Does this sound familiar to you at all?  A senior manager is asked to create a presentation that will be delivered during a meeting with the CEO next week.  This manager will not be at the meeting.  She is given some basic guidelines and an aggressive deadline.  She spends hours of her days, nights and weekends getting it right.  After the meeting with the CEO, the manager asks her boss, “how did the presentation go?”. 

Her manager pauses as his mind searches through hours of memory to find the meeting and the presentation within it.  “Oh, that.  Fine.  Thanks for helping with that.”  

Her first reaction is probably that her boss is inconsiderate and unappreciative.  But if this happens frequently, it is time to learn how to stop overpreparing.  

Why We Overprepare

As a coach who works primarily with women in leadership, I have noticed overpreparation to be a common pain point among my clients.  While anyone can become prone to overpreparing, it seems that it is a problem more acute among women.  

This makes sense to me.   Research shows that women value preparation more than men.  Therefore, it makes sense that women may lean further into preparation during times of stress.  

But the cost of overpreparation is steep.  We overly associate success with preparation. As the stakes of our careers get higher, so then must our preparation, we believe. Prepare longer.  Worry more.  The time lost to overpreparation is bad enough.  But it also gobbles up your precious energy and hungrily demands more preparation to feed it.  Stress, anxiety, burnout, and overwhelm quickly follow.  

Overpreparation is a habit that developed over time.  But as the saying goes, “what got you here won’t get you there”.  It is time to approach your next prep session differently.  

Three Ways to Combat Overpreparation

Limit the contingencies you cover.  It is impossible to plan for every potential outcome.  Yet, that is just what many of us unconsciously strive to do in our preparation.  Instead of preparing for every possibility, focus on no more than 80% of what might happen.  When you experience anxiety about the unknown, ask yourself “what is the worst that can happen?”.  Then, follow that up with “how likely is that to happen?”  If it is unlikely to happen, do not put your contingency planning efforts in this space.  

Get to the underlying reason you are overpreparing.  Are you overpreparing to address something that is giving you anxiety—say, you are presenting to a cantankerous executive?  Rather than trying to overprepare in every way, think about how you typically respond to this behavior and focus on how to handle it differently.  You are not going to be able to change someone else’s behavior.  You can only anticipate their behavior and prepare your response accordingly.  

Set multi-level metrics for success.   For any major stretch goal or high-stakes delivery, set three levels of goals.  The first level will be the tangible outcome you want.  Example: “I want at least three conversations to lead to sales.”  This is your desired outcome.  But it is totally out of your control.  

And so, we create a second metric: “I will deliver a powerful argument.”  This brings the scope of the goal back to yourself, and things you can control, to a degree.  You can go on to define what a powerful argument looks like to you, and lay out specific preparations that will help you get there.  

Finally, there is a third goal, always, and deeper and richer than the first two.  That third and final goal always is “I will learn from this experience.”  

This third metric may sound like a consolation prize in the event that you fail, but imagine for a moment that you rose to the challenge of a high-stakes deliverable, it went great, and you learned…nothing.  In the end, learning that will help you grow is all that matters.  And that is very much within your control.  

Finally, a word about group overpreparation: Often, a team must collaborate to create a presentation.  For example, a group of leaders must create a presentation to share with the CEO for the annual budget or strategy process.  Individual tendencies toward overpreparation can entrain others until an entire group of people is trapped in the cycle.  If you become aware that the group is overpreparing—whether by your own tendency or someone else’s—speak up.  Think of the thousands of salary dollars wasted as multiple senior leaders pour time and energy into this task.  You can help the group by asking questions like:       

  • Which contingencies are most likely?  Let’s prepare for those first.
  • What do we know about what the audience will want to see?  
  • What can we do to learn more about what we don’t know and focus our planning accordingly?

Learning to reduce prep time becomes more critical as you advance in your career.  The payoff is exponential, as it saves not only time but energy as well.

Wendy Hultmark, CPC, ACC, is a coach who helps women leaders get what they want from a career they love. Learn more at