The #1 Joy Killer and How to Avoid It

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

May 18, 2015

by Marshall Goldsmith

In my travels, I run across thousands of people all over the world who aren’t happy. In fact, some of them are downright miserable. It’s hard to be an engaged, productive person at work if you’re not happy. And, it can be even harder at home.

So, what is the #1 joy killer today? What is killing our happiness and engagement on such a wide-scale? It’s that series of little things that we put on our plates, that pile up over time, compounding to the point of being way too much for any one person to handle.

The #1 happiness killer today is saying yes too much when you should really be saying no. Have you ever heard the old saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”? It makes sense. It’s obvious they are able to get things done. But there is a fine line between taking on a lot and taking on too much.

People in corporate situations often fall into this over-commitment trap. It’s easy to see why. If you like what you do and you’re good at it, it shows. Everyone wants you to be at their meeting; they seek out your opinion; they ask you to run a project for them. Busy people find no shortage of opportunities. And, this happens at all levels. It’s how junior employees advance more rapidly than some of their cohorts. Their ambition and enthusiasm is contagious. Their bosses pile on the work—the employees don’t cry uncle (until it’s too late). And that’s when their work quality deteriorates and they begin to falter. It’s a predictable and vicious circle.

Self-employed people really fall for this joy killer. That’s because without the cushion of a steady paycheck, every opportunity could be their last. So, they take on everything even though it’s impossible to do it all. I do this. As a speaker, I show up for the day, share my knowledge, and get paid for my time. It’s a straightforward pay-for-work opportunity. If I show up I get paid. If I don’t, I don’t get paid. I look at un-booked periods as valuable time during which I can catch up on my reading and writing, or simply relax with my family.

Then someone will want to hire me for the day. I’ll say no at first, because I’ve planned to do these important things. But often the client will persist and I soon find myself saying yes to a gig a few months away, rationalizing that who knows what the economy or my future bookings will look like, I’d better take what comes. Really though, I might be better served to say no and write my next book! I’m lucky to have this problem. And, I know that if I say yes too many times when I should be saying no, the feeling will compound to dangerous levels and will turn into burnout.

That’s the lesson of the #1 Joy Killer. For those of us who tend to over-commit, we have to watch out. Over-commitment is liable to make our spirit sag on the inside and soon will become obvious on the outside to everyone else. Our great job will turn rote, our execution sloppy and apathetic. It will make us appear under-committed and this is rarely appreciated by our customers or colleagues.

Practically everyone feels over-committed on occasion. It’s a hard thing to admit for lots of reasons. Maybe we don’t want to look like we can’t handle the challenge. Maybe we want the validation of being told we’re doing a good job. Maybe we think that taking on too much is no excuse for dropping the ball.

The key is before you reply with another enthusiastic “yes” to that request, think of the long-term impact it will have on you. Is it right for you in the long-term? Are you just saying what will make others happy in the short-term? And, is what you are about to commit to going to increase the long-term happiness and meaning that you experience in life? Or not? The answers will help you avoid the #1 Joy Killer – over-commitment.