The Freedom of the Impossible
The spring semester just started. Sure, you had a break, but I’m guessing that wasn’t enough time to let you fully recover from the fall…or the past two years. That means you walked into 2022 and the spring semester already feeling stressed and behind.
I know what you’re thinking, “Ooh Anne, you nailed it. But so what? Leave me alone. I have 1,000,000 things to do!” No. I won’t leave you alone, because I want to let you in on a little secret. Well, maybe it’s a big secret…
For many of you listening, the amount of work you’re expected to do is impossible. No amount of time management tricks or life hacks will make it possible. This is especially true if you’ve picked up the job responsibilities of other people or positions as they’ve left or been downsized.
Now can we use our talents and complementary partners to be more effectively to make it more manageable? Abso-frickin-lutely! BUT at the end of the day there’s still going to be a ridiculous amount of stuff left on your to-do list. And if you believe those things should have also gotten done, you’re going to constantly feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Let me put this another way. When you think you have to get everything done, no matter how hard you work – and have been working, you’re going to focus on all the things you haven’t done instead of what you’ve accomplished. That’s can feel anywhere from discouraging to soul crushing.
I’ve heard stories from supervisors who have asked their supervisor, “I can’t reasonably do all of this, can you help me clarify what the priorities are?” Only to be told, they’re all priorities. Well, that’s not a BLEEPING thing. I asked good old Merriam Webster what she thought of this and she said, “A priority is something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first.”
That means by definition everything cannot be a priority. Or again, to put it another way, if someone says everything is a priority that’s the same as saying nothing is a priority. Either way, that’s a huge problem for your brain.
When you value everything at the same level – aka “everything is a priority”, your brain gets confused. It has no idea how to decide what to do first. That’s when that sense of overwhelm kicks in. Your brain needs a hierarchy to be effective. That means you need to prioritize, even if your boss won’t.
Now this topic is very personal for me for several reasons. First, I have many friends and colleagues who are still working on campus who are exhausted and overwhelmed. I always feel terrible for them as they constantly play catch up and their days full of back-to-back meetings.
Second, I’m a small business owner and have recently felt constantly overwhelmed and stressed myself. I’ve only recently outsourced our social media, but before then I just felt responsible for everything else I could possibly be doing to improve the business. Everything.
I just kept focusing on all the things that still needed to be done and never gave myself kudos or celebrated how far I’d come. Instead, it turned into a daily self-flagellation of everything I hadn’t done. That meant I constantly felt like a failure because I hadn’t performed the impossible.
But I’m not a failure. And you’re not a failure.
There’s only so much a person can effectively get done in a given period of time. And that’s not even a static amount. We’ve talked at length in other episodes about energy. If you’re already exhausted from all the other things that came before today – no matter what those things are, you’re not going to get much done. And/or the stuff you do get done is not going to be of high quality.
Why? Because you’re not a robot. You don’t just plug in each night and in the morning you’re at 100%. You aren’t a computer that can just run the problem through its programs to come up with an answer using the same amount of energy and effort each time. That being said, even a robot and/or computer can only do so much in a given amount of time.
I often talk about if you do this or that, you’ll be less stressed. Those have often been specific actions like reflecting on how your talents are showing up, assessing your systems, or developing self-care habits. This is a bit different, because it’s about changing your beliefs. It’s about changing your stories.
What I’m telling you here is that as soon as you stop believing the story that you are responsible for doing an impossible amount of work, you will be less stressed. Why? Because when you look at that ridiculous list, it will no longer be to see how you can get everything done now – which again is impossible. It will be to decide what makes the most sense for you and your team to reasonably do today that will get you closer to where you’d ultimately like to be.
If we did physical labor, we’d be more in tune with what we could or couldn’t reasonably do. For example, say you have 300 cinder blocks that you and one other person need to get to the backyard and then turn into a shed in three hours. You’d pretty quickly be able to assess the situation. How many people do I have to do this? Two. What tools do we have? Gloves, a wheelbarrow, blue prints, a trowel, and mortar. Can we do this in three hours? Oh, BLEEP no.
But somehow because it’s not physical labor, we think we can maybe make it happen. If we just focus more or think harder, we can ignore ourselves and our human abilities and needs. We think that because about students and not bricks, we have to try to make it happen even though it’s not feasible.
It’s that belief that gets in our way. It was certainly getting in my way. I wrestled with how was I going to get all the things I hadn’t done done so we could take Strengths University to the next level. I felt terrible about how I’d let myself and my partner down because there was still so much to do.
On one hand, I knew it was impossible for me to do ALL of those things right now, but that knowledge seemed to easily be over-ridden by my subconscious worries and fears. I was caught in a stress response the majority of the time, leaving me hyper focused on the exact list that was causing the problem.
Then finally, it sunk in deeper. And over the past few months, I made a shift. I started focusing on how far I’d come instead of how much further I had to go. That helped me look at my situation from a much broader perspective.
I also started thinking about one of my hobbies – gardening. Each spring I planned and prepped so each plant had the right nutrients and best conditions to grow into strong healthy plants. But at a certain point, there was nothing else I could do but wait and let nature take its course. I couldn’t force things to happen faster than they can happen. Just like the plants couldn’t grow faster just because I wanted to see faster results, I couldn’t do more than I could do. Period.
Once I embraced those ideas, my stress level started to decrease. Not because I accomplished more, but because I was proud of what I did accomplish. It was quality work moving us forward bit by bit. I decided what made the most sense to do every day. Yes, sometimes I worked longer on something than I’d planned. But because it was my decision, it felt empowering to accomplish the things I reasonably set for myself. And I absolutely make sure I make up for the extra hours I do one day by doing less the next.
I don’t have any less work to be done, but I’ve shifted how I look at when and how those things will happen. You can do the same thing.
No, it won’t stop people from asking you to do an unreasonable number of things. But it will change how you feel about those requests. Instead of reacting out of fear or worry, you’ll be able to respond based on a new understanding of how you’re going to do your best – not just for the institution you work for, but for yourself. That best includes managing your stress by creating reasonable goals for yourself and your team.
I’m not saying it’s going to be an easy switch. After all, the stress response’s job is to make us focus on what we believe to be the threat. In this case, it can show up as “if I don’t get all this done, they’ll fire me,” or “if we don’t get this done students will leave and we’ll lose more positions or have to close the college.” The problem is, those worries distract you from what you already know, that you can’t possibly do everything that’s being asked of you.
That means you have two choices. You can run yourself into the ground trying to do all the things and feeling terrible that you haven’t caught up. Or you can start to prioritize your day knowing you’re never going to get everything done. The first one is a recipe for stress and burnout. The second allows you to feel proud of your work again. It lets you tap back into your best self – one that’s capable of making good decisions about what you and your team can reasonably accomplish.
To put it even more bluntly, you can feel bad about everything not being done. Or you can accept it isn’t going to get done but feel good about you and your team’s efforts. Either way the one thing that won’t change is everything won’t be done. If anything, you’ll achieve more with the latter because you’ll have more energy to do things faster and better.
So, I invite you to give yourself your freedom, your confidence, and your wellbeing back. Start treating the impossible as just that and focus on what is possible. It’s made a huge difference in my life; I know it can in yours as well.
So until next week, stay strong.
You can listen to My Circus, My Monkeys on our website https://www.strengthsuniversity.org/mycircus or through most of the major podcast hubs, like Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon, TuneIn + Alexa, & Stitcher