Confessions of a New Project Addict: What to Do When You Overcommit

My life is driven almost exclusively by deadlines—and for the most part, I’d have it no other way. As a full-time editor and part-time contributor to a handful of publications, not to mention all that time I spent in academia, I’ve found deadlines to be safe havens in a lot of ways. They help me manage my time, they occasionally give me excuses to slack off and relax (Hey, I have two whole weeks to finish this!), and they keep the publications I love running right on track. I’m absolutely not an organized person—that goes for my physical belongings as well as my mental state—and deadlines impose a necessary order that keeps me grounded. 

But I don’t always love having to meet deadlines, especially when they crop up right on top of each other. And add those work- and passion-driven deadlines to personal-life deadlines, and it’s a nightmare. I recently got married in the thick of cold and flu season, and between planning my wedding, working ahead of deadlines, and scheduling a handful of less-than-exciting appointments for my physical health, I found that these dates—once my safe havens—were now oceans in which I was drowning. 

Not only was I struggling with my work, but I was feeling emotionally wrecked as well. For me, the guilt that came with not delivering work on time is a weight heavier than finishing any given job. One so heavy that, suddenly, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. Who are you, you weak and lazy so-and-so? How can you let your editors, co-editors, and colleagues down like this? All that guilt and shame made it difficult for me to reach out to the people around me and ask for help. 

Then, I faced the work itself with an added dread, which meant more procrastination, ultimately leaving me in an even deeper deadline debt. It was a circle of procrastination and depression and laziness that quickly funneled into a steaming mess, leaving all the people I care about to clean up after me. 

I hated it. I hated feeling inefficient and passionless and bereft of dedication to my projects. I felt inefficient, unprofessional, and undeserving of my role in all these publications I loved. My heart was breaking.

And the worst thing is this: all this was totally preventable.

Oh god, you might be thinking, another time-management lecture. No, I promise this isn’t that. There are already plenty of great blogs and tactics out there about how to organize and manage your time—I’ve read and edited many of them myself—and, while for some people, they work wonders, I know they can occasionally feel unachievable. Or at least, they probably feel that way if you stumbled upon this blog in search of EMERGENCY HELP, PLEASE GET ME OUT OF THIS HOLE I HAVE DUG. 

Instead, I want to provide you with two things you can do, right now, to help yourself and your editors (or whomever else you owe work) get through this chaos. 

1. Get Real About Your Schedule

This first step requires equal parts humility, candor, and dedication. Start by looking at your deadlines throughout this incredibly crazy time in your life (and maybe for the week or two once it ends), and figure out what’s realistic for you. What’s the most possible work you can get done on time? From there, what’s going to be feasible for you to deliver after deadline, and when can you absolutely have it done? You’ll want to be absolutely honest with yourself here, because you’re going to need to communicate this information to the people who are waiting on your work. 

As you do this, you’ll also want to prioritize everything you want to get done first. For example, work you owe your full-time employer might have to be the first deadlines you make—since without them, it’s going to be a lot harder to fulfill your passion projects. And things you have to do for your health—doctor or dentist appointments, surgeries, therapy sessions, etc.—should absolutely always come before anything. No one wants you working at less than your best, and if they do, it might be time to reconsider your situation. 

As you figure this out, make sure to write things down on a calendar or notepad, so you absolutely know what you owe yourself. If you prefer to work in smartphone reminders, that’s fine too. Whatever you need to do to hold yourself accountable to these new deadlines. Because once you communicate them, you won’t want to forget and have to apologize twice. (Trust me, I’ve done it, and it is a huge bummer. Even when your editors are super understanding.)

2. Communicate Your Situation (Clearly and Politely) 

Once you know what’s feasible for you, it’s time to start communicating. If you have to miss a deadline or are requesting a reduced workload for the foreseeable future, you need to let the affected parties know. This will not only help them work with you to put together a schedule that works for you both, but also cut down on that emotional strain you feel when you let someone down. Then, you’ll be way more reenergized when it comes time to do the work itself.

Here’s a sample of an actual email I used to communicate my situation. I’ve cut out some of the original note to make it more universal. Please note that this won’t be a one-size-fits-all kind of letter, but it will definitely be a good starting point when you need to tell someone you just can’t deliver on the commitment you made:

Hi [Editor’s name],

I hope this finds you well! I wanted to touch base with you about my schedule for the next couple of months. I have a lot coming up on my plate throughout December and January [feel free to go into specifics here as your comfort area allows]. I really love contributing to this project, and I don't want to drop any balls, but I’m a little worried about completing everything in time during those months. I was wondering if it would be possible for me to submit one story on 12/31 for January, and then go back up to two posts at the end of January for February. 

I apologize if this messes your editorial calendar up, I just don't want to overcommit and leave you hanging again. If there’s something else I can do on my end, or another way you’d like me to juggle these stories so I can work within your schedule, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

At your convenience, let me know your thoughts, and how you’d like me to proceed here. Again, I’m so sorry for the trouble. I look forward to being back at a normal pace once the end of January rolls around. 

Have a great night, and I look forward to hearing from you.

So, What’s a Projectaholic to Do Next?

I’m someone who gets really project hungry, and has a really hard time saying no when exciting new opportunities come my way. If you’re still reading, there’s a good chance you’re like me. No one can fault us for falling in love with an exciting new venture or the passion of a trusted friend or colleague—and we shouldn’t fault ourselves for being ambitious! That said, this situation is a great lesson in paying attention to our workloads and knowing how much we can commit to each new venture. 

In the future, if there’s a new project that comes up and you want to participate, be honest about what you can do. If you want to help with the planning stages, for example, but can’t handle a full-time commitment to a project, that’s okay! Just be upfront about it to the people in question. Remember: it is okay to support new projects from afar! Your colleagues will certainly be happy to have your brain and talents involved in any capacity. And if you can’t be involved at all, they’ll appreciate your candor far more than they’d want you to struggle through each new task. 

How do you handle things when you overcommit? Share your strategies in the comments below.  

Linsey J. Morse is the Content Standard Editor and Cofounding Editor-in-Chief of Spry Literary Journal. Past lives include: Poetry Editor for Mason's Road, Student Editor for the Bryant Literary Review. Previously written work has appeared in such publications as Now What: The Creative Writer's Guide to Success After the MFA; future work includes Idle Jive, a poetry collection in progress.