You’re Not Failing, You’re Just Overwhelmed

How do you get anything done if everything has to get done?
I mean, I love a good list. I’m great at organizing my thoughts. I’m even getting really good at delegating.
But where do you start when your to do list is longer than Santa’s?

Someone once told me you can only reasonably expect yourself to accomplish three things each day.
(Insert joke about eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Three meals, three checks, and back to bed I go).
When I’ve tried to stick to that, it’s helped me to minimize the overwhelm. And when I’m less overwhelmed, it’s easier to get started.

This isn’t to say I only do three things each day. But when I only think about accomplishing three pressing tasks, I often get more items crossed off than I intended to. It’s like a bonus every time it happens!
Today, my goals were to set up my new desk, complete a few short writing assignments, and bring my son’s trumpet to the music store for a tune up. I also picked up groceries and made some soup for dinner.
It wasn’t a wildly productive day, but I exceeded my goal. 

Before I started focusing on the “3 thing a day” idea, I always felt like I never got enough done. And on the days when I completed fewer than three tasks? Abject failure. Cue guilt and shame. The days when I was super productive, I only raised my expectations. That was the new goal for each day, a goal I’d probably never reach again.
I truly used to think that doing “my best” meant matching my all time highest effort, as if “best” was a level of achievement that can only increase and anything less is unremarkable.

I wish I remembered the moment when I realized that “my best” is connected to the present moment. I know how it felt though, it was as if a hard shell holding me in melted away. And I didn’t fall over. I didn’t need that pressure or rigidity. I suddenly could just live. I could set my goals based on my energy, capacity, and needs of the moment. 
Some days that means one thing accomplished.
Others it’s a dozen.
And neither day is better.

What I mean to say is that I’m not a better person when I get twelve things done and I’m not a failure when I don’t. 

I’m just a girl, sitting in front of a list, whispering to herself “only three things. You can do this.”

Choosing which 3 things is an entirely different monster. Because my goals change each day. Sometimes my tasks are motivated by the priority for the day – if I’m traveling somewhere, my 3 things will help me get out the door. If I have a deadline at work and the kids have a concert at school, I’ll be focused on those things. If I feel like my cup is empty, I add “schedule something fun” to today’s list or move one of my tasks to tomorrow so I can do something to care for myself today.

It’s all so much easier said than done and it’s taken years and years to find my way. But each tiny step in the direction of being realistic about my “best” each day has only helped me to live and work and be human in a way that works for me, not as a reaction to an infinite list of things to accomplish. As some random person in history once said, “you are a human being, not a human doing.”

Two books that have helped me do better with finding and sticking to my priorities:
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman

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  1. Kathy on August 19, 2022 at 9:36 am

    I love your idea of accomplishing 3 things. I’ll be sharing this with my overwhelmed family members. BTW, the font color is a little too light. More contrast would be great!

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