When life is filled with obligations that leave us feeling overwhelmed, do we have a choice? Can we make a change?
When life seems overwhelming, do we have a choice?
In recent months, I’ve received a lot of emails and seen many Facebook posts from women who are feeling overwhelmed and asking for ideas about how to manage it all. Women are talking about long lists of commitments, obligations, and responsibilities, and there is a feeling of “I can’t keep up.”
Many of these also follow a theme of “I have to do all of these things.” I hear comments such as “I want to stay home and be with my family (or build my own business), but I can’t quit this job because we need the money.” Or “My boss expects me to do all this stuff so I'm working long hours but can't keep up” or “My family expects me to do these things so I have no time to myself.”
I’ve thought and said some of these same things, so I definitely understand those feelings. The recent conversations got me wondering how many of us feel this way — that we are trapped and there is no way out? How do we end up in this situation? Is there a better way to live?
How did we get here?
When we are in a situation that feels unsustainable, the first step to finding a way out is understanding how we got there. There could be any number of reasons behind why we end up feeling overloaded and overwhelmed.
For many of us it’s difficult to say no. We want to be liked and be seen as a team player. We want to be a “can-do” person, and be a supportive friend/spouse/coworker.
Maybe we've taken on too much simply because we have a sincere desire to help.
Whatever the reasons we end up in this position when we feel we have too much to do, Michael Hyatt’s post, “5 Reasons You Need to Get Better at Saying No”, offers some great insights on why saying no, when appropriate, is so important. (We've also discussed in on previous episodes of The Productive Woman podcast.)
Questions to help evaluate our circumstances
Sometimes we feel trapped in a situation of overload because we simply don't see any options. We feel like this is the way life has to be–isn't everybody's life like this?
It is possible to create a path out of the overloaded, overwhelmed life. Doing so requires some honest evaluation of the facts of the life we're living.
Whether the issue is a job that takes more time than we want to spend working, or a schedule that keeps us running sun-up to sun-down (and beyond), answering some basic questions can help us see what options are available to us:
- How much money do we actually need to live?
- Can we change our lifestyle to reduce that number?
- How many “necessities” are we paying for that we actually could live without?
- Is our lifestyle being dictated by the community we live in or the people we associate with (i.e. “keeping up with the Joneses”)?
- What do I want—really?
- Do I want free time, or do I want luxuries more… or a certain lifestyle? Or prestige? Or the admiration of our friends? Or status in the community?
- Do I want a quieter, more peaceful life, with time to pursue interests and relax? Or do I want a feeling of accomplishment — or a feeling of being indispensable? Sometimes we won’t let other people do things because part of our identity is in being the efficient one who gets stuff done for everybody.
There are no right or wrong answers. Awareness is simply the starting point for making choices that better suit us.
How am I really spending my time?
Whether or not our job is an issue, if we feel like we’re overwhelmed by obligations and expectations and therefore can’t do the things we really want to do, then we need to take a clear look at how we are spending our time — really. Track it for a week and then evaluate the results. Ask yourself, “Of the things I’m doing, what’s really necessary?” Deliberately choose what can be set aside or deferred until later, delegated to others, or deleted altogether. We can choose.
Options for regaining some of your time
We can then ask ourselves, “What resources are available? What can be delegated?”
If you have more money than time, consider buying yourself some free time by using services (whether regular or special-occasion) such as a housecleaning service, meal services like Hello Fresh, or meal planning services like the one Michelle Pfennighaus offered on a recent TPW episode or PrepDish. As an alternative, find another like-minded woman and trade off cooking for both families. Maybe each of you cooks 3 meals, enough for both families, and you trade portions, so you both end up with 6 meals, or something along those lines.
Choose tasks to defer. Are there things you can set aside for this season (not forever)? For example, maybe now is not the time to be a regular classroom volunteer at your children’s schools. Perhaps you can find another way to contribute.
Let others help. I've heard many women who feel overloaded say they have to do all the tasks they're doing because “no one else can/will do it.” That might be true. Or it might be that we hesitate to let go of a task because others won't do it the way we want it done. We sometimes want to control the outcome or we want to feel necessary. This brings us back to the earlier question: What do you want? Do you want free time, or do you want to maintain control over everything in your world? Can you relinquish control enough to allow others to take over some tasks and do it their own way?
Decide what help you need, and ask for it–unequivocally. Sometimes when people feel overburdened at work, they say they’ve asked for help to no avail, when in fact maybe they've only hinted at it rather than asking in a straightforward way. Mentioning that “it sure would be nice to have some help” is not asking. It’s hinting and hoping someone will take the hint and do something.
The best way to get the help you need is to communicate clearly with those around you, both at home and at work. Think about exactly what help you need. Exactly which of the many obligations do you want relief from? Be very clear in your own mind about what you want, develop a plan, and ask for help.
Our life is ours to make
At the end of the day, the life we’re living is the result of choices we make to act or not act.
American writer Graham Brown has said, “Life is about choices. Some we regret, some we’re proud of. Some will haunt us forever. The message: we are what we chose to be.”
We always have options. We might choose not to take them because we don’t like the consequences, but that in itself is a choice.
“You always have options. Always. And that doesn’t mean you have ideal options. It doesn’t mean cutting ties with your brother or foreclosing on your house or taking a different job with fewer benefits are perfect options, but they are options. You have a choice and you are making it. Always.” (from “Are you Choosing your Circumstances? Or Are You a Victim of Them?”)
We are not helpless, powerless, or at the mercy of the world. We are making our lives, every day, by each small choice we make, whether intentionally or by default. As Michael Hyatt has encouraged us to remember,
“[B]laming our circumstances or other people — even when they are partly or almost totally responsible — only makes us victims. It robs us of our freedom and keeps us stuck. There is a better way. Change is possible. It can begin today. You don’t have to stay stuck in the state you are in. But first, you must own your specific situation and take responsibility for the choices that led to it. Only then can you begin to create a different future.” (from Your Life Is the Sum of Your Choices)
This article really spoke to me. In the same post, Michael quoted a Twitter exchange about something he planned to do, but didn’t: “I almost said, ‘I was too busy,’ but I realized I choose how busy I am and what I give my attention to. I own my life.” Is that as powerful for you as it is for me?
I do want to make it clear that in saying these things I'm talking to and about adults. I realize that this idea that our life is the result of our choices could be interpreted as insensitive to those in terrible circumstances far beyond their control — extreme poverty, terrible abuse, and more — whose choices seem incredibly limited or even non-existent. I in no way want to trivialize the challenges many of us face in trying to build (or rebuild) our lives, the obstacles many people have to overcome on a daily basis. As one writer has said, referring to people in difficult circumstances, “Are these people also products of their decisions? Yes… but where I had the freedom to make good decisions, they have been forced to decide between bad and worse, just to survive” (from “Am I a Product of My Decisions or Circumstances?”)
I get this. I understand that things happen to children, for example, that are not their choice. The things I’ve said here don’t apply to children who are at the mercy of their parents. Things we do not choose happen to ua even as adults. But even so, I do believe that those of us who are adults have choices. Always.
This writer continues, “Circumstances filter the options from which to decide. But, creativity gives us the power to see beyond our current circumstances and limitations.”
Like this writer, I'm not insensitive to people in dire circumstances, but even the greatest challenges can be experienced differently by taking on a different mindset: recognizing that we have power in our lives rather than feeling like victims.
Actions and answers
The way out of a life of overwhelm is within our control. That's not to say it's easy or simple, but it is within our power to choose.
We should make intentional choices, then own those choices (even if we feel like we have only bad options to choose among). Psychologist Dr. Amy Johnson, author of Modern Enlightenment: Psychological, Spiritual, and Practical Ideas for a Better Life, offers advice about looking at those circumstances in our life that are less than ideal:
“First, examine the payoffs. Anywhere you are less than thrilled in life, look at the payoffs that are keeping you there. Sometimes the payoffs are obvious. Other times they are less clear. And many times, they are unexamined and due for some re-evaluation. . . . Make sure the payoffs are yours, and make sure they are truly worth whatever you are putting up with. After you’ve examined the payoffs, sit with the reality that you are choosing them. Again, your less-than-ideal relationship or job or city may be the best choice among a bunch of crappy options. That happens. But even when that’s the case, you can remember that you’re choosing it because it’s the best option you have available right now. You’re not a victim — you’re an empowered person making a choice among crappy choices.” (from “Are you Choosing your Circumstances? Or Are You a Victim of Them?”)
Owning those choices and being aware and being intentional is one way of dealing with this.
Take small steps toward change. Don’t try a complete overhaul of your life. Start with something small. Do a brain dump of everything that’s bothering you, everything you’d like to change, and everything that’s weighing on your mind. Then pick ONE thing to take action on — something small. Such as:
- I’ll spend five minutes each evening tidying/cleaning one small area of the house or
- Spend 10 minutes with a cup of tea and a good book or
- Leave work “on time” one day a week or
Just pick one thing that appeals to you or addresses a pain point. As you incorporate that one thing into your life as a new habit, you’ll begin to gain momentum and you can pull out your list and pick another thing and take a small step.
Be okay with asking for help — either actual help in doing things, or advice from a trusted friend or objective advisor/coach to help you see options and develop a plan.
Give yourself grace. First, you don’t have to do it all. You are no less valuable if you choose to do less. Making changes to our lives (especially when it involves saying no or potentially disappointing other people), is hard. Don’t beat yourself up for hesitating or chickening out. Get some support and encouragement and keep taking those small steps.
What do you think?
Is there something in your life that you’d like to change but have felt powerless to do so? What small step could you take today? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
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