As early as high school, my next-door neighbor/close friend used to urge me to stop being what she called “the mayor.” I was constantly stressed about different situations, how certain people felt about me, overcommitting to more than I could handle because I wanted to please all my “constituents.” In an effort to be kind to everyone else, I wasn’t very kind to myself and I constantly felt drained and depleted. My friend’s urging helped me to observe my bad habit but it continued almost an entire decade after high school. I said yes to events I didn’t have the capacity for, with good intentions, hoping to squeeze it all in and avoid hurting feelings. I agreed to connect with every student who reached out or go to every colleague’s happy hour, when it sometimes meant canceling my gym appointments, missing professional development opportunities, or not allowing myself to decompress. I found myself needing several cups of coffee a day. I didn’t feel as productive and my energy was scattered all over the place. It became increasingly more difficult to prioritize and I was always feeling stressed and tired. When I took on too much, I would sometimes run late or end up having to cancel at the last minute because I was constantly over booked. To whom much is given, much is required—the old adage is definitely true. Still, much being required doesn’t mean everything is required. If you have ambition, enjoy people, or just generally struggle with saying no, it can be very difficult to make decisions about what to take on and when to decline. Taking on everything, however, is neither realistic nor efficient. To offer your best, both at work and in social settings, you need energy to be engaged and fully present. After nearly 15 years of struggling with being overcommitted, I’ve come up with some guidelines for making decisions on how to determine where to spend my time.
- Make rules for yourself about how much of each type of activity you can take on each month. Is a weekly happy hour with colleagues more than you can take on? Cut back to every other week. Do you only have the time and budget for two dinners with friends a week? Then only do two. Take some time out to assess what makes you feel comfortable and what makes you feel depleted. Then create guidelines to establish a maximum number of each type of commitment you can take on per month. Stick to it.
- Learn to say, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” Overcommitment frequently is a result of saying yes too quickly. You end up agreeing to 4 events on the same night or multiple late nights in a row when you don’t take time to pause and assess what you have going on. Paper calendars/planners are a great tool for seeing your commitments outlined for a week/month at a time.
- If you struggle saying “no,” consider offering alternative options. “No I can’t make your charity auction this time, but I can volunteer one Saturday next month.” “I can’t make lunch today, but I’m available for lunch in 3 weeks.” Use this one sparingly and only when you sincerely can commit to the alternative you propose.
- Establish your goals and use them as a tool to make decisions. What do you need to achieve this month? Does that happy hour help you get that promotion you’ve been seeking? Does that coffee meet-up cut into your morning goal of working out? Having your goals in mind can help saying “no” feel less intimidating. If you know your goals, saying no isn’t rejecting an invitation; it’s prioritizing your success.
Remember to be kind to yourself. You’re the best version of you when you have less stress and more energy. Your energy is as important as any event that may be presented to you. Don’t rush to say yes and don’t feel bad when you have to say no.