On Taking a Step Back: Gracefully Managing Your Commitments When Everything is a Little Too Much

Recently, my husband and I received some great news: We’re expecting our first child in February! We’re thrilled, and the journey is going to be very exciting, but it does come with some significant changes. Namely, for the last few months, I’ve felt that the things I needed to do have required several times the amount of energy that I’ve had available.

During this time, I felt like I was dropping the ball on all of my commitments at once. I was keeping up with daily project work, but I was falling behind on almost everything else. Every way I turned, it felt like I was letting someone down.

Here’s how I managed to get through this time, mitigate issues, and repair some of the damage.

Be Realistic

One of the harder lessons I learned during this time was how to respect my time and energy. I didn’t have the energy for any of my activities, and I had the feeling that if I wasn’t keeping up with everything I had been keeping up with, I was failing.

It took a while to shake this feeling, and at first, I tried to resolve it by pressuring myself more. I’d ask myself questions like, “Why are you resting when you could be getting some of that backlog done?” Unsurprisingly, this didn’t help me be more productive. It just wasted even more of my depleted energy on guilt and anxiety.

It turned out that what I needed wasn’t more pressure and guilt; it was some guilt-free time to rest. Assuming that I could just will myself to work through the exhaustion wasn’t realistic: I needed the downtime more than ever. So I needed to take a hard look at my to-do list and prioritize.

For me, this meant choosing to set down some of my optional activities. I decided to drop a weekly class I was taking and gave myself a pass on not pursuing that hobby for now. Note that this wasn’t an actual change in my behavior: I was already not doing these things because I was too tired. But when I made the conscious decision to be realistic about my expectations for myself, things got better. By being respectful of my needs and realistic with my goals, I was able to gain back some of the energy that I had been wasting on guilt and anxiety.

This perspective modification worked well for things I only owed to myself, but I still had to manage my commitments to other people.

Be Honest

One of the most important things Atoms do as consultants is to set expectations. Typically, we think of this in terms of a customer. We work hard to make sure everyone has a clear picture of what the future looks like, and if there are problems or delays, we surface them as soon as possible. This allows everyone to align their expectations so that nobody ends up disappointed.

For me, setting expectations meant being honest with my team, my family, and my friends about what was going on. It was becoming clear that I wasn’t able to keep up with all of my commitments, so I had conversations with as many of the relevant people as I could to explain that I wouldn’t be operating at 100% capacity.

This made it possible for us to brainstorm together how to handle the situation. Friends visited at my home, rather than planning long outings together. Teammates helped by sharing responsibility for some of the tasks that I was having trouble completing.

This helped in the long term, too. By being realistic with myself about how much I could handle in the coming months, and being honest with Atomic about it, we were able to create a project plan that should be manageable throughout the busy times ahead. When I decided not to bite off more than I could chew, it meant less stress for me and prevented let-downs for my team.

Be Humble

Still, despite my best efforts to preemptively set expectations with the folks around me, I dropped the ball on a few commitments that I had made before realizing I was in over my head. One of the more painful lapses was falling behind on a project that a friend and I had been working on together. We were both stressed out and worried about the project, they were frustrated with me, and I was disappointed in myself for letting them down (see my fellow Atom Bella’s unrelated but timely series on the flipside of this topic).

In the end, things went okay–we managed to get things pulled together on time. But I had an apology to make.

When you’ve caused pain, it’s important to give a real apology. In particular, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to fall into the excuse pattern:

I’m sorry, I’ve just been so busy.

The trouble with this approach is that it fails to accept responsibility for the problem. A better apology looks like this:

I fell behind on this project. I know that not being able to count on me as your teammate caused stress and frustration for you, and I’m sorry for that. Here’s what I learned from this experience […]. Next time, I’ll be more clear with you about how things are going, and I’ll ask for help when I feel like I can’t keep up.

Giving a real apology was hard to do, especially to a friend, and especially when it involved something that made me feel really lousy. But it wasn’t a matter of apologizing for being overwhelmed; the apology was for failing to recognize that I wasn’t on track to make my commitment.

Keeping Up

It’s frustrating to realize that we’re not able to keep up with our commitments. However, some self-grace, communication, and humility can go a long way toward improving the situation when it feels like everything is falling apart.