In this rat race we’re running, the rats are getting faster. Or maybe they’re just wearing backpacks now so they can carry even more stuff with them. Either way, I’m starting to worry.
Every day I talk to women who find they are reflexively saying yes to every single thing asked of them – and then staying up half the night to cram these extra tasks into their already overbooked schedules. (Because really, since they’re already working through lunch and skipping workouts, where else is the overflow going to go?)
It feels like the requests to add one more thing to our already overflowing To Do lists are relentless. They come from all sides at all hours, and still we say YES, practically throwing on our little rat running shoes as we shoulder our overstuffed rat backpacks, so loaded down with tasks to carry that we can barely move.
- Need a cake for tomorrow’s party? Sure, no problem.
- Two dozen purple butterfly costumes by next week? You got it.
- That new report by Friday? She’s on it.
- 17 plastic yellow folders with prongs and pockets but no holes? She’ll track them down.
- Someone to coach the youth sports team this season? Absolutely.
- Need a meeting with that impossible-to-pin-down VP at Company X? She’ll get it done.
- An .mp3 of some obscure song from 1983? Just ask her!
- I mean come on.
It’s like we’re competing for some imaginary award that is given to the woman who can say yes to absolutely everything without collapsing.
But here’s the catch. There is no award. There is only exhaustion. And ultimately resentment.
I’ve been guilty of this more times than I can count. “I can do it,” I say to myself. “It’ll only take a few minutes.” “Why not?”
Here’s why not.
Sometimes, the right answer is yes. Helping others is part of being a good human, after all! (I’m making my fourth dessert in seven days today – all for end of year school events – all of which I’ve been DELIGHTED to do. That’s not what I’m talking about here.)
Sometimes you need to protect an unscheduled hour so your daughter can build up the nerve to tell you about what’s been going on in the cafeteria. Sometimes you need that thirty minute walk for the creative idea to gel in your mind. Sometimes you need two extra hours of sleep so you can get through the next day without four shots of espresso. Sometimes you need sixty seconds to hug someone you love extra tight before you go your separate ways for the day.
How can you tell if you’re saying yes too often?
Well, first you’ll feel chronically rushed. Late. Behind. Overwhelmed. You’ll feel guilt that you’re not doing anything well. You’ll let clutter accumulate. You’ll find yourself only half listening. You’ll forget things – first unimportant ones and then ones that actually matter.
If you’re in a place where you’re seeing those things happen, then try this. Take off your rat backpack and grab a chair. Take a good hard look at every single item in that pack to re-evaluate what you’ve been carrying around with you, the things you’ve assumed you have to do. Perhaps you’ll need to let go of some of them – to lighten your load – to clear some space.
And once you do, then to maintain this new equilibrium, you’ll need to start practicing the art of saying no. I work on this with clients all the time. It’s not easy, especially at first. But it’s essential.
If saying a straight “No” is too hard, then say “Not this time,” or “Any other day,” or ” I wish I could give this the attention it deserves,” or even “Please ask me again!” Just don’t say yes if you need to say no.
Somewhere along the way, we bought into a myth that filling all 24 hours each day was our job. But it’s not. Our job is to bring our very best self into the world. Our rested, energized, motivated, positive, gifted self. The self who does amazing work and forges strong relationships and has room to breathe. Being that person requires saying no to some things that we could do, but choose not to do.
This post originally appeared in May 2015, and given the end of school year race so many of us – including me – are running, I thought this would be a good time to share it once again…