It's hard to say no.
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you want to crawl back under the covers, eat a pint of ice cream and watch Golden Girls all day? I had a moment like this last month when I overextended myself and felt swamped by all my commitments.
I was flying back from California after traveling for business, and I felt a wave of panic as I thought about the week ahead. I had a week full of clients, a speech to present that Friday, and my kids had a slew of activities. As the vice president of the Parent Association at my children's school, I was in charge of the spring fair event that was to take place the next weekend. We were getting ready to have pictures taken to put our house on the market and, on top of all that, I had volunteered to lead the new website project at the school as well. I was overcommitted, overwhelmed and completely stressed.
I've always prided myself on being able to balance my many projects and commitments. I'm great at managing my time and juggling multiple responsibilities. But there was a precise moment that week when I reached a breaking point. I had no balance. I stopped exercising, I was staying up late and I wasn't eating healthy. I was anxious all the time and didn't feel like I had a moment to even breathe. My mind was so overwhelmed that I felt paralyzed. I had no space in my schedule for at least three weeks and I was exhausted.
My husband gently reminded me that perhaps I couldn't do it all and needed to make some choices. The answer was clear to me in that moment: I needed to resign from vice president of the Parent Association. That one decision took a huge weight off of my shoulders.
Although on some level it felt good to be a part of so many things, it was at the expense of the bigger picture. Being overtaxed was in direct conflict with my values. I was making a big impact for the school, but not in my own personal life. The time and energy I was spending volunteering could be channeled into my family, my business and my health.
I'm sure you've had an experience like this. You say yes to so many things because you are a leader. You are a leader at work, in your life and in your family. You want to serve, to be involved, make a contribution and get things done. And maybe you feel a little bit obligated to contribute your best effort all the time.
It was tough for me to admit that I had overcommitted myself. At first, I felt like I had failed and that I should be able to handle everything with ease. But this experience got me reflecting: Why do we feel like we have to do it all? And, is there such a thing as work life balance?
There has been a significant change in our society over the past 30 years. More women are in the workforce and contributing in broader ways. While this is a positive shift, for many women these changes have added an additional layer of stress, since most of us still have responsibilities and commitments outside of work. Even if you have a great partner who shares the responsibilities, there is still a lot to balance with raising children, running the household, getting involved in the community and working a full-time job. And that doesn't even take into account time for yourself. The responsibilities of home life don't diminish for women who are working outside the home.
Most of us walk around each day in a state of stress and look outside ourselves to place the blame. We blame our boss. We blame our kids. We blame our spouse. We even blame time.
But busy is a choice. Overwhelm is a choice. Stress is a choice. It was hard for me to accept that, but I realized that I don't have to say yes to everything, and I am ultimately responsible for my life experience.
One of my mentors, Marie Forleo, so brilliantly said, "You can have it all, but you can't do it all."
Although we may want to do everything and do it well, it’s just not possible; there have to be tradeoffs. This creates an enormous amount of stress that bleeds into our work. Leaders who value achievement and impact often have a hard time saying no. We load up on our commitments and fear we may be perceived negatively if we can't handle it all. And if you are a leader at work, juggling the responsibilities of coaching, developing and mentoring employees can add to the stress.
In her article, “Stressed, Tired, Rushed: A Portrait of the Modern Family”, Claire Cain Miller cites research from a Pew survey that indicates women still do the majority of the housework and childcare. As one woman put it, "you feel like you're doing a horrible job at everything."
So what’s the solution? I'm not sure this challenge will be solved anytime soon. Most organizations still operate in a bureaucratic manner and struggle to embrace a more modern approach of work-life integration. And most women struggle to find a balance between the competing roles of work and home life.
But there are small steps that can make a difference. I am much more deliberate now about how I schedule my time. I am pausing to consider opportunities and commitments before I say yes. I have hired more help with managing the home because I realize I can't do it all. I put boundaries in place and don't accept weeknight commitments that will keep me out past 8:30 p.m. so that I can keep to my 9:30 p.m. bedtime. I am saying no more often. No, I don't need to accept every play date. No, I choose not to volunteer any more time outside of my family. And no, I will not feel guilty for going to yoga on Saturdays.
I'm experienced enough in life to know that these small steps don’t solve the problem. There will be times where I again start to feel stressed and overcommitted. I may fall off the wagon and say yes too much. I may never manage this life perfectly.
But for now: I choose space. I choose calm. I choose to say no.
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or firstname.lastname@example.org.