Overcommitting Results in Chronic Undercommitting

The downside of a full Google Calendar is a partial commitment to everything on it. Paradoxically, overcommitting usually entails undercommitting to each thing you do. An overcommitted person simply does not have enough time or energy for each of their individual commitments.

We can define “overcommitment” as having more obligations to fulfill than time or ability to fulfill them. But it’s important to distinguish between discretionary overcommitment, such as choosing to participate in 10 clubs, and necessary overcommitment, like needing to work three jobs. I’m writing about the first.

Thinking about physical structures can help us understand how we handle overcommitment. Every structure around us exerts a counter-force that keeps it from collapsing or flying into space.

There are two major ways that structures exert a counter-force — tension and compression. If we imagine our lives as structures, we deal with the load of overcommitment in the same way that structures do. Our overcommitted schedules sometimes make us tense. We feel “stretched for time.” Staying and chatting after class or taking a nap when we’re tired just aren’t options. At other times, our time horizon compresses. We forget about long-term projects. That plan to finally learn the piano doesn’t happen. Regardless of the way overcommitted people act, their inability to give necessary time and energy to each of their commitments causes them to act more like undercommitters.

The tense overcommitter can never be present in any single commitment. The compressed overcommitter can’t think long-term. Absurdly, both types of over ommitters will sport a self-congratulatory grimace. For the tense overcommitter, their mere presence at the meeting is an accomplishment. For the compressed overcommitter, it’s an achievement they are even handling what’s due tomorrow. To everyone else present, the overcommitter’s behavior is indistinguishable from an undercommitter’s behavior.

I think there are three main culprits for overcommitment: parental shadows, niche organizations, and a passion imperative.

First, Oberlin students are overwhelmingly affluent. The median family income of a student is $178,000. Wealthy parents fill their kids’ schedules with stuff to do. Those kids grow up to micromanage themselves the same way.

Second, overcommitting is a great way to meet people. We have so many niche ExCos and clubs. We’re all a little eccentric. Maybe we can can “find our people” if we join enough organizations.

Third, don’t passionate people join activities to pursue what they care about? We are passionate people. Just as people fall in love with the idea of love, I think we often are passionate about the idea of having a passion. It’s easy to chase the idea of passion all around campus — acting as a passionate person should act, without actually having real zeal for anything.

The artistic equivalent of overcommitment is “horror vacui” — fear of empty space. This fear leads artists to cover their canvasses only for the sake of covering their canvasses. Fear of empty space doesn’t usually lead to great paintings. A normalized fear of free time won’t usually lead to a great campus. Overcommitment benefits nobody