When You Bit Off More Than You Could Chew

A woman sits at a laptop looking off into the distance

Uh oh.

You bit off more than you could chew. How are you supposed to cope?

Maybe you said “yes” to a bunch of different opportunities and invitations. Or maybe an emergency popped up out of the blue. 

What do you do when things start to snowball and life suddenly gets chaotic? 

You might feel obligated to juggle everything and proceed as planned. After all, you don’t want to let anyone down and you want to be seen as dependable. But when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, you’re not going to do anyone any favors by overwhelming yourself. 

When life gets busy, it’s time to take a step back and shift some priorities.

How to manage your guilt

Sometimes, it’s not the busyness that’s hard to manage, but the various emotions that arise when you try to reduce your workload. 

For example:

  • You feel guilty for letting people down.
  • You’re torn between your need to be seen as hardworking and dependable versus your need to take care of yourself.
  • You feel pressured to take everything on even though deep down you know you can’t.

If you’re experiencing any internal struggles right now, let yourself feel your feelings. Write it all down in a journal to clear your head. And then, remind yourself that learning how to say no is not a sign of weakness, but rather, a sign of maturity and professionalism. 

By better managing your time and your priorities, you will be more thoughtful about your work and how you collaborate with others.

What can you realistically take on?

When life gets busy, you need to simplify your life. It starts with being honest about how much time and energy you actually have for your commitments. 

Here’s a scenario: you registered for a weekly class, signed up to volunteer on the weekends, and you also agreed to take on a big project at work. And, let’s not forget: you also want to dedicate time to see friends and loved ones. 

Instead of trying to juggle everything and potentially burn yourself out, see if you can figure out what you can realistically take on this week and this month. 

Take a look at what’s on your schedule. Ask yourself: 

How much time and energy will this involve? Using the above example, which of those responsibilities would either energize or drain you? Maybe a class would consume a lot of time but it would leave you feeling inspired. Or maybe the idea of taking on a work project right now is causing you stress. Be honest with yourself and see what you can realistically take on. 

Eliminate most of your to-do list

Take a look at your current to-do list. If you have a million things going on, then identify the tasks that can be canceled, postponed, or delegated. 

Now you might be thinking: But I have to complete all of these tasks!

Then break it down by seeing which tasks you must do and which tasks you should do. 

There’s a big difference between the two and you’ll see why below.

If you feel that you “should” do something, then it’s not mandatory

If it’s a “should” task, then there’s a certain amount of guilt or obligation that’s involved in your decision-making process. You’re afraid of saying no and you don’t want to let the other person down. But for the other person, they probably don’t care “who” is responsible for the task as long as the task gets done. 

For example, your manager asks you to be the notetaker for an upcoming meeting, but you don’t have the time. Your manager just wants someone to be at the meeting and take good notes. Your job is to delegate the notetaking to someone else. 

In addition, take a look at your social and personal obligations. Maybe you feel guilty about canceling on dinner plans with friends. But if it’s possible to reschedule then do so. You don’t want to go to the dinner out of obligation and then spend the rest of the evening feeling stressed or resentful. 

If you feel that you “must” do something then do it

There are certain tasks or work assignments that will energize you. You want to take them on and do your best on them. 

Or maybe you want to see your friends over the weekend because it’s restorative and they leave you feeling recharged and inspired.

Another “must” item is a task that has a firm deadline. If there’s no leeway in your work deadline then you must do it. 

Keep the “must” tasks on your to-do list

Tasks you can cancel or postpone

Maybe you feel guilty for backing out of a personal or professional commitment. Then see if you can cancel or if there's any wiggle room with the scheduling. Chances are you can reschedule certain work deadlines, meetings, dinners with friends, etc. 

If a task or social invitation does not require your presence or input in order to be successful, then cancel them. 

Everyone will win when you learn how to cancel or take on a commitment at a later date. You won’t feel stressed out and you’ll be able to give it your full attention when the time comes.

Tasks you can delegate 

You don’t have to be a manager to be able to delegate. It is a skill that is beneficial no matter where you are in your career. 

Maybe you resist delegating because you don’t want to unload your work onto someone else. But you might be empowering someone’s career or strengthening their skill sets when you delegate. For example, asking a coworker to proofread a report might add more to their plate, but handing that same task to an intern or associate is an opportunity for growth. 

Or maybe you don’t want to delegate because you want to be seen as trustworthy and productive. And you worry that someone else won’t meet your high standards. Part of growing in your career is knowing how to make other people look good and giving them the tools to thrive. After all, if you seek to be a manager or executive, you have to know how to trust others to do a job as well as, or even better, than you would. 

When life gets to be too much, know that there are solutions and back-up plans available to you. Identify what you can realistically take on and you’ll be able to manage your time well.

Written by JiJi Lee

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