A phrase I have personally grown to love, and at times dread, is the one that Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin coined in 2011 during their Back to Work podcast. That phrase is “expectational debt”. Put simply, it’s the act of “writing checks your person can’t cash” (there’s a more colorful metaphor that can be and is often used for this, but I think you understand what I mean 😉 ).

Expectational Debt is tricky, because it is very easy to get into, and it is almost entirely emotional in nature. Financial debt is when you have to borrow money to purchase something you want or need, and it invariably involves a financial contract, or in the simplest sense a “personal agreement” where the money owed will be paid back. It’s very tangible. Technical debt is what happen in software all the time, when we have to make a shortcut or compromise on making something work in the ideal way so that we can get a product out the door, with the idea that we will “fix it later”. Again, it’s also tangible, in the sense that we can see the work we need to do. Expectational debt, on the other hand, is almost entirely emotional. It’s associated with a promise, a goal, or a desire to do something. Sometimes that desire is public, sometimes it is private. In all cases, it’s a commitment of the mind, and a commitment of time and attention.

I know full well how easy it is to get myself into Expectational Debt, and I can do it surprisingly quickly. People often joke that I have a complete inability to say “no”. That’s not entirely true, but it’s close enough to reality that I don’t protest. I enjoy learning new things and trying new experiences, so I am often willing to jump in and say “yeah, that’s awesome, I can do that!” With just those words, I am creating an expectational debt, a promise to do something in the future that I fully intend to fulfill, but I have not done the necessary footwork or put the time in to fully understand what I am taking on. Human beings, in general, do this all the time. We also frequently underestimate or overestimate how much these expectations matter to other people. Something we’ve agreed to do could be of great importance to others, or of minor importance. It’s also possible that we ourselves are the only ones who consider that expectation to be valuable. Regardless of the “weight” of the expectation, they all take up space in our head, and every one of them puts a drag on our effectiveness.

Before I offer my solution, I need to say that this is very much something I’m currently struggling with. These suggestions are what I am doing now to rein in my expectational debt. It’s entirely possible these approaches will be abandoned by yours truly in the future, or determined not to work. As of now, they’re helping, so I’m going to share them.

Identify your “Commitments”

Get a stack of note cards, or use an electronic note file, or take a 365 day single day calendar, whatever method you prefer, and sit down and write out every promise you have made to yourself and to others that you have every intention of fulfilling. Don’t just do this for things in your professional life, do this for everything you intend to do (family goals, personal goals, exercise, home repairs, car repairs, social obligations, work goals, personal progress initiatives, literally everything you want to accomplish).

Categorize Your “Commitments”

Once you have done this, put them in a priority order. I like to use the four quadrants approach Steven Covey suggests in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Those quadrants are labeled as follows:

I. Urgent and Important

II. Important but Not Urgent

III. Urgent but Not Important

IV. Not Urgent and Not Important

My guess is that, after you have done this, you will have a few items that are in the I category (Urgent and Important), possibly a few in the III category (Urgent but Not Important), and most will fall into Categories II and IV.

Redouble or Abandon Your “Commitments”

These are questions you need to ask yourself for each commitment:

– Why do I think it belongs here?
– Will it be of great benefit to me or others if I accomplish the goal?
– Is it really my responsibility to do this?
– If I were to not do this, what would happen?

This will help you determine very quickly where each of the items fall. Most expectational debt will, again, fall in categories II and IV.

For your sanity, as soon as you identify something that falls into Category IV (Not Urgent and Not Important), tell yourself “I will not be doing this” and make it visible. Yes, make a list of the things you will NOT be doing.

Next is to look at the items that fall into Category III. These are Urgent but Not Important, or perhaps a better way to put this is that they are Urgent to someone else (and likely Important). They may not be important to you, but another person’s anxiety about it, and their visible distress, is making it Urgent to you. It’s time for a conversation or two. You have to decide now if you are going to commit time and attention to this, and figure out why you should. Is it because you feel obligated? Is it because it will solve a problem for someone else? Is it because you’re really the only one who can deal with the situation? All of these need to be spelled out, and in most cases, they should be handled with a mind to train up someone else to do them, so that you can get out of the situation.

The great majority of things you’ll want to do, and want to commit to, will fall in Category II. They are Important, but they are not Urgent (if they were Urgent and Important, you’d be doing them… probably RIGHT NOW!!!). Lose weight for the summer. Learn a new programming language. Discover and become proficient with a new tool. Plan a vacation for next year. Read a long anticipated book. Play a much anticipated video game. These are all items that will, in some way, give us satisfaction, help us move forward and progress on something, or otherwise benefit us, but they don’t need to be done “right now”. Your goal here is to start scoping out the time to do each of these, and give it a quantifiable space in your reality. I believe in scheduling items that I want to make progress on. In some cases, getting a friendly “accountability partner” to check in on me to make sure I’m doing what I need to do is a huge incentive. A common tactic that I am using now is to allocate four hours for any “endeavor space”. I also allocate four hours in case I need to “change tracks” and take care of something else. This may seem like overkill (and often, it is), but it’s a shorthand I use so I don’t over-commit or underestimate how long it will take to do something. Even with this model, I still underestimate a lot of things, but with experience I get a bit better each

This of course leaves the last area (Category I), the Urgent and Important. Usually, it’s a crisis. It’s where everything else ends up getting bagged for a bit. If you ever find yourself in an automobile accident, and you are injured, guess what, your getting treatment and recovery rockets to Category I. In a less dire circumstance, if you are the network operations person for your company and your network goes down, for the duration of that outage getting the network to work is Category I.

I hate making promises I can’t keep, but the truth is, I do it all the time. We all do, usually in small ways. Unless we are pathological liars, we don’t intend to get into this situation, but sometimes, yes, the expectations we place on ourselves, or the promises we make to others, grow out of proportion to what we can actually accomplish. Take the time to jettison those things that you will not do. Clear them from your mind. Make exit plans for the things you’d really rather not do, if there is a way to do so. Commit to scheduling those items that provide the greatest benefit, and if at all possible, do what you can to not get into crisis situations. Trust me, your overall sanity will be greatly enhanced, and what’s more, you’ll start to develop the discipline to grow an expectation surplus. I’m working towards that goal, in any event ;).