If you’re a person who loves lists – whether physical or just kept in your brain – you’ll definitely have experienced this: you start the week by setting yourself some seemingly achievable goals, but by the end of the week it’s clear you’re not going to achieve them all. The fallout of this happening once isn’t too bad: you do some mental arithmetic and figure out when you can slot that goal into the next week’s list.
However, if it happens too often, overcommitment can become a draining, stressful and even expected part of every week. When it comes to more voluntary things like learning, this can be fatal. There’s nothing that kills enthusiasm faster than having convinced yourself you’re going to fail from day one.
So, in this article, we’ll discuss the dangers of overcommitment – and the fact that almost everyone does it – followed by some ways to mitigate and avoid overcommitment in the first place.
What is overcommitment and why is it so debilitating?
Overcommitment rears its ugly head in all aspects of life: maybe you’re saying yes to a dinner at the end of what you know will be an exhausting week, or telling your boss that you’ll have that new task completed by this time tomorrow.
Whichever way it manifests itself, overcommitment can have disastrous consequences such as disintegrating boundaries between you and your work, enforcing the idea that you constantly fail, or convincing you to put your own needs last.
When it comes to learning, overcommitment can very easily become a habit. If you don’t quite get one task completed or goal achieved in a week, you’ll move it on to the next week, and then a different one will probably spill over into the week after that, and so on and so forth.
The reason this can become so debilitating is because of the guilt, embarrassment or stress that stems from your continuous ‘failures’, or so you may refer to these instances of incomplete tasks or goals. Additionally, as healthcare professionals, it can be easy for this stress to bleed into other areas of your professional life and wreak havoc upon your ability to function efficiently at work.
What are ‘sustainable goals’?
When we refer to ‘sustainable goals’, we are referring to goals that enhance your life and professional prospects: not ones that endanger your mental health or efficiency by forcing you to overexert yourself.
A sustainable learning goal would be:
Relevant to your larger goals or knowledge gaps
Manageable and realistic
Relatively flexible, meaning it can be put off if need be (however, sometimes this isn’t possible and a goal will be immovable – which is why the other goals for that week need to be flexible)
How can you make sure your goals are as sustainable as possible?
Be specific about what you’re working towards
The language you use to define your learning goals is far more important than you’d initially think. By changing a single word – ‘memorise’ can change to ‘comprehend’ – you’re making a goal more sustainable because it’s gone from relatively unachievable to easily achievable.
To do this, at the end of every month (or two months or even six months), you can hold ‘reviews’ where you go back through notes using quizzes or puzzle-like means. Knowing this is down the road when you’re initially learning something will take the pressure off: you’re not trying to commit everything you’re learning to memory. Instead, you’re putting your efforts into understanding the actual information.
Therefore, if your learning goals change from ‘know topic X’ to ‘understand topic X', it’s far less daunting (and not to mention generally takes less time).
To learn more about making learning and reviewing more enjoyable, read Ausmed’s piece on The Handover: What is gamifying your learning? | Ausmed
Utilise Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour
Back in 1985, Icek Ajzen proposed a psychology theory that argued that ‘the individual's intention to perform or not to perform a particular behavior is prerequisite to any action' (Mumba, 2015). Essentially, you’ll only do something if you plan to do it first; however, these intentions can be interfered with by other elements such as attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control.
As such, when you’re planning to complete learning in a more sustainable – and perhaps less self-sabotaging – way, you must first set a clear intention. Part of setting this intention would be to create an environment that is conducive to your sustainable learning (ie. remove distractions like phones or certain tabs on your computer, prepare food to have while you study). The same goes for the other parts of Ajzen’s theory: the subjective norms – perhaps it’s unusual for your friends or colleagues to use a study plan – and perceived behaviour control – maybe you’ve convinved yourself the learning you’re about to do is far harder than anything you’ve done before – need to be reasoned with or eliminated from consideration.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll find it far easier to set and deliver on an intention regarding your learning (as well as any changes you’ve decided to make to your learning).
Apply revisitation – no matter how frustrating it may be
Though it may sound like it, this isn’t another way of saying ‘review your work’. Instead, revisitation refers to the act of immediately facing up to what you’re not yet understanding or completing instead of moving on to the next topic. The ‘I’ll come back to it later’ tactic often doesn’t pay off and instead ends up actually costing you momentum, time and effort.
So, if something hasn’t stuck, put aside time to revisit it immediately. Don’t commit to a whole different topic for the next learning period – ie. the next week if you work on weekly cycles – if you haven’t reached your goal regarding the previous one. This is one part ‘holding yourself accountable’ and two parts 'getting the most out of your assigned and chosen learning resources'.
This helps keep your learning goals sustainable by keeping them realistic and relevant: letting a goal slide past only to ‘deal with it later’ can make you resist your learning goals altogether. Don’t let it snowball: face your incomplete goals immediately.
What if you do accidentally overcommit?
It’s all a learning curve, so don’t stress too much! This is an opportunity to learn and you’ll be a stronger learner if you use this as an opportunity to assess why you overcommitted instead of just accepting it and moving on.
First, make a physical list of all the goals you did hit that week. It’s easier to visualise these successes when they’re written down in front of you: if they’re floating around in your brain, you’re more likely to minimise them.
Second, write down the goal/s you didn’t quite achieve. Once you’ve done this, compare the two lists: what sort of goals are you naturally gravitating toward completing? Maybe they’re smaller tasks, or are composite parts of a larger goal? Perhaps it’s clear now that the goals you didn’t hit weren’t clear enough, or they might have been too big?
Third, be realistic about the outside pressures that may have played a part: did you talk yourself out of your original intention? Did you maybe not remove the idea of certain subjective norms relating to your own personal goals? Become mindful of the preconceived ideas that entered into your intentions, and then make sure to remove them next time.
Lastly, make sure you commit the reason to memory: if your incomplete goal was too broad, make sure your next goals are far more specific. If your incomplete goal was too large, make sure your next goals are broken down into smaller, more bite-sized parts.
Once you’re comfortable applying these changes to your learning goals, you’re well on your way to optimising your learning habits in general. To find more information and step-by-step guides about optimised learning, browse Ausmed’s Learning Theories tab on The Handover.
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Mumba, M.N., 2015. ‘Icek Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour: A theoretical framework.' Sigma International Nursing Research Congress. Accessed 19 July 2022 via https://sigma.nursingrepository.org/handle/10755/602080#:~:text=The%20Theory%20of%20Planned%20Behavior%20holds%20that%20all%20actions%20are,is%20prerequisite%20to%20any%20action.