most stress comes from not finishing what you've started

david allen, one of my productivity gurus, has as one of his pillars the following idea:

“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”

even as i read it, i understood the depth of what he was saying. since then, the truth (and implications of the truth) of that statement are essentially everywhere i look.

i notice it in myself when i look at my todo list and thing “dammit. i really was supposed to get more done today,” or “i wish i hadn’t gotten sick so i could have finished everything.” i notice it in others when they feel stressed and they make statements like “yea, i was going to ___ but then ____ got in the way,” or “i really wish i hadn’t committed to __, and ___, and ___, and ___… i’ve just got so much going on.”*

so what’s the remedy? i don’t exactly remember what allen said, but my experience of what he mentioned is two-fold:

  1. make fewer commitments to myself and to others. this allows me to focus more fully on the one’s i have made. it also lets me follow through on those things well and sometimes even add extra value. this is diametrically opposed to being committed to too much, getting everything done (barely), but feeling shitty about it. to me, this shows up as practicing how to say no.
  2. have a clear process for renegotiating commitments and get comfortable with doing it regularly. sometimes, i just need to look at what i’ve committed to and say that i’m not going to get everything done. it’s important, to take some time (if possible) and set new due dates for say when i am going to get those things done. but the process of looking at a task and being explicit with in my inner monologue (“ok, i’m actually just not going to finish those three other things today. that’s fine.”) is way more important than i thought it was.

    after learning how to do that renegotiation with yourself, it becomes much easier to do it with others. and the funny, ironic thing is that most other people are totally fine if you renegotiate a deadline for something. this is a surprising truth, but once you recognize it, it becomes even truer that most people’s stress comes from their own ideas of commitments they’ve made.

over time, making fewer commitments minimizes the number of times the renegotiation process needs to happen, but i suspect it will still always happen.

learning the truth of this idea has been a long journey and one that i’m still on, but the power in it to reduce my stress level has been pretty profound.

* if you happen to be one of my friends and you think i’m quoting you, i promise that almost all of my friends make statements like that on a very regularly basis.