Today’s episode is the one you’ll want to pull out and press play on next time you find yourself in this situation.
I mean – definitely listen in today, but you’ll want to remember this one next time you find yourself in this spot.
What spot? Well – we’ve all been there at some point or another. Me? I was there very recently so this is fresh on my mind.
Overbooked. Too busy. Overwhelmed.
Too much on my plate. Too many yeses and not enough no’s. An overflowing calendar and not enough time in the day to make it all happen. Spread too thin. And no amount of coffee can help you feel more awake or alert. Running on fumes.
So how do you deal when you’ve got too much on your plate? That’s exactly what I’m sharing in this episode, because I’m on the other side of it and lived to tell the tale.
The fact is – we can all run into the trap of having too much on our plates – even time management coaches like me who know all of the rules and recommendations about prioritization and choosing your best yes. It’s easy to get excited and jump at new opportunities that sound good. It’s easy to say yes when you know someone is in a bind and counting on you. It’s hard to say no when you feel guilty if you don’t help. It’s also hard to say no when someone makes you feel like you’re the only one who can do something.
And here’s what makes this episode different from any other episode where I’ve talked about Overwhelm – like Episode 90, all about doing a mind sweep, for example.
This is about the overwhelm that hurts. The exhausting and exasperating kind of overwhelm, when you’ve basically got no choice but to buckle down and get to the other side of it. The desperation kind of overwhelm.
And let me be abundantly clear – I am not advocating or encouraging you to get to the place. But I know it happens, so here are some steps for working through it if you find yourself in a desperate overwhelm situation.
So today, we’re talking about
- The very first thing you should do when you realized you’re overcommitted and overwhelmed
- How to politely take things off your plate once you know what should say and what should go
- I’m also sharing my best tips for buckling down and getting it all done when you’ve really got no other choice
- And finally, we’ll talk about how you can avoid getting overcommitted in the future.
Let’s be honest, we’re human – it will probably happen again. But maybe we can take some steps for it to happen less often.
It happens all the time. We get really excited. We say yes to a lot of amazing opportunities. We add something to our calendar. Then something else. And before we know it, our planners are bursting at the seams with meetings, appointments, phone calls, coffee dates, luncheons, Zoom meetings, committee meetings – you name it, it’s on your calendar.
I find that this is beginning to happen to us more and more as the world is opening up in this stage of the pandemic. I mean, the pandemic certainly isn’t over – but as this episode goes live in March 2022 – two years after all this started – it seems like we’re in a breath-of-fresh-air kind of place (in the United States, at least) and the invitations are beginning to pick up. Even during the times in which we weren’t out and about socially, we still very much had the ability to find ourselves overbooked by committing to too much at work, or taking on too many volunteer responsibilities or creating too many projects for ourself at home.
I get it. I’ve been there. You get an invitation. You get an opportunity. You see the potential, and so you say yes – or maybe you feel obligated to say yes to something. Joining a committee, volunteering or taking on some role or responsibility with your kids’ school. Sometimes its saying yes to an opportunity to grow your business, to learn something new, to take on a new project at work.
Whether you’ve said yes to a lot of things you want to do, or a lot of things out of obligation – or a combination of both – the end result is the same. You’re feeling overbooked. Overwhelmed and feeling like your work/life balance is totally out of whack. You’re exhausted. And you know that something has to change. Something has to go, because the way you’re living and trying to do all the things is not sustainable.
So what can you do when you’ve already said yes?
You’ve already committed. You’ve already paid the tuition or signed up or told your boss or signed the dotted line?
People are relying on you, and it’s not like you can just wave a magic wand and clear half the things off your calendar. Although, thought would be nice.
If you’re a Marvel movie nerd like I am – you know, the Avengers movies? Then you know about Thanos and the snap. Basically Thanos was a bad guy, and with the snap of his fingers, he made half of the population of the entire universe disappear.
So, since we can’t snap our fingers and make our commitments disappear – that’s just not the way this works.
Instead, clearing your calendar and getting some relief – or getting through it means taking a very critical look at your calendar. Looking at what you said yes to in order to figure out what to do next.
So let’s dive in.
Step 01: Admit that you’re overwhelmed. Which can sometimes be the hardest part.
When you’re feeling overbooked and too busy, your fuse is shorter. You’re more likely to snap at your kids, or your significant other. You’re more likely to be hard on yourself, to have negative thoughts because you don’t have the space you need to decompress. You don’t have adequate time to rechange, because all of your time has been spent revving up instead of recharging.
So now that you’ve admitted that you’re overwhelmed, it’s time to do something about it. You’ve recognized that not only do you want to do something about this, but you have to do something about it, because you’re not showing up as your best self.
So now that you recognize that something’s gotta give, it’s on to step two.
Step 02: Make a list of all of the moving projects in your life.
So what is a moving project, or a project in motion, as I sometimes call it? A moving project is anything in your life that is taking up a substantial amount of your time and energy, that requires multiple steps to complete.
You’ve probably heard me talk about the difference between a project and a task before, especially in Episode 27 about the mistakes we make with our to-do lists.
But in a nutshell, a project requires multiple steps to complete, and a task requires one. Projects have multiple tasks. And again, a task is just one.
And a moving project is a project that you’ve started. Maybe you’ve done the first step. That’s enough for it to count as a moving project. Maybe you’ve got one step left. That’s still a moving project.
So let’s start making that list of moving projects. We’re going to start with work, because these are probably going to be the ones that are most obvious and jump you to you.
What are your current moving projects at work.
This could be categorized by the different projects you’re managing, or projects that you’re supporting. You could categorize your moving projects by accounts or clients if you’re generally doing one major thing for each client. If your client work is a bit more complex, you might have multiple moving projects per client. You might have recurring projects, thinks you do each week or every other week. One of my examples is Clockwise Office Hours. Every first and third Wednesday of the month I host a free time management workshop and Q and A session. (Linked below in in case you want to join!) Office Hours is one of my moving projects.
I also want to add here that studies have shown that when it comes to work feeling overwhelming or unsustainable, it’s not necessarily because you’re working too many hours. Too many hours can definitely cause feelings of overwhelm – but not always. Instead, that feeling of unsustainability has less to do with the number of hours and more to do with the number of different projects you’re working on during those hours, or the number of different aspects of a project you’re working on if it’s an especially complex project.
So if you’re working 40 hours a week, but you’re splitting those 40 hours between 12 different clients or 17 different projects, you’re likely not making enough progress in any one area to feel like you’re moving forward in a substantial way. So you constantly feel like you’re inching along with all of the projects – PLUS – every time you switch from project to project, or you try to multitask to get more done, you’re actually making it worse! Every time you switch back and forth between one of those 17 different projects – and I just pulled that number out of the air, there is no magic number, but every time you switch back and forth, you’re doing something called context switching.
I talk about context switching in Episode 44 about multitasking, but basically every time you switch, there’s this thing called Attention Residue that kicks in. Every time you switch from project A to Project B, part of your brain is actually still thinking about project A. That means you’re not able to fully commit your attention to Project B and you’re losing focus, you’re losing productivity and you’re getting frustrated that you aren’t making more progress than you think you should be making.
So the more projects you’re switching between, the more overwhelmed you can feel as a result.
I was talking a while back with one of my new time management coaching clients – we’ll call her Meredith. Right off the bat, Meredith shared that she felt so overwhelmed at work. She felt disorganized and all over the place. So much so that she wanted to leave her job. So I asked her to give me a rundown of all of her current projects to get an idea of what was on her plate, and I discovered that she wasn’t using a project management tool, or a Google Doc or anything to keep a list of her current projects in motion. Now, a big part of that was the company’s fault for not having an organizational system in place for their team. She was doing her best.
But not only was she switching from project to project, she also didn’t have any way of keeping track of what she was working on.
On day one, I encouraged her to grab a whiteboard, a piece of poster board – something to capture all of her current moving projects and keep it where should see it. She came up with a list of about 12 different projects that were currently in motion.
And that’s what I encourage you to do. Make a list of all of your current projects.
Whenever we talked again, Meredith said that just having her moving projects visible on a white board was a huge game changers because she was able to look at each project name each day, check the status and have more peace about where she was progressing with each project. She said that having a visual reminder of all of the different projects increased her awareness about the different things that were taking up her time.
Until Meredith stopped to make a list of her moving projects, she wasn’t able to make a solid decision in any given moment about the top priority, because it wasn’t clear what all of the different options were to prioritize!
Sometimes making a list can make all the difference.
Once you’ve captured all of your work projects in motion, move on to your house projects and personal projects.
Things like renovating the bathroom or your volunteer committee responsibilities. Are you planning a birthday party, an engagement party, a baby shower, a fundraising event. Are you currently planning a Disney trip or a vacation. Are you researching elder care options for an aging parent or helping one of your kids research colleges.
This one is sort of the intersection of personal and professional, but are you considering a new job or considering grad school? Are you taking classes or an online course?
Sometimes we might realize we’re totally overwhelmed, even though things are fine at work – and then realize that our total overwhelm is coming from all of the unfinished personal projects in our life. They can really add up in a big way. Again – it is totally normal to be completely overwhelmed by things you actually do want to do!
Ok – so we’re making a list of all of those moving projects. Which – by the way, this feels a little bit like a mindsweep – like I talk all about in Episode 90. But it’s a mindsweep for your projects instead of every little thing ever.
So now that we’ve done step 2 – we’ve got our list of all the moving projects. It’s time for step three.
Step 03: Prioritize.
First, We’re going to clean up the list and make sure it’s divided up by work and personal. Chances are you’ve got a lot more control over your personal projects than your work projects. And that’s why we’re starting with the professional side, because you’ve probably got less control there.
Let’s be real – if you’ve got a 9-to-5 and your projects are assigned to you by a boss, we’ve got to approach that much differently than we would if you were a business owner choosing your own projects. But – sometimes even when you ARE a business owner choosing your own projects, you’re stuck and you have to make it all happen.
We’re working with the assumption here that you can’t offload anything. That you’ve got to make it all happen because it’s too late to automate, delegate or eliminate.
This is where you’ve got to get ruthless.
What are your priorities and what are your deadlines.
Anything without a deadline automatically goes to the bottom of the list. Remember – we’re not just planning a regular week – we’re working through overwhelm. Then, look at what’s left.
- Rank your current moving projects in order of the most recent deadline.
- Then, start with the most urgent deadline.
- What are the steps involved for you to reach that deadline?
- Then move on to the next project.
- What steps are involved for you to reach that deadline?
Chances are you may need to incorporate other people, possible levels of approval or coordination – which can affect how long something will take you.
Once you’ve got an understanding of the steps it’s going to take you to accomplish each project by the deadline, I’m going to task you to take another look and see what you can cut or compress.
When you’ve got to get it all done, perfection is going to be your worst enemy and prioritization will be your best friend.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted. The clock is ticking, so what’s absolutely essential to getting the work done. You’ve got to trim the fat and get super realistic about what’s possible at this point. If you wanted to add sequins or have three different people review it just in case, or add an extra chapter – now is not the time to go above and beyond.
No, I am not recommending you do bare minimum work all the time. Absolutely not. I believe that you should work with integrity. But sometimes when things come down to the wire, you’ve got to be honest with yourself about what’s possible vs. what’s necessary.
Step 04: Now that you’ve considered your overbooked and too busy professional projects, let’s look at the personal side.
This is likely where you’re going to have a lot more control over what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time.
So – scan the list and see what can go. I know this is going to be painful, but you’re overwhelmed, remember? You’re not living your best life right now – not even close. You’ve got to get some relief so you can show up better in the places that matter most.
Let’s start with cutting out obligations that are nice but not necessary.
An example: volunteer positions.
I know how painful this can be. Several years ago, I was asked to chair an important committee for a major fundraiser. In fact, it was the sponsorship committee. This fundraiser made a huge difference for a cause I cared about, and the role would look really good on my resume, too. I was supposed to coordinate donations, signage, write letters, it was a major time commitment. And right after I said yes to this role, I was promoted to a new position at work that required long hours and travel.
For a while, I tried to do both, but I was failing at both. So I had to make a call. I called the race coordinator, and said something like this:
Hi Ms. Angela,
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to serve as the sponsorship chair. It’s an honor that you’d consider me for such an important role. Unfortunately with my new role at work, I’ve found that I don’t have the time to dedicate to being sponsorship chair and I’m unable to give the fundraiser the attention it deserves. I’d like to recommend that Kristen take over the role. She would be a great fit. Although I’m unable to serve as sponsorship chair, I’d love to help out with the race in a smaller capacity on the day of. Is there a volunteer opportunity available that could be a good fit?
If you find yourself in a place where you need to step down, express gratitude for the opportunity, share that you’re unable to give it the attention it deserves, and suggest a solution – whether it’s someone else to step into the role, or another possibility. Then, if and only if you truly have time available, ask if you can support in a smaller capacity.
Again – I know how hard it can be, but if you’re truly overwhelmed, consider the fact that you are not serving the organization, the role or whatever it is – if you’re half-assing it, showing up flustered, showing up late, or not being fully present in your role.
Ok – so we’ve looked at the obligation projects on our personal list.
What’s left is probably projects you want to do.
Birthday party planning for a kiddo, or a project for your house.
If you’re halfway through a bathroom renovation, it’s really hard to just press pause when you’re missing a toilet. And you’re not exactly going to cancel your kid’s birthday party.
So it’s time to ask for help.
Asking for help can be almost as hard as stepping down from an obligation. Sometimes we don’t like to admit that we need help. We want to be seen as the super women, super people we are that can do it all backwards and in high heels. But if you’re overwhelmed, and you’ve got it get it done. And you can’t cancel it or step down, you’ve got to ask for help.
Maybe asking for help looks like ordering a downloadable printable kit from Etsy instead of designing all of the cute signs and labels and gift tags for your kid’s birthday like you wanted to. Maybe it looks like asking a friend to pick up balloons, or pizza or run to Target because you just can’t right now.
Leaning on others when you’re overwhelmed doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human, and it makes you determined. So ask for the help.
So now that you’ve created timelines to meet your work deadlines, and you’ve stepped down from obligations, and you’ve asked for help where you can – it’s time to make it happen.
Again – I know you’re tired. You just did a lot of mental gymnastics to make it all work.
Here’s what not to do next.
- Don’t overdo it on coffee to fuel yourself to the finish line. You’ll just end up jittery and it’ll be difficult to focus.
- Don’t stay up late working AND get up early the next morning to get it done. If you’ve got to squeeze in extra hours for work, pick one or the other, but not both. Sacrificing your sleep multiple nights in a row to get work done is going to catch up to you and you won’t be able to process your thoughts or make decisions effectively.
- Don’t forget to drink water. Staying hydrated will help you keep your energy up when you’re feeling low.
- Don’t keep it all to yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overbooked and too busy – tell someone you love. Tell a friend. Let someone support you and cheer you on as you’re working through it all.
While our to-do lists will probably be neverending, and there will always be another project and a next project and a project after that – this rough time will pass. You will get to the other side and you will feel that relief and you’ll be able to breathe.
Once you make it to the other side, you’ll probably vow never to end up in that situation again. And I don’t blame you. It’s no fun!
So here’s how you can do your best to avoid it next time.
Know your vision for the future.
When you know what you want out of life, it’s easier to know whether something fits into that vision.
Know your core values.
When you know your values, it’s even easier to know what to say yes to and what to say no to. Plus, you just feel it in your gut.
Know your goals.
What are you working toward right now? In what direction are you heading? And this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed it could be from having no goals or too many goals. Try to keep it between 2-3 big major goals, and no more than 5-7 at a given time.
Ask a trusted friend to keep you in check.
Whether you talk with your best friend about how you’ve overcommitted. You talk to your mastermind group about the predicament you were in. Talk to someone, and ask them to keep you accountable to limiting your yeses and saying no thank you to opportunities that don’t fit with kindness and gratitude.
Links & Resources Mentioned in Episode 115
- Episode 90: Because Brain Dump Sounds Gross: Meet The Mind Sweep – A Better Way To Clear Your Head Without Making A Huge Mess
- Episode 27: 5 Reasons Why Your To-Do List Isn’t Working
- Episode 44: Get More Done With Multitasking. Just Kidding! Multitasking Is A Lie! 5 Strategies For Being More Focused Than Ever
- Clockwise Office Hours
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