Temptations to take on too much

27 January 2008 by Jennifer

Too busy already? But maybe you could just take on one more thing…

Today’s theme is some specific factors which have tempted me to overreach or overload myself.

I don’t think the catalogue of temptations will be the same for everyone as for me. But I do think that if I describe my ones, they will be usefully familiar to some other people too :-)

Some kinds of overload come from the universe throwing stuff at you – like the illness of a relative, or a work colleague leaving, or your house being flooded, or just a constellation of minor bits of entropy all happening in close succession. I don’t mean those.

What I’m talking about here is an overload you had some hand in creating for yourself. I mean those times when you “somehow can’t resist” taking on something else. (Generic “you” – not assuming that you personally are susceptible to this phenomenon :-) )

Ooh, a cool thing!

One main category of temptation for me is things which sound like they’d be cool. “Ooh, a cool thing!” or “Opportunities like this don’t come along every day“, or even “This one is too good to miss!

Taking on one of these is not necessarily a mistake. It might be highly rewarding and a very good use of my time.

However, there are at least two mistakes waiting to be made here.

  1. It’s only partly a cool thing, and it’s partly a tedious thing, and the ratio is not favourable.
  2. It is indeed a cool thing, but it’s a side-track for me, and it takes attention and time away from other cool things which are more important.

Up my metaphorical sleeve, I have some further metaphors for this variety, which I’m saving for another day.

It would make sense…

The other main temptation for me is the idea that “it would make sense” for me to do something.

Or it might not happen

One version of this is “If I don’t do this good thing, nobody else will, and it won’t happen“. Having identified this as a very hooky hook, I’ve got better at unhooking myself from it. “Yep, it won’t happen. Too bad. Them’s the breaks. C’est la vie.”

Some people would suggest answering this kind of temptation with “No-one is irreplaceable”. But the fact is that sometimes, if you walk away, you won’t be replaced, and the idea or project will run aground for lack of your contribution.

So I find that a sounder basis for standing firm against this temptation is remembering all the other potential good things which aren’t happening either. I mean, why get hung up on this one? The world is full of wonderful projects which never got done!

Making the team work

The “… it won’t happen at all” is a particular case of a more generic thing about “the good of everyone”. I think a lot of people get talked into things on the grounds that it would make some collective project work. “We need a treasurer, and nobody else wants to do it.” “Someone has to do this complicated errand, and you’re the only person who’s free that day.” Slurp, slurp, the sound of the quicksand of temptation.

I find this line of reasoning is particularly hooky when it latches onto some skill or resource that I demonstrably have which not everyone has.

For some people, the main hook in that might be flattery – “… but you’re so good at that!

For me, I think it tends to be more about privilege – “I had the privilege of an education that gave me these skills [subtext: so don’t I have a duty to use them (here)?]” “Some people simply couldn’t make time for this job, and I could if I chose to [subtext: so oughtn’t I?].”

I’m not saying there’s nothing to be said for “Do the job that’s at hand”. And of course I’m not saying that a desire to see a collective project work is an invalid motive for doing anything.

I’m saying that your contribution to the world doesn’t necessarily have to be this one, just because you could and it was there.

Some wise words from Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

He didn’t say “Don’t ask yourself what makes you come alive. Wait till someone else comes up with a job for you which no-one else wanted to do, and then go do that.”

Or take it from the Buddha:

“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

Perceptions

Another angle from which to investigate the same phenomenon is via the NLP concept of “Perceptual positions”. “First position” is being in touch with your own wishes and thoughts and feelings; “Second position” is imagining and empathising with another person’s reality; and “Third position” is an observer’s perception of the two (or more) of you, including how you interact.

(A while ago, I read a book where the author also suggested the concept of fourth and fifth positions. If I recall correctly, one of them was imagining how the situation might evolve over time, and the other was the background of the rest of the world – e.g. social rules, distribution of resources, etc. I thought that was useful. But I don’t remember now what book that was. Another version has fifth position as a “Universal position”, which for some people evidently has a religious or spiritual meaning. But anyway, at least those first three seem to be generally agreed on.)

I would say that it’s one of my strengths to perceive and imagine from positions other than “first”. Systems thinking seems to come natural to me (a.k.a. “seeing the big picture”).

But there’s a pitfall in having that natural inclination: sometimes it’s at the expense of remembering to check in with myself. Then I might come to the conclusion that, looking at the situation as a whole, it “obviously makes sense” for me to take on a particular task. Only later do I realise “Hang on a minute – I had no desire to do this at all!” But hey, it “obviously made sense” for me to do it. Hmmm.

Selfishness

I think a common strand running through all that area of “It would make sense…” and/or “For the good of everyone…” is a lack of clarity – for me, obviously, but I think in the whole of western culture as well – about what might be the most healthy and most ethical relationship between (a) one’s own wants and needs, and (b) those of other people.

I think the concept of “selfishness” probably deserves a whole article of its own in the fullness of time. But for now I’ll just refer to the often-made point that if you’re not taking good care of yourself, it’s unlikely that you’re doing your best work for other people either.

Adding to the catalogue

I think those are the main ones for me. But please feel free to add to the catalogue if you can identify some temptations of your own :-)

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