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.