Do you sometimes (or always) feel like you have too much to do and too little time to do it?
Consider an email I got from a student the other day:
“… as the semester goes by, the harder it is to keep up with school. The thing is, I know I’d be able to do it if I didn’t have any extracurricular activities. I have a weekend job where I teach youths, a youth group where I currently lead social justice, and I was just asked by someone to lead prayer group.
“Right now, the only way to do everything is to sleep less and work more, but I noticed that I can’t do much when I haven’t gotten much sleep. I wanted to take care of my body as well so I’ve been sleeping normally these past few days. Now I’m behind everything again; I have two big assignments due and midterms next week.”
I know this feeling, because that’s how I felt before I started simplifying my life. I was being pulled in all directions, and never had enough time for everything I needed to do. I wanted to do a great job with each role I’d taken on, and felt I could do it, but really I was doing a bad job at everything because I was stretched too thin.
To this student, and to everyone else who feels this way, I’d say this: your plate is too full. You have too much going on.
The only answer, unless you want your health to decline (and that’s not good for anyone), is to start saying No.
You have to say no to at least a couple things on your list: say no to prayer group and the youth group, so that you can say yes to school and the job.
For anyone else reading this, you might have to say no to certain work projects, or community groups, or committees or boards or parent-teacher organizations or coaching sports or some other worthwhile activity.
I know, it seems horrible to say no when these are very worthy things to do. It kills you to say No.
But the alternative is that you’re going to do a bad job at each one, and be stressed beyond your limits, and not be able to focus on any one. You won’t be getting enough sleep, your focus will get worse because of a lack of sleep, and stress will compound that problem.
We stay in this state because we really want to do it all. We have this idea that we can be great at everything, and succeed at all that we try. But we are human, and we have limits, and we have to let go of this idea of doing everything and doing it well. You’re either going to do a couple things well, or do everything poorly.
Ideally, you’d find complete focus and do one thing well. You’d pick one really important thing, say no to all the rest, and put your complete focus on this one project. This might be school, or a project at work, or a volunteer project … but just one thing. You’d learn to do it well, and get better and better at it, and serve people exceptionally.
However, that’s not reality. We can’t always pare things down to one thing, so focus on two. I’ve found that you can do two things well, and one thing really well. With two focuses, you won’t be as concentrated, won’t learn as deeply, but it’s doable. With three or four focuses, you won’t do anything well or learn anything deeply or serve anyone exceptionally.
So start paring down to two things: figure out what the most important two things in your life are, and cut out the rest. Be ruthless. Call or email or meet with them now, and tell them that you really want to help, but your plate is too full. You can’t serve them well, so you need to say No.
When you’re down to two things, I’ve found it best to give each some allotted time. So a few hours for one, and then a few hours for the other. Don’t switch back and forth constantly between the two (an email for one, write a paragraph for the other, go back to email for the first one, a paragraph for the second, and so on). Doing it that way means you never give either your full concentration. When you give something your focus, really be present.
Saying no to worthwhile projects, and letting go of the idea that we can do everything, is very difficult. But it’s not more difficult than trying to do everything and not getting enough sleep and being overly stressed out. Saying no is hard, but it means you say yes to focus and sanity.
This article originally appeared on Zen Habits and is reprinted with permission.