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The assignments we give ourselves

Recently, I complained to a friend that I was annoyed at myself for not finishing a piece of writing I had committed to.  

I’d decided I wanted to get 50 pages done by the end of the month.  This wasn’t done, not even close.  A hundred other things, many more urgent, were vying for my attention and still in the back of my mind I heard myself say: What about your 50 pages!!?  When are you going to get to your 50 pages!!?

“Let me just check on this…” my friend said. “You gave yourself the writing assignment, right?  You’re the assigner?  Can’t you give yourself an extension? Can’t you decide that 25 pages is enough for this month?”


I can move my own deadline?

I can unassign myself a piece of responsibility? 

Like nearly everyone I know, I’m absolutely subject to the ‘should’ goals.

The list of things I should take on runs through my mind regularly:  I should be more consistent with my marketing, I should make more time to stretch, I should keep my files in better order, I should make my salad dressings from scratch, I should read War & Peace, I should give more time to the community.

On the whole, despite the puns about resisting shoulding all over yourself (read that aloud to see what I mean), I'm not about rejecting ‘should’ thoughts outright.  

Yes, sometimes they are mistakenly borrowed from the wrong sources.  And sometimes they signal that something is important to me, or that there is an internal need that needs tending to.  I have to pay attention to that. 

Still, collecting should tasks - these assignments I give myself - can become a mindless habit, something I barely notice I do to myself. 

I know I’m not alone.  Many of my clients shoulder a ton at work and elsewhere in life. A challenge is that they aren’t aware that they have contributed to their own overwhelm through the assignments they have given themselves. 

  • A client who had been planning her exit from a long-unsatisfying role for over a year has delayed her resignation three times because a highly-valued teammate was struggling with the upcoming change.  My client had mentored and coached her employee for a long time, and still this employee, feeling uncertain about her own future, struggled with her boss's departure.  My client stalled, unready to leave this employee in a delicate state. 

Already handling the exit from one job and the transition into a new one, my client has assigned herself more work: “It’s my responsibility to take care of my direct report’s emotions about my career move.” 

  •  Another client came into a recent session with urgency, saying he had a big problem on his hands. His new boss, six months into her role, hasn’t been taking all the consistent, clear advice he’s given her about working with the finance group.  “I keep telling her, they want more consensus than you’re used to, you gotta build the time into your process to talk things out over several meetings - she’s just not listening! What am I supposed to do? I need to get her to get with the culture.” 

This client too has assigned himself more work:  "It's my job not only to share my insights and best support with my new boss, but to insist that she put it into action.”

You see how in both of these cases my clients are going beyond great mentoring and support, teamwork and partnership into taking responsibility for other people’s actions and felt experiences?

It’s another form - like my self-designed writing assignment - of loading ourselves up with things to do. 

Why do any of us do this ourselves, stack homework on an already crammed schedule?

Well, likely for some very good reasons.

In fact, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe these habits aren’t the problem, per se, but are in fact a solution to something else. 

Isn’t it possible that when I give myself a hefty page count per month, I’m attempting to solve my learned need for productivity?  Isn’t it possible that when I assign myself an additional pantry cleanout before sitting down to write, I’m solving my need to avoid the hard, focused work of writing?

Might my client be sparing herself from any guilty feelings from her departure by taking on her employee’s emotional load? Might my other client be managing his fear of change by attempting to control his new boss's actions?

You can ask yourself: What might giving myself this assignment - this extra work -  help me do?  Help me avoid? Help me manage?

  • People pleasing?

  • The perpetual guilt of achievement culture?

  • Fear of the unknown?

  • Our belief that we can take better care of other people than they can of themselves?

I'm all for the idea that we should work hard at the things that matter to us and are likely to give us the outcomes we're looking for in our lives.  It’s ideal if we support our colleagues and teams, and take seriously the impact we have on one another through our actions. 

Still, I’m very aware we have to regard the things on our lists with some discernment.  I know for a fact that there are a number of things on my to- do list that really don't matter, things that I've told myself have profound impact on my life that absolutely do not. (The most important part of that sentence is that I made up their significance.)

I'm betting each of us can take a look at our list and see things we've added to our load, tasks and emotional work, making things harder on ourselves.  We can trim that list.

Tell me: How are you learning to lighten the load?


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