“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.”
We all have days, weeks, months and – for some – even years of feeling anxious and overwhelmed with the work we have yet to do. It’s an elusive feeling that aches from deep within. From the outside, people think you have it all together, but they can’t see what’s going on in your head. Stress fills your thoughts and emotions all too often, nagging at you throughout the day. You have so many things to do and they never seem to get done. You always feel a day late and a buck short. The pressure is intense and overwhelming.
Consider an email I got today from a reader named Gale:
“…the older I get the harder it is to feel peaceful and successful. I’m a wife and a working mom of two, and the thing is, I know I’d feel happier and more effective if my family and I didn’t have so many extra curricular obligations. But we do. I have a weekend job where I teach and lead a youth group my daughter is enrolled in, I help my husband coach our son’s soccer team, I lead a prayer group at my church, and the list goes on and on.
Right now, the only way to get everything done is to sleep less and hustle more, but I’ve noticed that I feel sick and can’t really do things well when I haven’t gotten enough sleep. And I want to take care of my health as well, so I’ve been sleeping eight full hours for the last few nights. And inevitably, now I’m terribly behind on everything again.”
I can relate all too well, because that’s exactly how Angel and I felt before we started simplifying our lifestyle. We were being pulled in dozens of different directions every day and never had enough time to get everything done. Naturally, we wanted to do a great job with each obligation we had, and somehow we had convinced ourselves that we could do it all. But the reality was we were stretched way too thin, and thus we were doing a lousy job at everything and completely stressing ourselves out in the process.
So to Gale, and to everyone else who feels this way, here’s the harsh truth you’ve been avoiding:
You CANNOT do it all. Your plate is too full. You have to let some things GO!
Unless you want your health to decline and your stress to continue to skyrocket, you must start doing three key things:
1. Decide what you would put back on your plate if you could wipe it clean.
Our lives get incredibly complicated, not overnight, but gradually. The complications creep up on us, one small step at a time.
Today I order a few things on Amazon, tomorrow someone gives me a birthday present, then I get excited and I enroll in a free giveaway at church… and I win, so then I decide I need a new six-foot cabinet to store my growing pile of stuff. One item at a time, the clutter builds up in my space, because I keep adding new things without purging the old.
And the cycle continues in all walks of life too…
Today I say yes to a Facebook party invitation, tomorrow I say yes when a neighbor asks me to help him move a couch, then I get asked to a quick lunch meeting, then I decide to volunteer at my son’s youth group. One yes at a time, and soon my life is too busy and complicated and I don’t know where I went wrong.
And because I’m feeling stressed, I distract myself…
I read a couple articles on CNN.com, then I flip over to social media, then my email, and then I check my phone and watch a video of my nephew that my sister-in-law texted… and soon another day is gone, and I didn’t get anything done, and my life gets eaten away one little bite at a time, and I feel overwhelmed with what’s left undone.
How do we protect against this vicious cycle?
We have to take a step back on a regular basis and reevaluate what we have on our plate and why.
Instead of thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s too much on my plate!” … let’s ask, “What if I started over again with a clean plate?”
What would you do if your schedule was empty? If your plate were completely clean, with limited space, what would you put on it today?
For me, I might add some quiet, focused writing time; play time with my son; exercise time and tea time with Angel; a long lunchtime walk and a good afternoon talk with an old friend I haven’t spoken to in awhile; a couple short activities that matter to me and make a difference to others; reading and learning time; and time alone to think, meditate and unwind before bed.
Those are the things that I’d put on my clean plate (and now those are the things I DO have on my plate) because they feel right to me.
What would you choose to put on yours?
Once you’ve figured that out, you know what belongs on your plate. And now you just need to constantly look at invitations and activities and requests and tasks that pop up, and ask: “Is this one of the things I would choose to put on my clean plate?”
And to help reinforce your decisions, you need to…
2. Learn to say “NO” when you don’t want something new on your plate.
Saying yes to everything puts you on the fast track to being miserable. Feeling like you’re doing busywork is often the result of saying yes too often. We all have obligations, but a comfortable pace can only be found by properly managing your yeses. So stop saying “yes” when you want to say “no.” You can’t always be agreeable; that’s how people take advantage of you. Sometimes you have to set clear boundaries.
You might have to say no to certain favors, or work projects, or community activities, or committees, or volunteer groups, or coaching your kid’s sports team, or some other seemingly worthwhile activity.
I know what you’re thinking – it seems unfair to say no when these are very worthwhile things to do. It kills you to say no. But you must.
Because the alternative is that you’re going to do a half-hearted, poor job at each one, be stressed beyond belief, and feel like you’re stuck in an endless cycle of failure and frustration. You won’t be getting enough sleep, your focus will get worse and worse due to exhaustion, and eventually you’ll reach a breaking point. (Read The Power of Less.)
So remember, the only thing that keeps so many of us stuck in this debilitating cycle is the fantasy in our minds that we can be everything to everyone, everywhere at once, and a hero on all fronts. But again, that’s not reality. The reality is we’re not Superman or Wonder Woman – we’re human, and we have limits. We have to let go of this idea of doing everything and pleasing everyone and being everywhere at once. You’re either going to do a few things well, or do everything poorly. That’s the truth.
And that’s a perfect segway to the next point…
3. Focus on no more than three things every day.
You might have more than three things on your plate, but that doesn’t mean you should try to chew on them all at once. In fact, in a perfect world you’d find complete focus and do only one thing well for a prolonged period of time. You’d pick one really important item from your plate, say no to all the rest, and focus on just this one thing. This might be a project at work, a family obligation, or a charitable cause … but just one thing. You’d learn to do it well, you’d improve more and more every day, you’d serve people exceptionally with your masterful skill, and you wouldn’t be stressed out with juggling obligations.
However, that’s not the way life works. In most cases we can’t pare things down to one thing, so that’s why you pick two or three. After coaching thousands of people over the past decade, Angel and I have found that the average person can do two or three things well every day, (and one thing really well). With two or three focuses, you won’t be as concentrated, won’t learn as deeply, but it’s doable. With four or five focuses, you won’t do anything well or learn anything deeply or serve anyone exceptionally. And you will be stressed out.
So start paring down to two or three things: Wake up every morning and figure out what the most important two or three things are for the day, and cut out the rest. Be ruthless. Address your other obligations right then and there, and tell the associated people that you really want to help, but your plate is full. You can’t serve them well today, so regretfully you must say “no.”
And when you’re down to two or three things, it’s best to give each some allotted time. So a few hours for one, and then a few hours for another, etc. Instead of being in a stressful task-switching state of mind, just take your next task, let everything else go, and just be in the moment with this one task for the allotted time.
Do this, and you will notice a difference.
Because life is not complicated. We are complicated. When we stop trying to doing everything at once, life becomes simple again, and we become successful again, one sane moment at a time. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Simplicity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
How full is your plate right now? What do you need to take off of it? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.
Photo by: Colton Witt