not spreading yourself too thin
October 2, 2012 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm overambitious. I spread myself too thin and it's crazy-making. Now what?

At least by some standards, I'm over-ambitious. I used to take pride in being a person of many interests and an unending string of (mostly partly-finished) projects. As time goes on, I more clearly see the downsides of an endless cycle of ambitions: skepticism from friends, a lack of connection to the present moment (to desire something different is to reject what you have, that kind of thing), a decreased ability to distinguish true goals from fleeting ones, etc.

Once you realize you're at a point of "overambition," how do you get used to the actual scope of your life? What rituals, frameworks, habits, etc. help ground you in what you have going right now? I am pursuing meditation as one route, and also have always loved going on long walks, which seems to fit into this somehow or other. But yes, anything that's more about routines, practices of wellness, goal-setting without crazy-making goalsetting, etc. would be much appreciated!

(As special-snowflake details: I have a full-time job and am applying to masters programs next year, which are what I consider my big, solid commitments. I am teaching a community ed class, hosting a weekly radio show, and taking a meditation course, which I consider firm commmunity commitments. I volunteer for a homeless shelter, have a game night, and am part of a creative writing group, which are less firm but personally fulfilling obligations. I also have any number of personal project-sized ambitions: learn more on guitar, make radio documentaries, etc. Right now I feel mooostly balanced, but I do need to deliberately carve out a bunch of time on weekends to do nothing in order to not enter spirals of franticness)
posted by elephantsvanish to Human Relations (10 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
You're not overambitious, you're a scatterbrained gadfly.

People I describe as ambitious have a focus that they are successful at. If they have any leftover energy, they channel that into at one distracting outlet that they engage it because it keeps them sane.

This isn't so much about coming up with some kind of centering ritual as much as it is drawing boundaries around your life and deciding what your personal goals in life are, and dropping the things that don't serve your goals.
posted by deanc at 2:11 PM on October 2, 2012 [11 favorites]

I very much have this problem, and it basically started killing me this year. That meant a huge refocus on myself and my priorities and consequent therapy. What's really resonated is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

In particular, there's an ACT workbook, Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, that's helped me accept my limitations and identify what's most important. It doesn't hurt that it's super process-oriented. Sometimes you have to "do" to "be," you know?
posted by lunalaguna at 2:12 PM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's fine to have an array of different interests; it's fine to start a lot of projects and only finish some of them. I think that things start to get problematic if and when you begin to forego your "big commitments" in lieu of finishing something small, and relatively less significant.

In other words, hit the panic button when you find yourself putting off grad school apps in order to host your radio show. Or when your time spent volunteering begins to detract from your job performance.

The issue here is not the quantity of the different things that you're involved in -- it's the priority you internally assign to each project.
posted by lobbyist at 2:22 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Once you realize you're at a point of "overambition," how do you get used to the actual scope of your life? What rituals, frameworks, habits, etc. help ground you in what you have going right now?

I make lists and categorise my projects. For instance, in my language learning category right now:

German (improve)
Homeric Greek (Improve)
Russian (from basic to working k.)
Mandarin (spoken only?)

and here's my lists of sports and outdoor activities

SS to bodyweight squat etc.
rock climbing with K & J (revisit November)
shooting (air pistol / 10m)
Skating (revisit if back to NL and keep in form for 11st)

Similarly, I have lists for discretionary career development activities like professional associations/certifications/networking, philosophy books I want to read, writing projects, hobby and craft projects, a combined CS/Math list, a miscellaneous list. All with rough annotations as to when I should reconsider moving them from my future list onto my current list. Things on the current list get time allocated (or not, the lists are a maximum, not a minimum) and things on the future list are there so that I can be confident that they're "in the system" and mostly keep them out of my daily life1.

Obviously I know that I'll never actually get to most of the things on my lists. Many things stay there for months or years without me touching them and I eventually take them off because the urge to do them has left me. I have a career and a hobby that take up almost all my time, but these lists are really just a psychological tool to let me deposit all these ideas somewhere outside of my head.

(1) Yes, this is from GTD
posted by atrazine at 2:22 PM on October 2, 2012

I think at some point it will occur to you that time to sleep is important. Also, some of the stuff you do isn't all that fun. It's a chore, you hate it, you resent it.

Here's a thought. Prioritize your interests/commitments. Then remove the ones from the bottom of the list. Slice it right in half.

Does what you're looking at make you smile? Do you feel like, "Hey, this looks manageable and fun to me." Or does it look like, "Shit, where's the cool stuff I like."

You may get something out of volunteering, but perhaps you don't like the hours, or the people you work with, or the drive to get there.

If it isn't essential, it may be time to dial it back, or remove it altogether from your schedule.

What isn't sustainable is having 12 committments per week.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:27 PM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

As a sworn dilettante, I recommend the book "Refuse to Choose" by Barbara Sher which is about personality types that for one reason or another have a lot of diffuse and not necessarily long-lasting goals rather than sustained, focused ambitions. Because there are not a lot of resources that reframe it in a more positive context than "scatterbrained gadfly"!

The two-minute summary, I guess, is that there are a lot of ways to structure your life and your career to give all your interests some time and space, and it's important to figure out just what you want out of your interests and ambitions -- maybe you don't want to be an artisan pickle maker full-time, maybe you just want to have, once, the experience of making really good pickles.

I think it was important for me to recognize that a lot of my sudden interest spikes had nothing to do with what I was temporarily interested in, and had far *more* to do with anxiety over underachievement in my more solid, long-term goals, or some hole in my life that wasn't being filled. So, when I get suddenly interested in things, I try to pursue them on the cheap and without making a big commitment -- and then I try to let them drop without guilt or obligation when I find myself overcommitted.
posted by Jeanne at 2:39 PM on October 2, 2012 [10 favorites]

Six buckets. Pick six things. You can rotate them around but try to not drag yourself more than 5-6 ways at once for a block of time. My friend Dinah wrote a book called Discardia which is all about learning to let go of some of your attachments so that you have better and richer attachments to the things you have left. Here is the blog post where she talks about the bucket idea.

I can't do this particularly well, but when I try to make little groups of "things that are important to me" I try to think about that whole idea of what is at the bottom of this list. I injured my ankle over the summer and had to sort of restrict my activities somewhat and I found it a useful framing technique in the abstract that helped me actually deal with the reality of having to manage this. And when I decided to make a commitment to eating better [meaning more cooking at home, more time at the gym] I had to dial back my commitment to something else [lots of airplane travel and away-from-home time] and thinking about it in those terms helped me stay more balanced than I might otherwise be.

I am a high powered person and get a lot done but the number of times I'd find myself being like "aaaa, too many commitments" or "aaaa, conflicting commitments" or "aaaa, can't choose among high priority things" I realized that I had made my life this way and I could unmake it too.
posted by jessamyn at 4:13 PM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding Refuse To Choose, and that you're not a "scatterbrained gadfly". You're more likely a generalist, and there's a very good argument that, as such, the future belongs to you.

One of Barbara Sher's insights that stayed with me is the idea of being a "sequential scanner". If you make a multi-month, or even multi-year plan, you may find it easier to let go of some side-projects while you plunge more deeply into one or two. The rest will still be there for later exploration.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:33 PM on October 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's what I did after spreading myself too thin and realizing it was hurting my ability to accomplish the goals I cared about:

- I made a 20 year plan of things I wanted to do, both personally and professionally. This included high-level goals supported by both tangible tactics like "run a marathon" and "get job as (dream job)" as well as soft ones like "spend time with my family" and "recognize people I've met."

- I figured out all the steps required to do those things, and started doing them. As time has passed, I sometimes edited the plan because my goals changed, or because wildly unexpected opportunities arose. But the big thing was learning to make sure that any changes I made fit into that plan.

I'm on year 8 of my 20 year plan, and while it took me a year or two to get used to bringing everything back to high-level goals, it's been game-changing for me.
posted by grudgebgon at 3:52 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My father used to tell me "You can do anything." I wish he'd occasionally added "but you can't do everything." If he had put the two together for me, I think I'd have been happier, better adjusted and more accomplished over more of my twenty years of adulthood.

Long walks are good for breaking up the day and creating time to think, prioritize, balance, and problem solve. Try to make a habit of getting to sleep and getting up at regular times, and making sure that "enough" sleep is baked into your regular schedule. Try to limit the number of things you have going on in a given day, week, or month, because switching between them takes time and energy.

Also, if they are your projects, you are ultimately the one who gets to decide if they are finished, or not. If you get part way in and decide to move the finish line, guess what? You can! And if you still feel like you are cheating, well, remember, the way you finish something is by finishing it, not starting something else. That may seem banal, but if it really were, you would be asking Metafilter about something else.
posted by Good Brain at 1:08 AM on October 4, 2012

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