How Small Business Owners End Up Undercommitted To What Matters Most

Last year, I took a part-time job as the head setter at my climbing gym.

(That’s the person in charge of bolting the plastic rocks to the wall and overseeing the creative process of coming up with new things to climb.)

I had a bunch of misgivings about taking the job—the time, my skill level, my ability to build a team of climbers & setters—but I was drawn in by the challenge. And, if I’m honest, I also really liked the fact that the gym felt they could count on me to do the job.

I decided that I would do the job until I couldn’t and then I’d pass the torch.

In the beginning, I had a blast setting up systems, recruiting & training new setters, and doing the work.

But when the reality of the job set in, things got tough.

The reality was that I had to deal with a ton of opinions—these routes are too hard, these are too easy, too technical, not technical enough. I also had to deal with the challenge of managing an unpaid labor pool (highly problematic). And, I had to deal with the fact that I had turned a hobby I was passionate about into a thankless job.

In other words, when things got hard, I realized just how undercommitted I was.

Now, overcommitment is a problem I think we’re all familiar with.

We say “yes” to too many things. We pack our calendars full of life and business commitments. We pin our hopes on doing it all.

We’re fried and frazzled from just trying to keep up with our commitments.

We’re stretched beyond our capacity.

I also want to acknowledge here that our decisions are not the only factor limiting our capacity. Racism, sexism, ableism, and the very real wrench-in-the-works that is the pandemic put limitations on our capacity through no fault or action of our own.

All of that—plus an economic system that gives out empty praise for overextending yourself—creates our overcommitment problem.

And that brings us back to undercommitment.

Undercommitment is an equal-but-less-talked-about problem.

Undercommitment welcomes self-sabotage and leaves things half-done. It’s what makes us stumble when we run into small challenges and what makes us quit when we run into bigger challenges.

Undercommitment is the gap between our vision or goal and the resources we have to make it happen.

I was undercommitted to my job as head setter. Why? Precisely because I had overcommitted myself.

I didn’t have the capacity (time, energy, mental bandwidth) to lead myself through the challenges. I had a vision for how the job could be—and even how I could be great at it—but I didn’t have the resources to make that vision a reality.

(Note: undercommitted is different than uncommitted. I was committed—just not committed enough to lead myself through the hard part.)

Overcommitment and undercommitment are two sides of the same coin.

The more we overcommit ourselves, the more likely we are to undercommit to the important things we’re trying to tackle.

We’re committed—but lack the uncompromising commitment to devote the necessary resources to navigate the inevitable challenges that arise.

And because we’re undercommitted to our ideas, projects, and strategy, we end up subconsciously hedging our bets by continuing to overcommit to more.

It’s a nasty cycle!

A nasty cycle that is not all “our fault.” This isn’t something to feel bad about or judge yourself for. It’s something you can take responsibility for examining and changing.

The alternative to this hamster wheel of overcommitment and undercommitment is uncompromising commitment.

Making an uncompromising commitment to an idea, a strategy, or even a short-term project requires you to intentionally step out of the overcommitment-undercommitment cycle.

Uncompromising commitment means saying “no” enough that you can finally, fully say “yes.”

It also means getting clear on what you’re already committed to because it’s not just the new projects or ideas that limit our capacity. It’s all of the other stuff—our existing clients, our families, our hobbies, our self-care, as well as all that systemic and cultural stuff—that limit it too.

Fully committing to an important idea or project requires a complete assessment of your capacity and a willingness to acquire the necessary resources (time, money, mental bandwidth, emotional bandwidth, etc…) so that you know you can navigate the challenges that are headed your way.

Uncompromising commitment also asks us to reexamine and reassess on a regular basis.

You can do that today pretty easily by considering the project you’re currently working on and asking:

How would I behave differently if I had an uncompromising commitment to this project?

There’s a very, very good chance that there’s something you would shift.

I ask myself this question on a regular basis about each project I’m working on and I can still find things that I would do differently!

Once I identify those things, I can ask myself why I’m not doing them—and if the problem is a lapse in my commitment, I can recommit to the project, adjust my behavior, and continuing working the plan.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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What Type of Goal-Setter Are You?

I've explored goal-setting and planning with small business owners, creatives, and independent workers for over 12 years now. That means I've observed many different types of goal-setters. Some confidently choose a new goal and get to work. Others rebel against...

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