(Keep reading for advice on how to deal with email overload!)
There are plenty of selfish people in the world – no doubt. But many good people have the opposite problem: they’re overgivers, perennially sacrificing their needs and missions to others’. That’s a much nobler problem, but still a problem.
Here’s what happens when you overgive to your job; an activist campaign, community group, or business venture; or other people:
1) Of course, you don’t get to live out your own mission. This almost guarantees bitterness, regret and remorse.
2) You’re probably exhausted, and possibly broke. This means your lifestyle is not sustainable – which, in turn, means that all the projects and relationships you contribute importantly to are also not sustainable. (And if your contribution is not important, why are you giving at all?)
3) Dangerously, you attract the wrong people – those seeking to exploit you, evade responsibility or accountability, or both.
4) You compromise your effectiveness and growth. Good time managers devote as much time as possible to their high-value activities: those that, (a) fall within their mission; (b) leverage their strengths; and (c) create real-world impact or change. By focusing, they become ever more accomplished, skilful, powerful and effective – not to mention, happy, peaceful and calm. And by delegating the low-value activities to others for whom they are high-value, they help those others build their own effectiveness and happiness – and, as a bonus, build community.
When you overgive, you subvert that entire process, and lose all those wonderful outcomes.
5) In a worst-case scenario, you don’t give your best effort to anything or anyone, either because you can’t (because you’re depleted or frantically busy), or you won’t (because you feel angry and exploited), or both. In failing to commit to multiple individual tasks or engagements, you are actually failing to commit to entire projects or relationships.
Overgiving, in short, is a potent form of self-sabotage.
Email overload can be regarded as an overgiving problem. Sure, you get too many emails each day, and they take too long to answer. If you're like many people, however, you're reluctant to face the problem by: (1) leaving some (or many) emails unanswered, and (2) answering most of the remaining ones tersely. (Many people write multi-paragraph emails when a simple "Sorry - can't do it." or "Great!" or "See you at 8!" will do.) This isn't all your fault! Here are some factors that make email so tricky:
Spending three hours answering emails when you can only budget one hour to the task does qualify as overgiving. This is true even if the emails are worth answering! However, it's doubly true if the main reason you're spending all that time is not because doing so supports your mission, but because: (a) it's conventional to answer one's emails, and you don't want to break with convention, or (b) you're afraid of offending someone.
Here are some solutions to overgiving:
1) Self-analysis. You need to get very clear about what your mission and priorities are, and when and why you’re overgiving. Many overgivers are kind people, but many also have trouble saying no and standing up for their own needs – and many get gratification from being perceived by others as indispensable, a “problem solver,” a “go-to person” or even a “savior.” This is symptomatic of grandiosity, a key component of perfectionism. Grandiose people think they can break the rules: for instance, by not earning enough money to sustain themselves, or working 100 hours a week, or doing everything for everyone and still aceing their schoolwork or writing their novel. They also believe that things that are hard or even impossible for others should be quite easy for them.
Even though most perfectionists have a strong rationalization for their grandiosity – e.g., “I’m well organized.” – grandiosity is fundamentally delusional. Use journaling, and perhaps enlist a coach or therapist to overcome it.
2) Make conscious decisions, based on your mission and the relative importance of your priorities, on how you will invest your time. Do that by creating a weekly time budget (if you sleep 8 hours a night, you’ve got 112 hours a week to work with), while meanwhile working aggressively to jettison non-priorities and low-value activities from your schedule.
3) Practice saying no. If a recovering overgiver tells me that people are starting to complain that she’s not there for them anymore, or not as generous, or not as much fun, I congratulate her – that means she’s doing it right. If saying no is hard, practice on small stuff and work your way up.
4) Practice delegating. As many as possible of your non-high-value activities should be given to someone else to do. Contrary to what many overgivers believe, the list of people you can potentially delegate to is enormous, and includes family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, work associates, and basically anyone you come in contact with. Just take some time to organize and “frame” the request so that’s it as easy as possible to fulfill. And, of course, be sure to reciprocate when you are in a position to contribute some high-value support.
5) For emails, start discarding and answering tersely with much more frequency, as discussed above. If someone expresses surprise or unhappiness at a terse answer explain that the terseness doesn't reflect your opinion of them or their project, but simply the realities of your time management.
Of course, also do use filters, signatures, autoresponders, and other email time-savers when you can!
Some of these steps may take practice, but trust me – life gets so much easier and more fun when you stop overgiving. Stay with it!