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The Self-Deception of Being Overworked

Sometimes we tell we are very busy with a sense of pride; if we are busy, it means we are probably important, wanted and successful.

Some other times we truly suffer, we are tired, exhausted, and overworked. We truly wish we could learn to “say no”.

This is often a trap, a form of self-deception; and we may not need to “learn to say: "no"”, we may actually need to “learn to say: "yes, and”...?"

There are times when we are boasting to be super-busy in order to sound important, and we wear the “busy image” as a sort of badge of honor. There are other times when we are actually so busy that we do not even find the energy to talk about it; we desperately try to finish our work (in the office and at home) and then just collapse (on the couch or directly in bed).

We all have some of these dreadful moments when we hardly have the time to breathe. When these moments become the norm rather than the exception, however, something is truly wrong in our survival system.

Several of my clients confess that they too often get dangerously close to establishing a norm of being constantly overworked; and they typically blame themselves for not being able to “say no” to the many requests that come their way.

Whatever the declared reason for disliking to “say no” (e.g. inclination to please; fear of being seen as unfit/unable; excessive sense of responsibility, need to constantly prove our abilities) the apparently obvious conclusion and intuitive next step might be to learn to "say no". Right?

Well, if it only were that simple! If it were just a question of learning a trick, we would never be overworked. The reality is that there is something deeper preventing us from simply responding with a "no". Think about it: we all know some people who are all always pushing back, refusing to do as asked, or to help, to take on some additional tasks or to lend a hand; there are some (a few) who tend to “say no” to virtually everything. And we do not particularly like these people, do we? We actually hate them. So how can we force ourselves to become like someone we hate? That is why "saying no" is never going to come easy, no matter how long we practice. It is too much against our values. So what can we do?

The counter-intuitive solution to this dilemma is actually to continue to “say yes”, but to add something, specifically add the genuine curiosity about what exactly has prompted the question in the first place. Saying "yes, and ... ?" opens up a whole lot of possibilities, many of which will not involve us getting overworked.

Let me explain:

FIRST OF ALL, whatever value we honor when we “say yes”, we cannot disregard it or step on it. Let's say that we value generosity, or caring for others; we cannot change our personality and ignore the request of someone who needs help; our nature needs to help. Or maybe we pride ourselves of being flexible and resilient, i.e. able to change course and take on additional tasks at any time; we will certainly dislike ourselves if we have to play the inflexible role of “this was not what was agreed, I will not change or add anything”.

BUT, what we tend to forget is that our values might lead us to making some black and white and sometimes false assumptions. For example, if we pride ourselves of being resourceful, i.e. we would not ask for help unless we have really tried and failed first, we might assume the same of others. Or we might be very caring and only ask others to help when it is really necessary, assuming the same of others. Or we might be very selective in our priorities and assume the same of others. Or we might be so conscious of our competence to assume that we are the only ones who can do/solve/address the most critical things, thus finding it normal to be always needed; and so on. Do you see where I am heading? We may tend to take every request at face value as “urgent and important, right now” without double-checking. If and when we check, we might get surprised: maybe the person who asks wants to get a project of minor importance off her to-do list and finds it easier to give it to us rather than being more selective with her own priorities; or the person who asks does already have the solution, but feels much better if someone else come up with the same; or, as terrible as it might be to admit it, others have noticed how willing and happy we are to help out and continue to feed us with requests, because it is just so easy! These are just some examples, but you see the point.

Therefore I infer that it can be very useful to replace ”saying yes” not with “saying no” but with ”saying yes and... let me understand exactly what is needed here”. In this way, we continue to honor our values, we continue to show our care, generosity, flexibility, resilience, etc. but we learn something more that can help us better “dose” our efforts, because not everything is needed right now and done by me personally.

Many find that this approach opens surprising doors of opportunity. Try it out and let me know what you discover! Do add a comment below, or send me your inputs at laura@grooa.com

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