Once I know what matters and what doesn’t, and I’m chugging along nicely at 70 percent capacity, it’s only a matter of time before I slip up and start filling in the blank spaces and inching toward 100 percent capacity or beyond.
In my state of ease, I can fall prey to the inevitable tide of overcommitment that can easily roll in when I’m not paying attention.
The holidays arrive and I forget to leave room for all the doingness that goes along with special meals, events, gifts and traditions. A fun project comes my way and I giddily say yes to it before I fully calculate the cost/benefit. I start a course. I make a new friend. I embark on a new hobby. I read a book that inspires me to change the way I eat. We go on a trip. We get a dog. We start a renovation.
Any number of things can come along to mess up the order I’ve created and dislodge my perfect schedule and well-built boundaries. Such is life. The trick is to have an early warning system that sets off alarms long before I hit overwhelm.
In the early 1900s, miners used to keep caged canaries with them to warn them if dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide, reached lethal levels. If the canary keeled over, it was time to evacuate.
What is the canary in your coal mine?
For me it’s when I drop my morning exercise, start skipping meals or wake up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts. Any of these three things warns me that I’ve got too much on my plate. I know that sleep, food and exercise are such essential aspects of my life that when they suffer, it’s a sign that I’ve let too many other things creep in.
Maybe for you it’s noticing when your anxiety starts to climb. Maybe you start pouring a little more wine into your glass than you normally do. Or you start yelling at the kids. Or you stop wanting to have sex. Or you start eating fast food or scarfing down chocolate bars or skipping your daily walk.
When we’re over capacity, the care we know we need often is the first to go. Ironically, it’s when we have a lot on our plates that we most need to be the fully resourced, yet it’s our fundamental needs—sleep, good food, breaks, movement—that often get set aside. But the more depleted we get, the less equipped we are to handle the strain of our overcommitted life.
We live in a world that applauds our doing and celebrates those that seem to get things done at seemingly herculean levels. It takes practice to opt out of our do, do, do culture and opt-in to something more meaningful and easeful. So, don’t be surprised if you get lured back in from time to time.
And if you’re someone like me who is interested in a lot of things, and loves to meet new people, and is always up for a new adventure or path or area of growth, you might find yourself susceptible to overcommitting from time to time. I sure do. I’m tickled to be asked to volunteer. I love when a friend texts and asks to get together. I want to try the new restaurant, read the latest bestseller, and join the movement. I can easily get swept away in a wave of enthusiasm and excitement before I realize I’ve take on too much.
But I’ve figured out a way to catch things before they get too far gone. The tool I use to keep tabs on myself is my daily centering practice.
Once a day I spend thirty minutes with myself. For me, it’s always worked best to do this first thing in the morning. I wake up, make my tea, and then I sit with myself. I notice what I’m feeling and what thoughts are dominating my mind. I feel into my body to scan for any anxiety or tension. In a way, I’m getting a weather report for how I’m doing on the inside.
This daily check-in offers a way to notice if I’m dragging or to catch negative patterns quickly. I use my journal to note how I’m feeling and what’s on my mind, and then I consider my options. Do I need to change my circumstances or my mindset? Do I need to repromise or renegotiate some of my commitments? Do I need to talk something through with someone to help get some clarity? I feel into what’s burdening me and then I tend to it… long before it hits overwhelm.
By the way, I offer a whole course on my website about establishing a daily centering practice. It’s free and only takes about an hour to complete. You can find it at KristenManieri.com.
I love the work of Karla McLaren. In fact, I’ve interviewed her twice on my podcast: once about her book Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion (episode 84) and once about her book The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (episode 10). What I’ve learned from Karla is that our feelings—anxiety, overwhelm, tension, etc.—are signals. They’re trying to get our attention so we can do something about what’s causing us strain. These feelings are here to help us, not weigh us down, which only happens when we ignore them.
To have a daily practice of checking in with ourselves gives us access to the signals our bodies are sending. It gives us the opportunity to listen and stop ignoring them.
Try it out for two weeks. Spend 10 minutes a day—any time of day that you can keep a consistent practice—and just check in with yourself. Ask yourself: How am I doing and feeling? Am I taking good care of myself? I’d love to hear how it goes.
This being the last of a four-part series, I want to quickly recap and also leave you with and important proviso to this work.
To recap, get to know your capacity. Take an accurate reading of what you can realistically have on your plate at once, making sure to factor in the season you’re in and challenges you may be going through.
Second, spend some time getting really clear about the things that matter most to you—the parts of your life that make it worth living—and then begin to prioritize those and eliminate the things that don’t make the list. You can’t do it all. Choose with intention.
Of course, eliminating things that don’t matter, or at least not right now, will require you to start saying no to things. Develop your 24-hour “maybe” response, set and hold boundaries. Finally, know your canary in the coal mine. You’ll inevitably end up overloaded from time to time; life happens and we easily lose our focus. But when we know the things that tip us off to being on the verge of overwhelm, and we check in with ourselves regularly, we find our way back to a centered, more grounded place faster.
I would like to leave you with some thoughts about self-compassion, something I see as a critical ingredient of our growth. Here’s why: as we bring more awareness to our lives, we can often feel frustrated with ourselves for all the many, many moments that we seem to take two steps forward, and then two steps back. Even with my commitment to mindfulness and the integration of better habits and ways of living, I often fall asleep and default back to my over-doing self.
I’ve heard it said from many of my teachers that mindfulness is a bird with two wings. One is the wing of wisdom and the other is the wing of compassion. Mindfulness and the path of mindful living are not meant to be another means to be hard on ourselves, another thing we’re not getting right.
Instead, it’s a way that we begin to be better for others, but also better to ourselves. My humble request is that you approach this journey like a scientist who is curiously observing, inquiring and collecting data. We aim for progress, not perfection. There’s nowhere to get, no contest to win, no grade to earn. Practicing is the journey and there is no destination.
In this spirit of compassionate curiosity, we learn to accept our foibles, even laugh at them. We see our missteps as opportunities to grow and learn, not as failures or further evidence of our deficiency. We are all flawed, yet we are all simply trying to do our best in this wild, sometimes weary, world. Open your mind but also soften your heart.
Thank you for joining me for this series. I’ve got a few more nuggets to share before the end of the year, and then I think I’ll take a break for a while.
ABOUT KRISTEN MANIERI (COACH, HOST OF 60 MINDFUL MINUTES)
Kristen Manieri is a coach who works with teams to increase both productivity and wellbeing. She also helps individuals navigate transition with clarity and confidence. Her areas of focus are: stress reduction, energy management, mindset, resilience, habit formation, rest rituals, and self-care. As the host of the weekly 60 Mindful Minutes podcast, an Apple top 100 social science podcast, Kristen has interviewed over 200 authors about what it means to live a more conscious, connected, intentional and joyful life. She is the author of Better Daily Mindfulness Habits: Simple Changes with Lifelong Impact. Learn more at kristenmanieri.com/work-with-me.