Resolutions or Revolutions?
January is often a time when we find ourselves looking around at the aftermath after a busy holiday season, taking a deep breath, and vowing to not let it get that stressful again.
After all, we started the season off maybe with some fall decorations in October or November, and perhaps finding joy in the changing of the seasonal décor. Then kids had parties at school, offices scheduled events and outings, sports were in full swing, and the next thing we knew we were talking about where we were going for Thanksgiving and heading to the store for the third time that week to make sure we bought all of the groceries we needed. With hardly time to blink, the décor changed, the weather changed, and we were in full to-do-list frenzy. A time of peace and joy often ends up anything but that. We stumble out of it dazed after being tossed around by the tornado of stress and overwhelm.
Overwhelm creeps into life slowly, mostly unnoticed at first.
The new year comes, and we have a chance to catch our breath. We decide to make plans for how we will care for ourselves better and not end up repeating this annual pattern next year. Then as the holidays draw near, we try to get organized. We plan. We set goals and objectives and maybe even use fancy planners. When we start to feel unable to keep up, we tell ourselves the lie that we should just work more efficiently...or harder...or longer, and then we can be the person who checks off everything on their to-do list and can finally get to that place of peace and joy. Working harder wears us out even more, and we think we’re failing. And then...we find ourselves dazed and stumbling out of the path of the tornado once more.
When you get to the point when you know that working longer and harder is not the answer, you need a different approach to overwhelming to-do lists that never seem to get done.
Dear friend, can I offer you some encouragement? You are not failing at this. It's not a case of needing to work harder or longer or even smarter to avoid stress. Stress will always be a part of life. You don't need a different planner. But perhaps you do need a new tactic - one that comes with its own list...a not-to-do list.
Let's start with an ordinary to-do list. You've got one in your head right now. What is on your plate for the coming week? Write it down, line by line.
Now we're going to start crossing things off.
Step 1. What's not your responsibility?
I like to use a concept from Henry Cloud and John Townsend (authors of Boundaries, which I highly recommend) called "Backpacks and Boulders." They define backpacks as our set of personal responsibilities that each person carries for themselves. For typical adults, this would be our responsibility to feed ourselves, bathe, pay our bills, maintain our space, own our responsibilities, and apologize for our mistakes. Boulders, on the other hand, are those things that we come upon in life that we are not able to carry on our own. Life boulders are an illness when we can no longer physically carry our backpack, a sudden tragedy, the death of a loved one.
We are responsible for ourselves; we are responsible to others.
One of the ways we often get ourselves mired in overwhelm is that we forget that we are responsible for ourselves (for carrying our own backpacks) and responsible to others (for seeing when they are facing boulders and being part of a supportive community). We get into trouble when mix those two up, thinking we are responsible for others and start to take over carrying their backpacks. Here's what that might look like on your to-do list:
Run up to school because your youngest forgot his cleats for after school practice.
He had to sit on the sidelines during practice and will now be extra motivated to remember his cleats. It was hard to watch your son learn a hard lesson. Remind yourself that you are training him to carry his backpack, which is the most loving thing you can do as a parent. He is more likely to remember them now, saving you additional trips in the future.
Look up employment opportunities for your teen and fill out applications because she needs a summer job.
With a little guidance on where to start, your teen learns how to search for jobs herself. She feels proud of herself.
Carrying someone's backpack harms them and frustrates you. When you start collecting backpacks on your journey of life, they don't develop their muscles to carry their own load. Then, if you burn out and can no longer carry their backpack, you'll probably get frustrated, end up chucking it at them while yelling how they don't appreciate you, and they will suddenly be carrying a load that feels very heavy and awkward to them because they haven't had the opportunity to strengthen their muscles in carrying it.
If you are carrying other people's backpacks, perhaps it's time to gently hand those back to them and encourage them as they start to carry it again.
Step 2. What's out of your control?
The Circle of Control is one of my favorite visuals to help draw a line between what you can control and what you can't. Looking at the graphic, you can see that you are responsible for owning your behavior, what you say to others, and what you allow in your space (backpacks). You are NOT responsible for (nor do you have control over) what other people say, what they want from their lives, what they believe, and what they think (their backpacks).
How much emotional effort do you put into trying to control what others think about you? Can you really control what they think? Can you enter their brain and rewire their neural connections? You can influence it, of course, but the choice is theirs. How much effort do you put into getting people to do what you want them to do? Can you cause their muscles to contract and relax? You can influence them through your behavior, but you cannot control theirs. Remembering where your power is - what you control - and using that instead of expending energy trying to do the impossible is another way to reduce your sense of overwhelm. Cross those things off your list.
Drama among friends means you now have to meet with them separately for coffee instead of your weekly coffee date.
Continue your normal coffee date schedule and let your friends work out their problems themselves. Whoever shows up, shows up.
Send a list of volunteer opportunities to your neighbor who is always complaining about being bored.
Next time you are spending time with your neighbor, share about a great experience you had volunteering and leave the rest up to her.
Step 3. What drains your energy?
When I was in the MBA program, one lecture stood out to me above all others. As we grew close to finishing up and earning the degree, a professor said to us that we had spent the last two years learning all about the many aspects of running a business. We had been taught about managing supply chains, organizing finances, investing, marketing & competition, human resources, sales, international law - all the things to go into running a successful business. Then the professor said to us, "You are really only going to be good at about two of these things. Get to know what you do really well, and outsource the rest."
If you want to be successful, learn what you do well; outsource the rest.
We don't naturally turn to outsourcing when our resources are tight. Sure, everyone would love to hire someone to clean their home, pay their bills, detail their car, mow their lawn, watch their kids, and pick up after the dog. We would live like royalty!
There are some responsibilities that we can outsource at times. If you've had a day of nonstop running, and you know there isn't time to cook a meal before ushering the kids off to soccer practice and you're kicking yourself for not "being a better parent" by preparing dinner the night before, cut yourself some slack. You're not an expert in everything, and it's unrealistic to think you would be. Outsource the cooking to McDonald's that night.
Are you overwhelmed by household chores piling up? Show yourself some compassion (I promise you that Pinterest-worthy homes are only found on Pinterest and when someone has spent the last 24+ hours exhausting themselves before you come over). Then recruit several people (your kids, hire a neighbor's kid, etc.) and do it together. Many hands make light work.
But the real secret to preserving your energy is a concept I call giving your Best Yes. You are entrusted with a limited set of resources. And like I said, when resources are tight, we decide we have to do it all. Interestingly, you don't. A wise businessperson manages their resources well and doesn't overspend. You have an emotional bank account. Manage it well. There are always consequences when you overdraft your account.
Consider that one of your resources is time. You have a limited number of minutes in the day. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts a survey that measures the average amount of time that Americans spend on typical daily activities. For 2021, here are some of the results:
If you're skilled at math, you might have noticed that a person who spends the average amount of time on each one of these activities is living well beyond their means when it comes to minutes in the day. So if you're trying to do all the yardwork that your neighbor does, cook meals like your mother always did, make sure you wear the latest fashions like that woman at work who's always to put together, well...you're going to need a time machine. If you find one, please send me an email on how I can get in on that, okay?
For those of us without a time machine, here's the solid truth: you cannot do it all. Now you might be tempted to cut out hobbies, socializing, and exercise, then cut back on sleep, promise yourself you'll stop binge-watching that new Netflix series. But I would caution you on that strategy. You need rest. You need play. You need socializing. Studies show that rest and refilling yourself make you more productive. If you just run the machine, making your brain grind away at the tasks of life hour after hour without a break, you accomplish less, you feel worse, and your physical and mental health suffers. Keep the hobbies. Keep the friends. Keep the exercise. Ditch the guilt.
If you cannot do it all, you're going to have to make hard decisions. Just because something is good for you to do, doesn't mean it's good for you to do right now. So focus on only saying yes to what you can willingly say yes to. When you find yourself volunteering to help with something begrudgingly, you aren't doing anyone any favors. You may think you are because it seems like no one else will step up, but if you can't come at it with a willing heart, you can end up coming at it with bitterness or resentment. That's not a good way to show love, that doesn't build relationships, and it doesn't improve mental health. Say yes to the things you can willingly say yes to, guarding your emotional bank account, and say no to the things you cannot. Cross those off your list. Leave space for someone else who can give it their best yes to step in.
Find a recipe on Pinterest & buy the groceries before dinner.
If meal planning stresses you out, give yourself permission to have that easy dinner you served 3 times last week or do drive-thru on the way to soccer. Try ordering groceries through an app so you don't spend time shopping and perhaps buying things you don't need.
Even though you really don't have time, you are organizing the school carnival again this year because no one else knows how to do it and they really need you.
You couldn't give the carnival your best yes so you guarded your resources for your family. No one stepped up to run the carnival but a 1st grade mom suggested a new fundraiser and gladly gave it a try.
Vacuum, fold the laundry, clean out the garage, sell outgrown clothes online.
Budget whatever time you can give during the week for these projects - perhaps 1 hour a day. Whatever doesn't get done can wait until next week. Perhaps you can outsource the garage to a neighborhood teen for some extra cash and just donate the clothes so they don't eat up your emotional resources.
The beautiful part of this is that when you make space for a best yes, you can give some very beautiful yesses. It opens up the opportunity to bless others in loving ways that benefits them AND refills your own soul in the process.
Now that you've crossed some things off your list, hopefully what's left looks a lot more manageable. Those are ideally just the things that belong in your backpack.
Schedule dentist appointment
Start a gardening hobby that you've been wanting to do.
You find the time outdoors refreshes you. Your husband sees how happy it makes you and starts joining you by doing yardwork nearby. You get time to reconnect as a couple.
Sometimes we get so used to carrying such a heavy backpack, we don't realize how much it's weighing us down. It can be helpful to share your list with another person and get their insight into what extra weight you might be carrying. You might consult with someone who seems to be good at knowing what to pick up and what to leave, or you could consult with a therapist who can provide some specific guidance on how to make the changes that can benefit not only, but those around you as well.