Many times over my career I have felt overcommitted, like work was filling more than a healthy share of my time and energies. And since there are only so many hours in a day, allowing work commitments to expand unchecked comes at the expense of activities with family and friends, as well as self-care. As I pondered how I managed to dig myself out to land in a better (if still busy) place, it was clear that each time required a different solution.
One of the first memories that came to mind was when I was an untenured professor and mom with young children. A deadline was looming for a grant or a paper, but I was being pulled in too many directions to focus. My understanding husband (and professional colleague) took our two daughters on a father-daughter camping trip in the Adirondacks over Labor Day weekend. I felt bad about not being there to help (and missing out on the fun), but channeled the emotions into focusing for 3+ days on the task at hand and got it done. To this day, when we see photos or family videos taken on that trip, the girls (now accomplished women) bubble over with enthusiasm about that fun trip they shared with their dad. So lesson #1: if you are lucky to have a partner or other family member who can pitch in, take them up on it and then provide the same favor when they need it.
Another instance stands out when I had committed to writing a book chapter. All the times I had reserved for thinking about that chapter kept getting eaten up with other equally pressing tasks. As the deadline got closer, I realized that I was not going to make it. I hated asking my colleague who was editing the book for an extension but had to do it. I remember how gracious he was as we negotiated a new deadline and how grateful I felt to have bought more time to be able to do a good job on the chapter. It was about that time that I learned the truism that you are never going to be less busy in the future than you are today. So lesson #2: if you agree to do a big project, then you have to decline some other requests (e.g., journal reviews, guest lectures) in order to make room in the schedule.
The final example I will share (trust me, I could go on!) is not so much a distinct time but a recurring situation – feeling like there is too much to do, the email inbox will never be tamed again, and observing myself pinging from one commitment to another without time to think. As any good psychologist knows, it’s always easier to give other people good advice than to apply that good judgment to yourself. I am fortunate to have a trusted colleague who can help me articulate what has to happen versus what is optional. As a result of this peer mentoring, I have forced myself to sit down and apply the important-urgent matrix to my to-do list: some things are important and urgent (do right away), some are important but not urgent (schedule and protect time for these – I put exercise in this category), and a whole bunch of things are just not important and so can fall to the bottom of the to-do list for when there is time (lesson #3). Rarely has anything terrible happened when I did not show up to a meeting or attend a talk or respond to that survey. Separating what you might like to do or what others want you to do from what has to get done is tough sometimes, but it is a skill that gets easier with practice.