What To Do When You Feel Spread Too Thin

August 21, 2023
What To Do When You Feel Spread Too Thin

Ever feel like all you do is put out fires? Or that you’re running around crazed but not much ever gets done fully or done in a way you feel great about? Are you feeling guilty for not having enough time for the things that matter most to you?

I am raising my hand right now, are you? You aren’t alone.

Most women feel like this most of the time. Most of us feel that we’ve got a million things to do and that we’re coming up short on all of them. This is insanely stressful.

It’s in part so stressful because we care – none of us want to do a crappy job.

We want to be a good friend, a good partner, a good teammate and a good family member. Many of us are moms and oh yeah, do we ever want to do a good job at that! You may also be an employee, volunteer, boss or entrepreneur and you love to crush it at those things too.

How often do you feel like you’re trying to do it all so well, but doing at best a mediocre job or maybe flat out failing on at least one of these?

I know there are times when I feel like I’m screwing up literally all of them, all the time, all day long. At the same time I feel “so busy” but like I’m spinning my wheels and getting nowhere.

Yet at other times we feel like we’re doing really well at one and woefully underperforming in another and that feels almost as bad as failing at them all because it comes with the guilt that we should be spending our time differently or prioritizing one area more than we are but we feel pulled to put more time and attention in another as it’s demanding that of us right now. This is essentially the plight of mothers juggling work and family or women caring for an aging parent and struggling to hold the rest of their life together.

We’re sold the idea of “work-life balance” but the truth is, you will never be able to “balance” it because the reality of your work and life demands is that they are never equal – something always requires a bit more of you at any given time.

Work-life balance is a lie that keeps us feeling guilty for not doing better. This is an outdated notion that to get it right as a woman means to do it all, do it well, tend to everything equally – oh, and look good doing it.

If balance isn’t the answer, what is? 

I didn’t create this analogy but I’ve worked with it personally and taught it to every woman I work with for over a decade, so it’s taken on a Dr Brooke glow this point. It’s the four burner metaphor.

The Four Burner Metaphor vs. The Impossible Idea of Balance

Imagine a stove with four burners, each with a full pot on it. When you’re cooking a big meal like Thanksgiving we know how hard it is to time out all those dishes and not over or undercook any one of them. They are all important and their variety yet common theme make that meal so special and comprehensive.

There’s a real art to having everything done at the same time given different cooking times and varying temperatures. With a big, beautiful feast – which I am going to liken to your big, beautiful life –  we can’t burn something to a crisp or have one dish not be done until three hours after the rest of the meal.

Admittedly when I cooked my first Thanksgiving that’s exactly what happened.

I had all the other dishes done at 4:30PM as planned and the turkey….well it was done at 10PM that night because oven in my rented apartment really wasn’t working properly and I didn’t know to test it prior to this big cook. Either way it was Thanksgiving Round 2 sometime around midnight.

There’s an art to having lots of pots on the stove.

You have to attend to them all, keep some carefully on high and others at a low simmer on the back burner depending on what’s the priority right now and how they fit into your overall plan.

You can’t have everything on simmer if you want anything to actually get done, lest you end up like me with a very late Thanksgiving turkey. You also can’t have everything on full boil either or you’ll have a big, bubbled over, smoky smelling, burnt mess.

Now imagine it’s not stuffing and sweet potatoes on the stove but your priorities.

Just like dinner you can’t have them all on full tilt or all not even getting warm or a couple of things will happen:

  1. You have a very stressful mess trying to keep things all on boil, running around trying to put out fires and feeling very frazzled in the process. And often finding yourself saying things like, “This just isn’t working, I’m a mess!” or “I can’t keep going like this…”.
  2.  Nothing gets done right or on time and you feel like a failure.

I’ve been in both spots personally, perhaps you can relate. For most of my life I ran with everything on full boil, trying to do it all and sacrificing sleep, my hormones and my happiness in the process. It was as you can imagine an utter mess.

The only thing to do once everything boils over is to stop everything for a bit, clean up your messes, try and recover – and probably have a good cry.

And unlike your kitchen, if those messes are your hormones or your health, they may take a very long time, maybe months or years to clean up.

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More recently, in my midlife mess I found myself with everything on simmer – or rather, feeling unable to even turn the burner for most of my pots. There I was, just staring at those pots (AKA my life’s goals and priorities) wondering what’s wrong with me. I spent about a year wracking my brain for why I can’t get it together, find the motivation to get going on that thing I keep saying I want.

I was stuck. I talk about getting un-stuck on this amazing interview with Britt. Frank, LSCSW author of The Science of Stuck on the Dr. Brooke Show. Listen here.

Both approaches – everything on fire or not enough fire – leave us feeling very stressed out and not accomplishing the things we want, getting the results or the rest we need and feeling incapable of focusing on the things that matter most to us.

Wondering what should be in your pots? What matters most to you? Be sure to do this FREE Core Value exercise: Finding Your Inner Compass.

Fire and fizzling out aren’t our only options. Here’s what works better:

Once you know what matters most to you, girl we gotta rotate the pots.

You can have one or maybe two things going full steam, but not all of them.

You can leave one, two or three things on simmer, but not all of them – or at least not for very long.

And you can’t only have one area of your life on fire while you neglect to turn on the other burners.

Having everything on full boil is overwhelming. Having everything on simmer or letting the fire go out on a few pots is underwhelming.

The goal is to be whelmed.

When we try to do it all we pay the price with our health: late nights with missed sleep, skipping workouts, unable to eat in a way that works for us and grabbing convenient choices that don’t support our health.

We also pay the price with bringing frazzled low quality energy to every area because we simply can’t be 100% on and focused and present in all areas all the time. We spend time with our families stressing about work to get done. When we’re working, we feel guilty that we aren’t tending to our kids, families, health or personal life enough.

On the other hand when we’re not doing anything we feel stuck, we don’t grow and we miss that little spark of challenge that motivates us and keeps our brains sharp.

Doing too much is overwhelming but doing nothing is depressing.

Think stress is all bad? Think again. Too much stress is terrible for us, we know that but the right dose of stress keeps us alive, keeps us growing and engaged. And honestly, there will always be some stress in your life so we need to rethink how we view stress.

I talk about exactly that in this episode of the Dr. Brooke Show.

So think about what matters most to you, your priorities in this life (at least right now, our priorities in our 20s likely will not be the same as in our 40s, etc.) as the contents of those pots on the burners and ask yourself these questions:

What needs to be on full boil right now?

How long does it need to be on full boil?

When do I need to reevaluate what is on boil and what is on simmer?

Most of us will have career/work, family or parenting, extended family care, health, hobbies or travel in our pots. Others may have community service or volunteering or other priorities. You get to decide where your attention goes and for how long. You can think of this like seasons or as Taylor would say: Eras.

If you’re unsure, again do the Core Value Exercise. It provides so much clarity and takes so much stress out of your decision because you already know: does this support what matters most to me? Great, goes in the pot. If not, toss it.

Here are some things to think about you as you decide what gets to be on high and what’s gonna be chillin’ on the back burner and for how long:

Are you up for a promotion or on a major deadline? Career better be on high.

Does your family really need you right now – an illness, a challenge with a child, caring for an aging parent, a friend going through a divorce? If yes, then your family or friends pot needs to get off simmer and over the fire.

Do you need to tend to your health more right now due to a goal or a health issue? Turn up the heat there. Work may need to simmer.

Or have you been going all out and need to put most of the burners on simmer for a few weeks to recover? Turn everything down and mark your calendar for when you need to turn up the heat somewhere.

Notice I said, “what needs to be on full boil right now”. Every so often, for you it may be every week, month, quarter or year, you gotta rotate those pots.

Ideally we don’t want to totally turn off the burner on any one pot either.

Just because work is front and center right now, we don’t want to completely neglect your health – or your family. So maybe this is targeted workouts that are shorter and you’re not training for an event or working towards a huge goal, but you’re also not getting any exercise at all.  And if you’re needing to focus a lot on your health or your work right now we can’t totally ignore your family obligations entirely.

With this idea everything gets some attention but not everything gets your all. What is getting your all right now, doesn’t get it forever but rather for a set amount of time then it gets to simmer down a bit.

If you’ve been full on with work, make a shift or plan when you can shift more energy and focus to your health or your personal life or family.  If you’ve been stuck and not able to get it together in one area, find a way to turn up the heat there and turn it down somewhere else.

The point is we can’t be all on all the time in all areas because it’s far too stressful and other than during times of recovery, we don’t want to be neglecting the pursuit of  things that make us happy or challenge us to grow in some way. We know too much stress is bad for us, but a bit of stress about things that matter to us, for a set time that we feel in control of can be a really good thing to keep us moving forward, growing and becoming better.

It keeps us whelmed.

Rotate the pots. Decide how long a season or era should last and simply keep checking in and adjusting as needed.

Can’t I just ignore those pots on simmer?

These are still a priority, they made it into the precious real-estate of your four little burners and it’s easy to feel guilty about those other things that matter to you. You may wonder if that one pot is getting enough fire often enough.

Because you can’t do it all of the time, when we’re under a lot of stress in one area it’s easy to neglect big chunks of your life, leaving one pot on boil and the others are getting no fire at all.

This is just as big a mess as everything boiling over.

Neglecting other priorities and focusing on just one brings a lot of guilt and self-doubt. If we are not tending to our health or our families because we’re overly focused on work for example. OR we miss career opportunities because we turned down the work burner too much for too long we’re just as unhappy as when we have an out of control fire.

The antidote for this guilt is two fold:

Don’t forget to rotate those pots. Make a plan for when you will reevaluate what area of your life gets the most attention. Again, it can be daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly – whatever works for you.

And because something will always require a bit more of your attention at any given time, when the majority of your time has to be spent in one area increase the quality of the time  you spend in the other areas.

Focus more on what you bring to this area of your life vs. how many hours you spend there. Make the time you do spend in each area the very best it can be. Be fully present, minimize distractions and when you’re there, really be there.

I unpack this idea of quality of time vs. quantity of time in greater detail in this article

Trying to find work-life balance feels like walking a tightrope carrying a heavy load. I feel this idea has made more women miserable and feeling like they are failing in so many ways and I also believe that finding your core values or what goes into your pots decreases a lot of daily stress around decision making. Should I eat this or that, go to the gym now or later, call my mom or have a glass of wine and distract from the uncomfortable feelings, play a game with my kids or write this blog post – all of these things drain willpower and feel stressful if we’re deciding moment to moment.  However if we are already clear what’s in our priority pots and what’s on simmer or boil, it’s much less stress, hand wringing and drama to know what to do in this moment.

When we’re more clear on our priorities, daily stress goes way down and this is important because while we are constantly sold the idea of “stress management” and maybe we use those tactics most women I speak with are more stressed than ever. Some stress we can eliminate, outsource, get help with, let go of in some way and other stresses will be here to stay at least for a season so the real transformation becomes in how we handle that stress that has to stay.

I hope this perspective of the four burners helps you feel lighter and less stressed while still taking care of what matters most to you. I hope as well it gives you the self-trust you need to let go a bit. To know that if you turn a burner down for now you can trust yourself that you aren’t walking away from it indefinitely or even neglecting it entirely.

Now if you haven’t already, do the core value exercise so you are clear on what goes in those pots!

If you’d like to hear more about this strategy be sure to listen to this episode of the Dr. Brooke Show.

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