Several months ago I ran into the owner of the independent bookstore in my neighborhood who had launched a local literary festival the year before. “I’d love to get involved,” I told her as I handed her my card. She passed my name on to the organizers of this year’s festival, who called me, and I was hooked. I thought that I was sticking my toe in the water of community volunteerism, but a few months later I felt as if I had been hit by a tsunami. I put my writing on the back burner as I manned the phone, recruiting authors, soliciting donations, and negotiating contracts.
“When will I learn to say no?” I asked myself.
I compounded that mistake by not setting limits to my involvement. As other volunteers failed to show up or simply quit, their jobs fell on me. “Time needs to have boundaries,” says Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD, author of Timeshifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life and cofounder of the Omega Institute. “We need to be able to take time and put a wall around it.” By the time the festival day arrived, I was stressed, sleep-deprived, cranky with my family, and short with my colleagues. “When will I learn to say no?” I asked myself.
It turns out that I am in good company. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor left the U.S. Supreme Court last January to spend more time with her husband, who has Alzheimer’s. She too has an inclination to say yes to invitations and commitments that take her away from home. “I need to retire from retirement,” she told Timemagazine. O’Connor plans to slow down and say no more often. “That simple two-letter word would save me a lot of trouble,” she says.
So how do we get suckered into saying yes all the time? “If you are good at what you do, your reward will be to do more,” says Rechtschaffen. “The more we do, the better our peers perceive us. And we think if we work faster, do more now, then we’ll be able to slow down later. But we don’t when we are on a treadmill.” How often do you hear yourself say, “Oh, I’m very busy” when someone asks you how you are? It’s almost as if busy, in our culture, is a synonym for important.
Many people, including me, pride themselves on their ability to handle a crisis. “We like our adrenaline fixes,” he says. “People create crises or wait until the last possible moment to meet a deadline because they like that feeling of being in the moment. The problem with moving from crisis to crisis is that it’s like trying to live life as if it’s a 100-yard dash.”
As I recovered from my festival crisis, there were moments when I asked myself why I was so prone to overcommitment. It’s my enthusiasm for life, I told myself. No, I rationalized, it’s my high standards. But at odd times, when I was walking the dog or taking a shower, a little voice whispered: It’s your hunger for praise. That’s my dirty little secret. I went away to school when I was 13 and faced the world alone. I was hungry, no starving, for a pat on the back or a few kind words. I got those by working hard, getting straight A's, and being a good girl. I was not taught to say no, except to fun (and that’s a whole other essay).
Facing up to core issues and tuning up our emotional intelligence are key to breaking the habit of overcommitment.
Recently I was talking to a friend, a fellow Good Girl, who mentioned that she had just finished reading Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The author, New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman, argues that emotional intelligence is a stronger indicator of success than IQ. He defines it in terms of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved. And he focuses on the underlying “why” rather than the surface “what.” Facing up to core issues and tuning up our emotional intelligence are key to breaking the habit of overcommitment.
Overdoing for others can be a sign of a failure to love yourself. If you don’t value your own needs, you can’t possibly give them proper weight. For yoga teacher Donna Farhi, the author of Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship, staying close to her dharma keeps her close to her true self. “When I stay close to the truth of what I have agreed to do and what is the most valuable use of my time and energy, there seems to be little conflict involved,” she says. “When I don’t stay close to that truth, conflict ensues. The conflict can manifest itself as fatigue, getting sick, or as resentment that I am giving something that I really don’t want to give. It can manifest as not being fully present.
“I am certain that these signs of conflict are the universe’s way of telling me that I am not in alignment with my dharma. After almost 30 years of daily practice, it gets easier to know what is in alignment with my dharma—what is ultimately worth doing.”
Karen Keating, the mother of two toddlers, left the computer world in London to move to a Rocky Mountain ski town where she’s building a real estate business. The change in location has helped Keating get in touch with the things that matter—and so make better choices about her time. “My personal time is valuable and limited,” she says. Keating is learning to notice the early warning signals of overcommitment. “When I don’t have time to return phone calls, I know that something has to give,” she says.
“I don’t want to measure my wealth only in dollars,” she adds. “I want to be rich in love. I cherish walking to school with my daughter, taking my son to music class, having a romantic dinner with my husband. If all of my life was work, it would not be very satisfying.”
At one point I took a life-coaching course that taught the importance of decluttering one’s life. This was a totally new concept for me. Not for others. “Decluttering is similar to the yoga principle to detach, to be non-grasping, non-collecting,” points out Lilias Folan, internationally known yoga teacher and author of Lilias: Yoga Gets Better with Age. “It’s insidious the things we hang on to. Like those 12 pairs of black pants hanging in the back of the closet.”
“Decluttering is similar to the yoga principle to detach, to be non-grasping, non-collecting,” points out Lilias Folan
Decluttering my life has become a new and useful goal. Rather than wallow in small irritants, I’ve decided to try and take care of certain things so they don’t turn into emergencies. I schedule my annual mammogram in my birthday month so I don’t forget. I check my son’s college calendar and book his ticket home for the holidays months in advance. I make a point of calling my father and elderly aunt weekly to ask them about their days—and I listen fully. When I feel a bad vibe, I resign from committees or organizations that sap my energy. I now see that decluttering my life will give me the same boost that a clean desk or a comfortable office does. A lot can happen on a blank page.
When Ronni Sandroff had her own business she found herself saying yes to everything. “I’d catch my client’s enthusiasm and overcommit,” she recalls. Over the years she has consciously trained herself to not take on too much. “For years I had a sign on my desk that said, ‘Let me think about it and get back to you.’” It worked until Sandroff went to work for a publishing company and found that other people were committing her to projects. “People can spot you if you’re good,” she says. “People come to you with their problems and see you as the solution. You think that you have to suggest a solution so you do.” Sandroff has developed another line that helps her: “‘I wish I could help you. I’ll try to think of someone who can.’ You have to build in a system so that you are not the problem solver. You don’t have to return phone calls or e-mails immediately. If you let a day go by before you get back to them, they might have solved their own problem.”
Sometimes having the right words to say helps. Kathy Gates, a life coach in Scottsdale, Arizona, advises people to memorize a couple of lines so that when someone asks you to do something, you have an answer on the tip of your tongue: “Let me get back to you…” “I’ve got to check my schedule…” One caveat: “Don’t ever say, ‘I’d love to but…,’” she advises. “People only hear the first part of the sentence.”
Donna Farhi, who teaches yoga throughout the world, is zealous about not allowing the many demands on her time to take over her life. “When I am on a deadline or on the road, it’s just not possible to take on other commitments,” says Farhi. “Otherwise I risk not fulfilling the commitments I’ve already made to people or getting exhausted so that I am no use to anyone, least of all myself.” How does she do it? “First, I honestly reflect on what I can do and what I can’t do, and what I need to delegate to some responsible individual,” she adds. “I am not a robot. I am mortal. The world will not stop if I take a nap.”
When I first moved to town, I volunteered at the local ski resort because I wanted to meet people. It was an expression of loneliness as much as one of altruism. But when I was the only mountain host staying late to pass out cocoa to cold and hungry skiers who had been stranded on the chair lift, I felt resentful. Where was that sense of camaraderie I had promised myself?
Jane Morrison, the mother of two young daughters who ran the volunteer program at the local school for several years, knows well the hazards of volunteering and giving until her well of good feeling has gone dry. She agreed to organize a student art show and recruit other volunteers. When her workforce turned out to be a miasma, she ended up hanging hundreds of pieces of art all by herself. “Unfortunately you often have to reach a stage of saturation before you stop,” she says. “There I am volunteering to run a program that’s great for my kids, but I end up spending time away from my kids.”
“My training is to serve so it’s hard for me to say no,” admits Lilias Folan, a veteran yoga teacher. “But even in serving, I have to be careful not to stretch myself too thin. If something doesn’t make me happy and joyful, why do it?” It’s harder when Folan is working with people with cancer or doing something for no money. “I keep a careful watch on my heart,” she says. “I want to listen or to say the right thing to a person in need, but I don’t have to get involved.” Folan has been teaching yoga since the 1960s. “We do develop wisdom of the self and the body that deepens as we practice and observe our body and thoughts,” she says. Some of the fundamental yoga principles—to be non-violent and non-grasping—make sense for modern life. But the first rule is love yourself.”
When making the transition from one part of our life to another, it’s important to leave worries or duties behind or we risk our burdens increasing. We have to practice shifting gears, or timeshifting, as Stephan Rechtschaffen calls it. “It’s like riding a 20-speed bicycle,” he says. “One can learn how to shift gears so you can climb uphill or cruise downhill. Find the gear that you can ride with ease.”
Over the years, Jane Morrison, who is married to an airline pilot who is often away, has developed rituals that ensure that she feels replenished rather than depleted. “I schedule a hike or a run and put it on the calendar along with all the doctor appointments and school meetings,” she says. “There will always be chores and activities. When I am depleted, my family suffers, and they benefit when I am replenished.” Her nighttime bath after the kids are in bed is one of those rituals. “I slip into the warm water and reflect on my day and what’s important.”
Daily meditation is the ritual that keeps Lilias Folan centered. “No one can disturb me from 7 to 9 in the morning: The dog can’t come in; the phone is off the hook. I need 45 minutes for breathing practice and meditation time. My family, kids, and friends all know I am indisposed.”
One of the appeals of yoga or meditation practice is that we take time to breathe. But this is a skill we can use to bring balance to even the busiest day. When you’re waiting for an elevator, instead of punching the button repeatedly, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and wait for the bell. Before a meal, take the time to say grace, or simply pause and take a moment to breathe.
One of the appeals of yoga or meditation practice is that we take time to breathe. But this is a skill we can use to bring balance to even the busiest day.
For Ronni Sandroff, marking the transition from work to home is a ritual that starts on her commute home. “A life coach taught me to spend that time taking the rocks out of my pockets,” she says, describing the process of uncluttering herself of the day’s worries. “By the time I get home, I feel lighthearted.” In summer she and her husband take a walk by the river before dinner. When the weather changes, she loads up her iPod with dance tunes and heads for the indoor gym. “My head is clear the rest of the evening, and I sleep soundly.”
Shifting gears, creating rituals, setting boundaries, and staying focused on what really makes you happy will help you break the habit of overcommitment. Jane Morrison has come up with a different way of looking at the problem: “Something has to give—you or your family,” she says. “You can’t do it all. Rather than say no to everything, I think about what I want to say yes to. If I fill my life with the right yes’s, there’s no room for no’s.”