“I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.”
It’s a common complaint. A common excuse when someone needs to say no, or when they’re saying yes but trying to manage expectations. Having a lot on your plate is an indication of being busy, often overwhelmed, and simply not having the time, energy or resources to devote to another task, project, client, or other request.
The reality, however, is that having a lot on your plate is your own doing. And you can undo it, if you choose. It doesn’t have to be your go-to refrain when asked to do something, and it doesn’t have to give you that feeling of overwhelm.
You said yes
Everything that is on your plate is there because you said yes to it. You may have verbally or in writing said the actual word ‘yes.’ Or you may have just let someone pile something on you without saying a word — which is an indirect ‘yes.’ Or you might have said some variation of yes, such as ‘I’ll try’ or ‘Let me see what I can do’ or ‘I’m really busy, but maybe in a few weeks.’
However it came about, you said yes. You need to own that. If it’s on your plate, it’s there because of you.
You might be feeling right now like you need to justify why you said yes.
“It needed to be done and no one else was doing it.”
“They guilted me into it.”
“I’m the only one who knows how to do it.”
“They begged me to help.”
Don’t justify it. It doesn’t matter why you said yes. You said yes — and you can say no.
You don’t have to clean your plate
Just because it’s currently on your plate doesn’t mean you have to eat it. You’re an adult and if you don’t want to do something, or don’t have time, you can scrape things off your plate.
Of course this first requires self-honesty. You must look at what you’re doing, or have agreed to do, and determine which things you don’t want on your plate. Start with broad strokes — don’t worry about why you don’t want to do it, just take stock of everything you don’t want to do.
Then look more closely at the list of what you don’t want to do. There are probably some that you truly don’t have a choice about. Paying your bills, for example, is something no one likes but we all have to do it. Getting up for 2AM feedings with your newborn probably isn’t the highlight of your life, but as a parent, you know that you must do it.
But there are probably several things that are optional. These would be things like running the PTA, working with that client that fills you with dread whenever you see their name on your phone or in your inbox, or perhaps even your bookkeeping.
Make a second list of those things that need to be done but that you personally do not have to do. Then take steps to get them off your plate. Turn in your resignation with the PTA. Tell that client that you feel the relationship is no longer beneficial to both of you and so you’re terminating it effective immediately (or in 10 or 30 days, whatever you need to do to feel good and avoid legal trouble). Hire a bookkeeper.
Keep a smaller plate going forward
The relief of getting rid of some things feels so good. The problem is that saying yes is often so ingrained in us that we end up filling our plate right back up and feeling just as overwhelmed and underappreciated as before.
Don’t do that.
Start by setting some priorities. Look at what you have left and prioritize those things. Keep those priorities in mind as you go forward. Every time someone asks you to do something or you feel the urge to offer to help, ask yourself how it aligns with those priorities, or if it might bump one of your priorities out of position.
Then ask yourself how you feel about giving up time to do whatever it is. Are you willing to give up time with your family, time on your business, or time for yourself to do this task? Don’t give an immediate answer to this. Sit with it and really think about it. Imagine after you’ve been handling this task for a month, six months, or a year — are you still happy to give up that time? How does your family or your business partner feel about it? If you’re giving up time for yourself, how does that affect your family and your business? Will those things suffer?
No is a complete sentence
Just as it’s been drilled in to us to say yes, it’s also expected that if we say no, we will provide an explanation.
“I’d love to, but I have too many clients already.”
“I’m sorry, I wish I could. But with my husband’s hours, I just can’t get away.”
“I can’t do that because I don’t have the education/skills required.”
We’re so trained to offer these explanations that sometimes we even make them up just to have something to offer.
No is a complete sentence. You don’t have to explain your no. Your no can be based solely on the fact that you’re wearing a blue shirt today, and you don’t have to tell the other person that’s why.
You can just say no. If it makes you feel better to say, “I’m sorry, no,” then go ahead and add that. But don’t feel obligated to offer any other words. Even if they press, you don’t have to say anything more.
Ask for help
If you’ve taken everything off your plate that you can, and you still feel overwhelmed, there must be more you can delegate. Ask for help. This might look like asking your spouse to take over laundry, assigning your kids age-appropriate chores, or hiring a freelance writer to help you with your business. It might look like a combination of these things.
Make a list of the different ways you can ask for help. This list might include options that you don’t feel entirely comfortable with — like hiring a housekeeper or giving a responsibility to your husband or a child that you would rather handle yourself. That’s okay, because you don’t have to do everything on this list. Figure out which ones are the fastest options to get things under control and start there. Evaluate how things feel and see if you need to hand off even more.
Working, raising a family, running a home, and finding time for you is a lot. It’s okay to admit some things aren’t worth your time and effort. It’s okay to say you don’t want to do something or it’s not a priority for you.
It’s okay to say no.