How to prioritise when you want to do everything

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

I’ve always known this, but for the longest time, it didn’t stop me. Trying to do everything, that is.

When you’re a driven person, opportunities are everywhere and when someone cool wants to work with you, or the chance arises to climb another rung on the ladder, or strike another thing off the bucket list, it’s hard to let that opportunity go.

So, what do we do?

We get more organised. Operate at even higher level of efficiency. Shave 30 minutes off task x so there is now room in our lives for task y.

We all know the problem with this, however. It’s a guaranteed and fast path to overwhelm because when we schedule every minute of our days down to the last second, there’s no whitespace, no room for shit to happen (and it will) and certainly no time to just ‘be’.

Here are the mindsets I call on to prioritise effectively when I catch myself trying to do ‘everything’ and have to make some hard choices:

1. ‘Opportunities’ are like buses

There’s always another one just around the corner. That amazing opportunity you know deep in your heart you just don’t have time for right now? The one you’re tempted to take on because it might never come up again? There will be another. It might not be the same exact opportunity, but another of its calibre will come along.

2. Nothing is ever as amazing as it looks on the surface

I remember years ago when I first started blogging, all the hot bloggers of the time were invited to a big awards ceremony and party. They looked like they were having so much fun and I felt insanely jealous that I wasn’t well-known enough to be invited. Then I remembered that I don’t really like parties. Or making small talk with people I don’t know very well. Or the logistics involved with getting my family organised so I can jump on a plane and head interstate for a day.

The truth is, nothing is ever as great as it seems (in the same way nothing is ever as bad as it seems). Much of our jumping at opportunities comes from the fear of missing out. And the reality is, what we’re missing out on isn’t anywhere near as good as it looks on the surface.

3. You have more time than you think

Jenna Price wrote the most amazing article on this topic just this week. At age 60, not only is she still working, she’s loving her work and loving the ability to do so without the insane juggle all of us in our 30s and 40s are experiencing. The reality is, we’re all going to be working well into our 60s too. Because we’ll want to. Which means we have 20-30 more years to achieve our professional life goals. Which means we’ve got time to pause in our climb up the ladder to take a rest, or even – God forbid – enjoy the view from where we are once in a while!

4. There’s more than one way to skin a core value

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that one of my core values is achievement. The beauty of that value is: there are so many ways to satisfy it. The main reason we run into trouble is when we try to satisfy it according to the ‘people like me do things like this’ principle.

When I was a triathlete, people like me did Ironman events. That was what ‘achievement’ looked like. So I started training for one. Thankfully, I came to my senses one day (after a particularly horrendous six-hour ride). I realised I could satisfy my own personal ‘need to achieve’ in the sport by doing Half-Ironmans – a distance I actually enjoyed racing over.

As a writer, ‘achievement’ for people like me looks like a publishing deal. But it can also look like self-publishing three books and having people write to you and tell you one of your books has genuinely changed their life.

When you sit down and look at the core values that drive your behaviour, you’ll start to see that there are many different ways to satisfy those core values. And hopefully you’ll also be able to see where you’ve been caught up in striving for something simply because that’s what your peers are striving for.

(Another example: a staggering number of people I’ve come across in the online world did Law degrees after high school/college simply because they ‘got the score/grades’ for Law School and if you got those grades, that’s what you did. Then they finished those degrees and discovered they didn’t actually want to be a lawyer. While I don’t think any life experience is ever a waste, it still pains me to see people pursuing a line of study they’re not really interested in.)

5. Be at peace with your current season of life

Maybe you’re the parent of young kids. Maybe you’re in the early stages of building a business. Maybe your partner is ill.

The demands all these things put on your life can really chafe.

This is a good time to again refer to Jenna Price’s piece.

Nothing is forever. Our kids become more independent. Our businesses become successful enough that we can step out of them. Our ill partner gets better. As mentioned already:

  • While opportunities might pass us by during certain seasons of our life, there will always be others.
  • We have so much more time than we think.
  • When you look back, you will regret missing the opportunity to be truly present and content in the current season of your life much more than you will any of the other opportunities you pass on.

6. Practise the subtle art of self-compassion

When you find yourself fretting and overwhelmed, write down exactly how you are feeling. Let it sit for a day. The next day, pick up those words and read them as if they were written by a friend of yours. What advice would you give that friend? Now, give yourself permission to follow that advice.

Too often we think we’re ‘different’; that what applies to other people doesn’t apply to us. We think we’re superheroes.

Fact is, we’re not. We’re just the same as everyone else and need to extend the same level of kindness and permission to ourselves that we extend to others.

7. Get comfortable with fairly constant re-calibration

Here’s the cycle my life currently follows:

  • I feel overwhelmed by all the things I’ve committed to.
  • I do a rationalisation exercise where I look at everything I’ve got going on, figure out which are the most important to me/which are taking me closer to the life I want to live … and then un-commit myself from the things that don’t tick those boxes.
  • Life eases up for a while. I have whitespace. It’s nice.
  • An opportunity presents itself. I take it on because that’s why I freed up time – to be able to take on cool stuff.
  • Another opportunity presents itself, I take that on too.
  • Eventually, I find myself feeling a bit overwhelmed again.
  • I resist the temptation to berate myself (see point 6 above).
  • I do a new rationalisation/recalibration exercise …

I reckon I re-calibrate once every 8-12 months. The trigger is when that feeling of extreme overwhelm lasts for more than two weeks. Recalibrating once every 8-12 months might seem crazy but it beats the heck out of what I used to do which was exist in a permanent state of stress and anxiety not to mention burnout all the time and have changes forced on me.

8. Resist the urge to normalise overwhelm

Everywhere you look, you see people just like you – rushing madly from one thing to another with barely any time to breathe. This is just life, right? Especially for those of us who are parents.

Well, it’s not.

Just because everyone is doing something doesn’t make it right.

We need to stop normalising overwhelm. We need to know where the line between ‘pleasantly busy’ and ‘on the edge of burnout’ is … and stop walking it.

We need to start giving ourselves to step back and re-calibrate on a regular basis.

And what I’ve noticed is this: when we give ourselves this permission, by default we’re giving others permission they need to do the same.