True purpose has no time limit. True purpose has no deadline. Don’t stress and overwhelm yourself. Just do what you can right now.
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 recently from a course student named Gale (sharing this with permission):
“…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 Marc 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 baby niece that my sister 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 Marc; 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?” (Note: Marc and I discuss this decision-making process in detail in the “Rituals” chapter of our New York Times bestselling book, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs.)
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.
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 lead-in to the next point…
3. Focus on no more than three core 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 hundreds of people over the past decade, Marc 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. (Note: Marc and I discuss this in more detail in the “Simplicity” chapter of our brand NEW edition of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
Now, it’s YOUR turn…
Marc and I would love to hear from YOU in the comments section.
How full is your plate right now? What do you need to take off of it?
Anything else to share?
Please leave me a comment below.
(Finally, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.)
Great read today, M&A. I totally agree that when we fill all our time with activities (which may or may not be meaningful) we are just spinning our wheels and taking up time that could be used more intentionally. This has been one of my biggest issues, and it’s something your email newsletters and course lessons have helped me with over the past 6 months. And I’m really feeling the progress in my day to day now. So…thank you.
Jose Rivera says
With way too much negative energy out there these days, both in our real life social circles as well as online, it’s nice to be reminded of some best practices for letting it all go and refocusing on what’s truly important. We should all remember to be kinder to ourselves and let go of the needless stress factors that make us perpetually unhappy.
As I have in the past, I want to share a relevant quote from your book, which continues to push me in the right direction:
“Oftentimes letting go has nothing to do with weakness, and everything to do with strength. We let go and walk away not because we want the universe to realize our worth, but because we finally realize our own worth.”
And as for me, right now I need to remove a couple obligations I have that have been stressing me out. I’m getting caught up in going above and beyond in the wrong areas of my life, and letting some of the more important things slip. Thanks for reminding me to get back on the right track.
Most of the time I get confused on what i’m supposed to do I constantly doubt myself ifI am doing the right thing I just don’t want to make a mistake so I drown myself with work. I personally do not care if people take advantage of my kindness since I am also doing it for myself to make me feel good. I don’t know if that makes me weak anyway my intentions are pure but I agree there are some things I need to let go of just need someone to guide me so i think asking for help is not a bad thing i guess i just need to make sure that i actually can do the things i said i would. I dont know if i’m making sense right now
Its true though life is actually simple its just people tend to complicate things.. i am guilty of that. A friend once told me before to get my act together and stay away from negative people and it was a long time ago about 2 yrs ago and until now it stuck in my head. We were not that close but we have had a lot of genuine conversations. I never got mad at him because i know he was just concerned. I wish I had friends like that. Truth be told im not jealous of that friend i actually admire the kind of person he is. I really want to prove my worth but my current situation makes it hard for me to do the things i love to do. I miss the old crazy me carefree and all. Now im too serious
My plate is waaay too full, and it is indeed time to take a few things off of it today. I’m starting by turning in my resignation at a local volunteer group I’ve been working with for over five years. I love being able to give back, but it’s time to give a little back to myself too — at least for awhile. Thanks for this much needed kick in the shorts. Your emails and posts always move me in the right direction. Also, still enjoying watching my videos from you 2019 conference — excellent!
Thanks for writing this!
#2 is so true though.
For the longest time, I’ve been struggling with my agreeable personality because it was so hard to just say no/refuse/reject someone.
It was fine if I had to turn down something without having to face a person but everything changes when I’m speaking to someone.
I’ve learnt a lot along the way and I’m happy to say that I’ve done my fair share of saying “no” when I really needed to!
I’m finding ways to keep myself busy, the work am into takes lot of my time and i think it, is time for me to quit and engage myself into other things. Things i will be happy doing.
Thanks for this wonderful article.
Gái Nguy?n says
I go to Yoga class at 6:00. Jogging from 6-6:15 am. Yoga is 60′ practice, exactly, with the Coach. I work throughout the day until 5:30 pm. I kick the shuttle cock from 5:30-6:00, when it’s getting darker. I get in working, reading on my laptop till now (7:00 pm). I just have one item on my plate, as I have only one to eat each dinner/lunch. Life is so easy.
I have trouble finishing things because I have to farm website development work out to others who seem to either not care or just want to do it their way! I am trying to get two businesses going – one which is my passion and could pay really well and the other which is paying the bills and takes up to 14 hours per day to fulfill. I am also writing a book on the subject of my expertise which could make me good money and satisfy a long-held desire to be published and be an industry disrupter, to benefit the end user and the artisans in central Asia. And now I am trying to develop a Global marketplace website for my area of expertise. I have a daughter who is 12 and happy marriage but I have been overwhelmed and suicidal recently. It ALL seems to be equally important but should I let some things go and concentrate on paying the bills OR dream big? I think I have ADHD as I am all over the place and therefore plan to take a week in Spain to finish my book. I meditate and use your book, as well as reading your excellent daily articles but my fitness and health are suffering. I once read “if you try to make a killing often that will be yourself”! I am trying to follow my passion, pay the bills and spend time with my family but suffer from mental health problems- all this work keeps my mind away from feeling sorry for myself and trying to figure out ‘why me and what IS wrong with me?!’ I love the simple non materialistic life but need to make the money to remove the financial stress we are under and get to our place in the sun to set up an off-grid retreat in Spain in 2025. Your advice to prioritize three things in the morning makes sense but some days it ALL needs attention! I have removed negative people from my life and stopped volunteering with local groups but will start a daily and weekly schedule for each area of my work. Thanks! Just writing this has clarified what I need to do.
I have struggled and continue to struggle with feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes when things are rather fine, I keep on thinking about things that I am supposed to do, or things I did not do as I should have. Thoughts just keep on going in a loop.
I have begun practicing meditation which has been a life saver.
Now I am able to catch my thoughts when they begin to go deep down the dark abyss of negativity and self loathing.
As always, your post is like a ray of sunshine for so many people out there. Thanks for your sincere efforts.
Like the idea of a plate. I am going to look at three plates
1-Constructive Plate- totally positive and its entities and measurable my plate
2-Destructive Plate- stuff eating me no flavour just causing indigestion heading for the garbage. Throw it out .
3- Neutral Plate- stuff that can go onto either plate but only after going through a plate audit on plate to plate to earn its place on plate one or gets discarded not to infect anything on plate one.
The plate idea allows visual substance love it easy to see in front of me face to plate and plate to face no distractions and easy to say this goes, this stays for now and plate one gets the extra helpings of positive support. And the rest just say no because all our plates are getting smothered with everybody’s else’s problem. And to that I say clean your own plates first. as I have mine to look after and police first
I considered myself in a sandwich generation sometimes overwhelming and you keep things in order and even planned it ahead of time so thing will not be crazy as it get.My technique is to make my own diagram in my head or right it down things I need to do…and slowdown. I want my stamina to meet at least halfway of I need to prioritize and the remaining strength need to a lot for myself. At the end it just another day….
Gwen Spain says
I have learned to say No, even to a work opportunity that I turned down, frankly telling my boss that it sounded like a great program but there was no way I could add any more to my workload. This article honestly addresses the need to say No more often to optional and extracurricular activities. But what about the overwhelm that comes when you have no choice? My assistant right now is carrying my load at work while I’m out indefinitely for cancer treatment, with a major annual program coming up for all of June. At the same time she is taking care of her father in law, who has stage 4 cancer, her mother in law who is in poor health, and she is trying to improve her own health issues. Yesterday her own father fell ill again. And she is only 26! She has begged her husband for more help but he will only do so much, and he won’t or can’t take off from work. What advice can I give her?
To Gwen Spain – first of all my sympathy for the dreadful situation. To help your assistant, I’d say your boss needs to urgently buy in extra temporary help whether she want it or not. I was in a similar situation and I resisted it for so long because I need to be in control. But in the end I gave in and we hired someone to take on my least favourite tasks. She doesn’t do it all correctly, which is irritating, but at least she does most of it. Even though I felt like a failure at the time for not being able to do my “whole job” (because I was doing most of my assistant’s job as well) I got over that really quickly when I found it allowed me to do my core job much better. For her home life, there’s no help available from charities of government until you break down. But there may be other avenues – maybe ask her local church for help. If it’s like mine, there will be kind-hearted retired people available and willing to help a stranger. Eg my mum helps with ferrying chronically sick people to doctors appointments and getting their shopping for them, which relieves a little pressure on their relatives. Good luck with your own treatment, and all the best.
good info to read– and excellent if one can implement ——potentially much easier for some than others —–reading what “you” might do, made me laugh—tea with your husband, a long lunchtime walk, quiet time with our son, writing, ready, unwinding before bed—–hmmmmm, how about a single mom of two with a deadbeat dad, and very low paying job, so you work two, taking some classes on line to hopefully improve your station, kids are NOT in extracurricular activities , but still need to clean the house, do laundry, mow the yard, maintenance on the car, help your child who is failing in school and scheduling extra meetings with his teachers after your full workday, do your own homework, go the grocery store, fix dinner, clean up dinner—–I am not making excuses and certainly do appreciate the vain of your stance, and everyone has to pickup where they can, but the atypical day you describe does not lend credence to making someone relate to your advice. By the way, I am not describing my own circumstances, but many others I know personally—-so even if one takes helping someone that is EXTREMELY important to them off of their plate, you also don’t mention how to deal with the emotional fall out you experience when you want to help , say your elderly parents because they depend on you, but you have CHOSEN to wipe them off your plate—please know I am not playing the devil’s advocate, but these are true issues –believe it or not, I agree with all you outline in your focus, as long as one understands their could be true remorse to deal with when eliminating “things and people” from your plate
Dina Canedo says
Thank you for your emails. Every morning, I wake up looking forward to reading your emails, it truly makes my day, it makes me happy and encourages me, just to know that I’m not alone in this, that I’m not the only one. Thank you Marc and Angel, may God bless you.
I think of the Feddie Mercury song where he sings I WANT IT ALL, I WANT IT ALL, says alot of why we are all in a mess, greed and easy credit etc, but we sure are paying for it in more ways than one lv Jacqueline xxx
I really like how Marc and angel always put their tried and tested collective experience out there to learn from. case in point- I had 6 goals to get done today(2 carried over from yesterday) and here it is afternoon and I am reading that I should only focus on 3 things if I want to really do anything exceptionally.. I am on #2, no way am I going to make it through all 6. yesterday I accomplished 4 of my six goals, everyday I have been setting my self up for failure. thanks for reminding me that I am human after all.
You know that makes a lot of sense. Since my illness I’ve been trying to do everything I did before. I need to take some things off my plate and look after myself healthwise. And let everything else fall into place gradually.
Jo-Anne from down under says
some great advice
I had a family who would never accept NO from me. I was always willing to help, but sometimes it became overwhelming. At those times, if I said NO, then they laid guilt on me, bullied me, manipulated me or whatever means it took to get me to bend to their will. I spent so much time doing things for them I didn’t have time to take care of my own things. Then I was put down for letting my stuff get run down. There was no winning. I do not say this in a mean way, but after my family members passed away, my life improved greatly. Ironically, I was left out of the will, and told that I never lifted a finger to help. I’ll never understand that statement. A life like that really drains a person in every way. These days, I live a very calm life. I help friends out, but they accept when I need to tell them NO, and my mind, health, possessions and relationships are great. Life has never been this good. I wish I had run across your website long ago to help me manage when life was difficult, but I am glad I have it now!
I can totally relate I am currently facing the same dilemma except my family is still alive. Sorry for your loss by the way. But for me i help because i genuinely like to and i dont expect anything in return no regrets as they say.sorry you never got to prove your worth to them that you need to let go of as long as you never gave up trying. I am so different from them but i understand too they didnt get to see the world as much as i did. In fact i think they will never understand but i will take that as a challenge. You’re lucky to have constant friends as for me i dont really know if i can trust any of them. Im left in the dark all the time. I realized now i should not apologize to them. You can only rely on yourself dont worry about the inheritance make a mark for yourself thats the best gift u can give to yourself. I could be wrong but i feel like youre hurting. Its ok not to be okay sometimes even superheroes have their weak moments. Just keep it real wish u well… ps the good thing about friends unlike family is that we can choose who we want to be friends with this time lets choose wisely 🙂
Hey! I am a big fan of you guys. Just wanted to acknowledge the fact that you guys are doing great and spreading some valuable thoughts. I have been through a rough phase lately and was feeling miserable but this concept of clean plate. WOW. Thanks for the help.
Great article. It’s somewhat of a luxury trap. We agree to new obligations, begin new projects and direct our behaviour because we feel our lives will be bettered in an imaginary future payoff. But we rarely consider that the extra work spawns even greater responsibilities, locking us into our new level of living.