if you’ve gone through life believing you can “have it all”. At the end of the day, something has to give and, if you leave it up to fate, it will always be time for yourself or your family that misses out.

There may also be some grieving or difficulty accepting the changes in your life if it means stepping back from work commitments or career ambitions. Maybe you have to work fewer hours to be able to spend time with your family, which might mean other people are given opportunities over you. This can be very hard to accept. However, if you have made your decision from the right place, you will eventually be able to let this go. You can be happy for your colleague, because you chose to step back from work. Don’t doubt your decision; just acknowledge what you can and can’t do at this point in your life.

Setting priorities

One of the key parts to prioritising is to know the difference between important and urgent. Urgent are the things that have a deadline: the phone call you have to return by the end of the day, the work that has to be finished by the end of the week. Important, on the other hand, are the things you value but don’t necessarily have a timeframe for. Goals such as losing weight, daily exercise, family time or a much-longed-for hobby may not have a particular deadline (and if they do, they often finally get done), but are extremely important to your overall wellbeing.

The problem is, life is so full of the urgent tasks, the important ones are continuously pushed to one side, as they don’t have a timeframe. The key, therefore, is once you have looked at what is important and what is urgent in your life, you then need to put the important things first. It’s very tempting to try to tackle all the little, urgent jobs first, telling yourself you’ll focus on the big, important things later. Generally, that doesn’t work. Other things come up, it takes longer than you expected or you are too tired to do them in the end. The harsh reality of modern life is you simply have to schedule in time for yourself, a date with your partner or a family afternoon in the park. Sad but necessary.

A new reward system

Addressing over-commitment as an issue in your life is fundamentally about learning how to value yourself. It’s about realising how important you, your health and your wellbeing really are. It’s about moving away from the material. Our society is so wrapped up in labels, names and images that we have forgotten how to value our surroundings. Suburbs, schools and cars are what our successes are based on; all external focuses that, in the end, mean very little for true happiness.

Reversing over-commitment is about making the time to value your surroundings and appreciate the space around you. It’s about being free; walking the dog, going to the beach, doing the gardening. Whether it’s spending time cooking with fresh ingredients, turning the TV off and reconnecting with your partner or taking an hour out of your day to sit in the park, it all helps to clear the clutter.

Choosing the people around you is also very important. Don’t have people in your life who value the things you are trying to eliminate. Surround yourself with supportive family and friends who will help you in trying to simplify your life and prioritise. Often, as we shift our focus in our lives away from external needs to internal wants, we find certain people begin to play less of a role in our lives. This may be a conscious or unconscious shift, but many people find their circle of friends and social gatherings change as their priorities change. This is OK. Don’t let guilt stop this process. As you declutter your commitments in life, so, too, may you declutter people you have “collected” along the way who do not fit in with your new ideals.

The practice of yoga

Yoga is one very effective way of helping you to stop over-committing and re-prioritise your life. The practice of yoga — and in particular the work with the breath — can help you learn to stop, listen to your body and put yourself and your true needs first. So how does a consistent yoga practice contribute to the managing of over-commitment? For those who have never practised yoga, or who may have started but not continued, it’s difficult to appreciate what a committed yoga lifestyle can mean.

“Yoga gives you a time when you are in yourself,” Murphy explains. “The focus on poses helps to clear the mind, so when things are thrown at you in life, you become a lot more tolerant and able to go with it. It’s not saying you don’t react; you do — we’re all human! — but the reaction is not as intense. It’s almost like the extremes of reactions are taken away.”

Put simply, someone who does not have a practice of focusing on themselves, whether it be through prayer, meditation or yoga, will often overreact, become really angry or get depressed or even anxious. Someone who practises yoga and meditation, however, has the skills that allow them to go back into themselves and look and observe; to pause and think. It gives you the space and time — the things so many over-committed people don’t have — to think about your true priorities and needs.

Murphy also points out that through a daily practice of yoga you stop being so sensitive to other people’s opinions and reactions. You become more knowing and confident in yourself and your choices, and you know what is best for you. “You do end up changing what you eat, eliminating stimulants in your life, becoming more solitary and focusing on your family and yourself more. You find it’s not about how you fit in a crowd any more because you have your own acceptance.”

Focus on the breath

Even more importantly, it’s through the focus on the breath in yoga that the real work is done. The breath is the key to reconnecting with yourself. Despite the assumption that it is the inhalation that quietens the mind and reconnects the body — thus the oft quoted advice of “take a deep breath” — it is actually the exhalation that’s the key to overcoming over-commitment and focusing on what’s important.

“Of course, the inhalation is important,” Caroline says, “but it is the exhalation that connects you back with yourself. The belief is that the inhalation of the breath is from your soul to the outside of your body, whereas the exhalation is from the outside of your body back into your soul.”

This is why people with over-commitment struggle to lie in restorative practice in yoga. As Caroline points out, beginners’ classes rarely focus on just the breath. People who have too much going on in their lives can’t keep their eyes closed. They fidget and they’re constantly changing their positions. They can’t stop, be still and with their breath. They are looking to “feel something” rather than just sit in their bodies. “That’s why you don’t sit quietly in a beginners’ class because people wouldn’t hang around,” Caroline explains.

A true focus on your breath requires a lot of discipline and practice. It’s not just about taking air in and out. You need to focus on your shoulders, your chest and how you feel in your body. It’s about the quietness of your eyes, your forehead, the softness of your face. It’s about allowing the tongue to move down from the roof of your mouth — when the tongue is down, there’s more moisture in the throat, allowing you to breathe more steadily.

“The key to overcoming over-commitment is through yoga, becoming more aware of your body, your sense of self and your balance,” Caroline says. “When your body is aligned, there is a free-flowing connection between the breath, the mind and the body. They are all connected.”

The only commitment that matters

Most people who are over-committed in their lives are trying to pursue the perfect balance, believing that with balance comes happiness. The reality is “balance” is not something you can achieve by throwing in a yoga class once a week or trying to fit more and more into an already cramped schedule. It’s a lifetime commitment in itself. Reprioritising from the image-based and self-conscious younger years to an acceptance of yourself and your life takes a lifetime. In fact, yogis would say it takes several lifetimes.

To find true balance in our lives, we need to stop piling on the commitments and say no to extra activities that please others and add more stress to our lives. We need to shift to a new reward system and set new priorities. We need to make a commitment to ourselves. As the saying goes, less really is more.

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is a journalist with more than 15 years' experience, specialising in health, mindfulness and motherhood. She is also the best-selling author of Happy Mama: The Guide to Finding Yourself Again, and is the creator of the website Happy Mama.

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