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5 Tips to Avoid Overextending Yourself

Photo by Jon Jacobsen
To overextend yourself is to invite defeat. ~G. William Domhoff

A few years ago, after my husband and I got hitched, we flew to Italy and had a wonderful vacation, and when I got back I volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner for our family and many of our friends. Early that day, my jet lag really kicked in, I was exhausted and couldn’t believe I’d offered to do this. Never again, I thought.

This is probably one of the best times to talk about overextending yourself. The holidays are here, and between shopping, baking, parties, and volunteering there seems to be hardly enough time for a regular work day, let alone exercise, laundry and cooking dinner.

I want to stress that I’m going to deal with general, low-level problems of over-committing ourselves. That is one symptom of what can be a larger problem for some of us. It certainly was for me; about six years ago I was extremely codependent. If you’re interested in more information on that, you can check out Codependents Anonymous’ Checklist.

Regardless of how much you struggle with codependence or taking on too much, these tips can help make things a little easier.

1. Ask for Help

I’ve waited tables for many years, and this was sage advice when I was training someone new. I’ve stressed it often, but it took me awhile to cross it over into my life outside the restaurant.

That time I made Thanksgiving after a whirlwind wedding and honeymoon, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it without my husband doing a lot of the shopping and cooking. And without a word, several people put away all the food and cleaned the entire kitchen and dining room afterward.

If it hadn’t been for them, I’m pretty sure I would’ve had a nervous breakdown.  The thing is, I didn’t ask for help. They could probably just smell my anxiety coming out of my pores. I didn’t even realize it until the next day when I looked at the photos.

Since then, I’ve made an effort to ask for help when I need it. It can be the littlest thing, like asking someone to pick up something from the store on their way to a meeting or to do the dishes after dinner one night.

When you’re feeling like it’s going to be a busy day or week, take a look at what needs to get done and delegate a little bit. Most people don’t mind lending a hand, because chances are you’d do the same for them in a pinch. This isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of wisdom and knowing your limits.

2. Most Things Can Wait

Nothing is so important it can’t wait.

With that last point in mind, there are times when everything becomes much bigger than it actually is. The phrase “mountains out of molehills” comes to mind.

I can be the queen of this, insisting that the bathroom can’t wait another day to be cleaned or the laundry must be done, even though the humidity outside means it’s not going to dry anyway.

I fixate on small problems and make them big. That’s when I have to ask myself, How important is this really?

I also remember this phrase: Nothing is so important it can’t wait. Literally, how many things do we have in our lives that MUST be dealt with right this second? Unless you’re faced with a life-threatening emergency, chances are nothing.

When you’re faced with a day or week or weekend that seems impossible to get through, take two minutes, even though it seems like you may be wasting it, and prioritize what’s most important.

Step 1: Choose three things that must get done that day — those are your A tasks and must be done first. For me this would be meeting a deadline, exercising and make the dip I’m bringing to a party later that night.

Step 2: Then choose three things that are important, but not vital — these are the B tasks and can be done after the As are finished. For me, this would be sending out invoices, getting dinner ready and submitting my novel to a publisher.

Step 3: Finally, look at the rest of your list. These are the kinds of things that need to be done but don’t have a direct impact on your quality of life. For me this would include mopping the floor, getting together with an old coworker for coffee and organizing my email inbox. These get done after the As and Bs are crossed off.

One could argue that most of the stuff I just listed off isn’t really that important, which is precisely why I need to remind myself that it can wait if it has to. That way I don’t freak out about a floor that needs mopping just because I can’t cross it off my list. And by prioritizing like this, you’ll be sure to avoid organizing your inbox while your boss waits for an overdue project.

3. Schedule “Me” Time

Did you notice how I said one of my A tasks was exercise? That’s because it is vital to my physical and mental health. And if my mental and physical state suffers, so does the rest of my obligations. That’s why it’s so important to set aside time for yourself and actually put it on your calendar.

That last part is important. If you don’t set aside time or put it at the top of your list, our needs are easy to shrug off, slowly moving down our list of priorities. Soon we’ll be convincing ourselves that the cup of coffee with an old coworker is absolutely more important than the yoga we’d hope to get done that day.

Even if it was only 15 minutes in your day to knit a row on a sweater or read a magazine article or whatever hobby you enjoy, keep that obligation. Start small and work toward more. Soon you’ll be protecting that space and time, and other people will respect that. It is, after all, yours.

It’s been said to us over and over, but it bears repeating: Who will take care of us if we don’t take care of ourselves? If you spend some time with yourself every day, you won’t feel nearly as overwhelmed and overextended. You’ll also be more likely to respect yourself and not commit to too many obligations.

4. Keep Your Calendar and Set Limits

I was never a huge calendar person; I don’t like planning. I find flying by the seat of my pants to be incredibly exhilarating, albeit a little hectic at times. It was in one of those hectic months, with motorcycle lessons, extra clients, family obligations and travel schedules that I decided to use a calendar. And I haven’t looked back.

My calendar is synched with my phone, my computer and my husband’s, which makes things insanely easy. Many smart phones make this really easy. I realize that many of us don’t have that luxury or just aren’t that tech-oriented.

Keeping a calendar at home or at work is more about creating a habit. Put it in a place you’ll easily see it, like next to the front door or on your refrigerator. If you’ve got something already set up, no need to add another calendar, just use the one you have. Ask your partner or kids to use it too. It’s a great skill to have.

Of course, the calendar can be a killer slave-driver, so the other piece of this puzzle is creating limits for yourself. For me, I only allow myself one obligation outside my regular ones during the work week and one more on the weekend. Everyone is different, but the key here is setting limits and boundaries. You may find you can do more or have to scale it back a bit. Start somewhere.

By setting limits, you’ve set a framework with which to govern your days and weeks. It allows you the luxury of saying to yourself, No, I’m not able to do that without having to make up a million excuses or feel guilty because of it. It may take some time to adjust, and you may make an exception now and again, but you’ll be happier and healthier because of these.

5. Learn to Say No

This, my friends, is the key to the castle.

This simple word keeps you from doing things you don’t want to and keeps those limits you set for yourself a reality. And I’d bet that most of you know it, but maybe haven’t put it into practice as well as you’d like. I know I certainly struggle with it.

Practice saying no as often as possible. If you brought your lunch and someone asks you to join them at the deli down the street, say no instead of thinking I’ll just eat that lunch tomorrow. Get used to the word coming out of your mouth. Get comfortable with it. Imagine yourself like a toddler, just learning the word.

Also, practice living in harmony with yourself. If you feel a certain way, don’t say you feel another. If someone asks you if you’d like to chair an event and you’re not interested, just say “I’m not interested, but thanks for asking.” No harm done.

If you’re not comfortable with saying no right away, try delaying having to answer until you feel comfortable. For instance, if you dislike the confrontational aspect, you could always say something like, “I need to check my calendar but don’t have it on me. Could you email me as a reminder?” Then you could respond via email.

If you aren’t sure about something, don’t agree to it right away. Most people are happy if you need to take a day or two to answer, especially if it’s a bigger project. Be certain to check your calendar before you make commitments; often you’ll forget you have something going on. It can also be an easy way out of something you’d rather not do.

Overextending yourself is not just limited to the holidays of course, but now is a great time to pay attention to what you’re doing and use some of these tips to keep you calm, centered and at peace this holiday season as well as the rest of the year.

* What about you? How do you avoid overextending yourself, not just this holiday season but through out the year to avoid overwhelm? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below. See you there!

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About the author

Rebecca is a fierce optimist who believes in the power of making life happen. After realizing optimism doesn't jive with journalism, she left newspaper to use her writing to help others. Now she coaches folks using writing as a tool. Balance and mindfulness are her latest pursuits, along with exploring her new home, Germany. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter for her latest enthusiastic (and sometimes witty) remarks.

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6 thoughts on 5 Tips to Avoid Overextending Yourself

  1. Great tips!

    I learned the art of saying “no” and meaning it. If I don’t want to do something, I say, “No, thank you.”

    I use my Windows calendar and two hanging calendars to keep me on track. Sometimes, I need to make changes to my schedule. But I need to know ‘where’ I can make a change.

    Life is too short to be overextended, especially around the holidays. I truly hope people will ‘get over the holidays’ and just spend quality time with family and friends without the stress and worry of, “Did I buy so and so the right gift?” Here’s a tip: If your family and friends make a decent living, they can buy whatever it is they want. Instead of waiting until the end of the year to get together, why not have a fun and easy gathering on June 21. It will keep life interesting. :)

  2. Well said, Amandah! I love the idea of doing holidays in the summer, kinda like the Aussies do.

  3. V

    Well said Rebecca! But too bad, I have been overextended myself and I truly hate it. But sometimes, you just need to make your superior happy instead of you, happy.

  4. Great post Rebecca! I couldn’t agree more… The point that resonate with me the most is to schedule “me” time.. Whenever I do this I feel great working because I get a little reward afterwards… I just need to be more consistent about it! thanks again.

  5. Overextended. I can’t say no, but I’ll practice it.

  6. Jorge Blanco

    This is a wonderful article, Rebecca. I particularly like what you said about how some things can wait. We must know which problems or tasks are important and needs our attention first. Also, we must learn when to take a break from trying to solve everything because when we overextend ourselves, we won’t be in tiptop shape to solve anything.

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