How To Stretch Your Limits Without Over-Extending Yourself


stretch your limits

Have you ever felt like you’re being tugged on from every direction? The boss needs 3 things from you right now, your friends need another 6, your peers are asking for 4 more – and your family… wow… you can’t even count the number of things they want from you.

It’s that overwhelming feeling of being over-extended coupled with the fear of being so stretched that you won’t be able to do a good job on any of the tasks.

It happens to everyone… with the possible exception of people who don’t take on many challenges. So to a degree, if you can relate to that over-extended feeling, you should probably give yourself some credit for being a go-getter.

But why do we get ourselves into that type of situation? Why do we find ourselves overwhelmed again and again?

1: We live in a fast-paced, multi-tasking world.
Living in that environment, it’s easy to get in the habit of taking on more and more to keep up or get ahead.

2: We like to help.
Most people, when asked to help someone, honestly enjoy stepping up and lending a hand.

3: We are, by nature, beings who want to say yes.
Deep down, we have an aversion to… even a fear of… saying no to others. We’ve been taught that nice, helpful people say yes. Saying no makes us feel uneasy and uncomfortable.

It’s better to be busy and in-demand than it is to be bored and unknown, but there’s a point where too many irons in the fire can turn on you and become counter-productive. Even harmful.

Why You Need To Be Your Top Priority

If you’ve been on a commercial airline flight before, you may have noticed the flight attendants say…

In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will fall from the compartment above your seat. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you and place it over your nose and mouth; place the elastic band over the back of your head; tightening the straps if necessary. It is important that you secure your own mask before assisting others.

Why do they say that last part about putting your mask on first?

To encourage selfishness? Because it’s every man for himself at 30,000 feet?

No. It’s pretty simple, really. If you are flying with someone who needs your assistance to survive in that situation, you are no good to them if you’re not taken care of first. If you pass out from lack of oxygen how can you help a small child, an elderly person, or someone who needs physical help get the oxygen they need?

They need you to take care of yourself first so you can help them.

You have to be in a good place to help others. Period.

Stretching Your Limits vs. Over-Extending

Nothing good comes easily. It’s absolutely necessary to stretch your limits by taking on more challenges and re-defining what is possible. There’s a big difference between stretching your limits and over-extending yourself.

Stretching your limits has to do with trying new things, destroying boundaries, and being outstanding. Over-extending is more about taking on so many things that you no longer have the capacity to do a good job at any of them.

The Very Definition of Stretching Limits Without Over-Extending
The best example I can think of that perfectly defines the difference is the story of how super blogger Leo Babauta of Zen Habits created one of the world’s most popular blogs while working 2 jobs and remaining attentive to his wife and six children.

“It took some dedication and focus, and I made some sacrifices of my free time. Other projects took a backseat. It’s not easy … But it is tremendously rewarding” – Leo Babauta

Through discipline and (surprise!) good habits, Leo was able to carve out time for each of those very important areas of his life without letting any of them suffer. Leo is the living definition of stretching limits without becoming over-extended.

Now if his job performance would have slipped, or he paid less attention to his family during that time, there could have been all kinds of negative consequences. But instead of becoming over-extended, he found a way to make it all work spectacularly.

What To Do When You Do Find Yourself Over-Extended

When things get hectic and you feel like you’re herding cats, you need to pause and reflect. Realize that in order to be outstanding, you need to find a way to stretch your limits without becoming over-extended.

If you feel your work suffering, there are a few things you can do to cut yourself a break and help make your work load more manageable.

Know Your Magic Number
Multi-tasking is fine. In fact, it’s probably closer to mandatory these days. Just know how many projects are too many projects. Understand that if you take on too much at once, you’ll turn out a large volume of mediocre (or worse) work rather than a moderate amount of outstanding work.

Schedule a “do nothing” day occasionally. I know it sounds weird – but give it a try. Take a day to shut down your email, let the computer go dark, shut off your phone… and just be.

It’s hard for me, too. But once in a great while I still force myself to set a day aside for nothing – and I always come back with more focus, clarity and energy. Try it.

Become Known as a Connector
I know you want to help others. So do I. But again – you can only be useful to so many people at one time. If you don’t want to flat out say no to someone who needs help, refer them to a stellar resource. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’d love to help with that, but I’m over my head right now. However, let me put you in touch with Michelle. She’s fantastic!”

When you refer and connect people, you still help. In fact, you wind up helping a greater number of people. As a bonus – you will begin to earn a reputation as someone who is well connected and a great resource.

Practice Guilt-Free Negativity
Technically, no is a negative response. But contrary to every impulse in your subconscious mind – saying no does not make you a jerk. If you can’t refer someone elsewhere to help solve their problem, there is nothing wrong with politely saying, “Rick, I’d love to help you out with that. I really would. But I am so over extended right now, I wouldn’t have the time to do the project justice. I’m sorry.”

Then rest easy knowing that you gave an honest answer, you just increased Rick’s chances of getting more attentive help elsewhere than you can provide at the moment, and you just increased the amount of time and focus that you can give to all your current projects.

How Will You Be Remembered?

I don’t know what it is about us as a species that makes us feel guilty when we can’t say yes to everything, but it sure seems to be a problem we all share, doesn’t it?

Just remember that at the end of the day, it’s the quality of your work that people will remember – not the volume of tasks that you juggled. To be known for quality, keep your projects to a manageable number, refer excess projects elsewhere, and learn to politely say no when it all gets to be too much.

How do you manage your work load? Share your tips and stories in the comments section.



About Gary Korisko

Gary is a battle-tested sales and marketing pro, copywriter, coach, and business strategist who teaches how to create worthwhile work on Reboot Authentic. Connect with Gary on Google+ and Twitter.

32 Replies

  1. Quinn Askeland

    Great post Gary. I find outsourcing has been extremely helpful in managing my workload. Nothing quite like waking up in the morning to see the things that I dislike or don’t make the business money – done. Even with VAs I still regularly take full days off – often randomly when I feel like it. Such is the awesomeness of working online BUT we always have to remind ourselves or be reminded – Thanks Quinn

    1. Thanks, Quinn. I understand. For me it took a bit of self-coaxing to do it since it was so out of character. i enjoy it every now and then now 🙂

    2. Chloe Slone

      I love this article as it really hits home. I think all of us, who are self employed, have over extended ourselves many times over, and it is stressful. I like some of these tips on how to unwind to ensure you get some you time. It is necessary!

  2. Gary, you are absolutely right – we are remembered by the quality of our work. That is a good point to remember when you have to say no. I have to say I have been bored number of times with the security speeches when flying. So far I have been thinking there are people who might fly for the first time and really it is for the security reasons, listen and don’t get disturbed. Now I can think of oxygen masks as a reminder of human nature. You made my next flight more pleasant experience. Thank you. (shared this in twitter)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ava. And the Tweet! I fly a LOT, so I tend to notice things about the whole process. I’m kind of a nerd that way I guess.

    2. Thanks for the comment, Ava. And the Tweet! I fly a LOT, so I tend to notice things about the whole process. I’m kind of a nerd that way I guess.

  3. L C

    “Schedule a “do nothing” day occasionally. I know it
    sounds weird – but give it a try. Take a day to shut down your email,
    let the computer go dark, shut off your phone… and just be.” This is the whole point of the Fourth Commandment in Torah, and in the Old Testament of all Bibles. It’s not just a Jewish thing, although Jews claim the responsibility. I’m not talking about religion here, not really. I’m talking about the bedrock truth that humans were designed to take a break from worldly work in order to refresh their eternal souls each week. Yes! It’s a cure for burnout, too! Honestly, since I’ve been experimenting with setting aside time on the Sabbath each week my whole life has changed.

    1. Wow. Thanks, LC. I had no idea that my post was biblically sound! Bonus! I’m glad to hear it’s working for you. A little peace really does help refresh and clear the mind, doesn’t it? Good to see you here.

    2. Wow. Thanks, LC. I had no idea that my post was biblically sound! Bonus! I’m glad to hear it’s working for you. A little peace really does help refresh and clear the mind, doesn’t it? Good to see you here.

  4. Niece piece Gary. Solid advice.

  5. As usual, good advice here, Gary. I often ask my clients, “What do you want on your tombstone? ‘Here lies Gary. He met his deadlines’?” There’s a huge difference between getting everything done and getting some things done well. And I hope the latter are things that really count in life.

    1. That’s a powerful way to put it, Bobbi. Thanks for sharing that. And forgive me if I steal it in the future. 🙂

  6. Make lists, make lists, make lists! Marking things off lets you see how much you are accomplishing. A written list (or one in your phone) with deadlines in the margin helps you prioritize. And if a client or friend is pressuring you to do a project, show them your list! Schedule your ‘do nothing’ days on the calendar. Find an empty day and put “NO” on that day in big red letters. When someone asks you to do something, you can truthfully say, “The calendar says ‘no’.” Great post Gary; one we need to hear over and over.

    1. I like that idea of putting a big “NO” on the calendar. Thanks for sharing that, Jeanne!

  7. Leo is a good example… except he’s also smarter than most, had better training than most, etc…. He’s an insane dude. Back when I was working corporate I tended to… well I was going to say over-extend myself, but I never let my quality slip, so I guess I was stretching limits, according to your definition.

    I’m pretty good at being efficient, so stress from overwork isn’t a problem until I challenge myself (e.g. setting a crazy deadline and then making a bet that if I don’t get it done, I’ll donate $500 to charity). Which I do happen to do, because I think that’s the best way to trigger growth. I manage the stress…. by exercising, laughing, organizing and staying on track. The worst is falling behind and then feeling guilty/worried.

    I’m wondering, what makes you say it’s quality and not volume that people will remember? Looking at most of the ‘stars in a variety of fields, you see that they produce both high quality, and also high volume.

    1. Thorough thoughts, Amit. I can always count on you!

      I say the quality is remembered more than quantity because it’s been demonstrated so many times. Edison held 1300 patents – but how many can we name? The high volume of his not so great inventions doesn’t matter to us because his “winners” were so amazing.

      Eli Manning has played in hundreds of football games. The ones that get mentioned the most are the 2 Superbowl wins. We don’t hear commentators saying how great he is because he’s played in 800 games.

      The Oscars celebrate outstanding single performances – not bulk number of performances. (An argument could be made for lifetime achievement winners – but mathematically there are few of them)

      I don’t mean to say that volume doesn’t matter. It does. It’s just that quality is more easily remembered and celebrated by the human mind.

      Thanks for making me think! Like I said… I can always count on you 🙂

      1. As soon as I clicked “post” I thought of an even better example, Amit.

        I happen to like your style of writing and enjoy your posts. But this one stands out among them all to me:

        It’s not that the others aren’t good (they are), it’s not that I didn’t “get” them (I do)…and it isn’t because you’ve written a lot of them (you have). But that one is my favorite and lives forever in my Evernote. It’s the one I remember when I think of Amit. make sense?

        (by the way that post will be in my next Best of The Web)

      2. No problem, Gary! Now I’m about to get off topic… but thought you might be interested. In response to the examples you mentioned, there’s convincing evidence that in many of those cases, it’s because of volume that quality was born.

        Let me explain – in one study I can’t remember the name of, composers were analyzed. I don’t recall how quality was measured, but the results were that on average, famous composers produced work of the same quality as less famous composers. But because they produced so many works, because they rolled the dice so many times, triple six was much more likely than someone who tried just a few times. I’ve seen similar results with researchers (average citations of superstars of each paper almost same as normal people, but because they produce so much work, it’s ‘bound’ that eventually, they’ll produce gold). I want to say likewise with inventors, but I might be making that up.

        So basically… if you want to produce quality, become a workaholic. Of course, that’s not really true, unless you’re going for greatness, like Edison and Manning.

        1. I don’t think you’re off topic at all.

          That book that I rave about endlessly – The Medici Effect (also in the sidebar for purchase) says the same thing. Their research supports the fact the best way to come up with a brilliant idea is to come up with a lot of ideas. (But it’s not a guarantee of a great idea)

          Volume does not necessarily equal quality. But it *can* lead to it. Too much volume can also lead to low quality work.

          I wish there were more absolute answers to life’s questions… but so far I’ve not cracked the code to absolute truth. (But it’s sure interesting to discuss)

  8. Jim Bessey

    Great post, Gary — and some very helpful feedback here in the Comments, too!

    I’m often over-extended and my results show the strain. My best days happen when I focus on one key goal — even if I do allow myself a bit of multitasking along the way. This morning, for instance, I hit our household to-do list hard and felt great about that. Then I opened just one tab in one browser and worked on a single post until I could safely click Publish. That felt pretty good, too!

    You are entirely right that we all should consider scheduling do-nothing days. That’s why I go camping. No TV, spotty internet service, fresh air, my family, and a good book. For me, that’s first-rate recharging. Can’t wait to get out and light this year’s first campfire, come to think of it.

    Thanks for another highly useful post, Gary. 5 stars!

    1. Hey Jim. I’d be interested in hearing how you choose just one key goal and how you balance it with other smaller ones. I ask because I’m sure you have more than one thing that needs to be done – and I’m curious how you prioritize.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Jim Bessey

        Thanks for asking, Gary.

        Actually, I suck at prioritizing! I’m a very curious person and love learning, so I’m easily distracted by a great headline or a new article from a writer I respect.

        I’ve been trying to keep my inbox at less than 100 “unread” messages (I know how that sounds…), so I usually start with email. While the goal might be worthy, in practice this doesn’t work well. There is ALWAYS something new to read, a message from a friend, or an interesting discussion — all distractions that can eat up hours in the end.

        I do have a To-Do list, which helps me visually sort things and prioritize — and also helps me “not forget”!

        One thing I can do well is a project that can be completed in less than 3 hours. If it’s something that matters to me, and I’m determined to finish it today — then I can zoom in, stick with it, and ignore all of the other distractions long enough to get there. Doing the final edits and hitting Publish on a new post is one such situation!

        On the other hand, having the discipline to make 3 solid hours’ progress in a long-term project that’s days or weeks from completion … that’s where I fall short and get discouraged.

        1. Prioritizing can be rough. I’ve heard that every day you should trim off the “bottom” 10%. It sounds logical, but when the fur starts flying it’s a lot harder to practice than it is to theorize about!

          Thanks, Jim.

  9. I think you know very well what is going in my life. ha ha !! Kidding.

    Gary, this is one the thing which always distract us from being motivated and directed. There are too much things happening around us that we cannot control all as well as get them done on same time.

    So priorotizing the thing is the only remedy which is helping me to make my things done on time.

    1. Exactly, Kulwant. Do the important things (the ones that produce the most results) first and trim away the unproductive busy work. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Priska

    Leo from Zen Habits has been my mentor in organizing my day. He advocates getting up early and doing your ‘most important thing’ first. Then the next MIT etc. I have followed his advice by working on my main projects in blocks of time one at a time. In between I assign 10-20 minutes to less important things like emails and social media.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Priska… and nice to see you here!

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