A friend who has a lot on her plate right now -- multiple diagnoses in her family -- told me a story the other day. It was an anxious story in which she had to get her four children, ages 4 through 15, to their four simultaneous occupational-therapy appointments (thankfully, all in the same location) at 8:30 in the morning, and in which she must not be late lest she be levied an expensive fine.
This story is re-enacted every week, and, she said, she has never quite managed to Do All The Things: feed all four of them breakfast, make sure all four have clean clothes and neat hair, supervise toothbrushing, get herself fed and dressed and neatly groomed, and ensure that everyone has taken his or her meds. "I just can't do all of it. It is hard enough getting just one of my children out the door. And then I feel terrible because I can't do all these things that I have to do and still get them in to the appointments on time.
"And then of course, the therapists and teachers give me work to do with each of the children at home -- and that is another thing I can't do all of. I have four kids with challenges. I just can't do what they all need."
She finished her tale, complete with detailed descriptions of real, difficult struggles, and asked me: "How do you figure out what to do and what to skip, when you just can't do everything that you have to do? How do you -- filter the things that have to be done? And how do you not feel bad afterwards that you had to skip things?"
I couldn't answer, so our other friend who was there answered for me. "I know one of the ways you do it. You look outside yourself for some kind of role model, another example of a person who seems to be doing all right. Or, I notice sometimes, you might ask Mark what he thinks is the most important, and if he gives you his opinion, you'll go with that. And you'll carry that out and you don't generally second-guess that decision once it's made."
"You're right -- I do that," I mused. As I reflect on the conversation, I think perhaps I am often concerned that the perceptions inside my own head of what accomplishments are important -- and what deficiencies other people will notice and judge me for -- are theoretical, not connected with reality. I sort of double-check them, by comparing them to what another admirable or at least "normal" person would do, or else by running the question by my husband (since he has to live with more consequences of my decisions than most other people do). And once I am satisfied that I have arrived at a possible, not-crazy solution, I enact it, and move on.
Reflecting more, though, I think this power is available to me in some contexts but not in others. I remember feeling very at-sea back when I was in graduate school and still trying to cobble together All The Things so I could finish my thesis and acquire the experiences that would help me get a good postdoctoral job. It was clear that doing All The Things was not possible, particularly after I had my first child, and I never did feel confident that I chose them correctly.
So even though I don't have nearly the kind of challenges on my plate that my friend does with her children -- I do remember a time when I felt I could not do all the things that I was "supposed" to do, and I remember the feelings of impotence that went along with it.
+ + +
One of the things I noticed while my friend was talking to me was the frequent occurrence of the phrase "I can't." It bugged me (and I know, this isn't about me, and it isn't about my comfort with the words she chooses; still, I couldn't stop noticing it). I wondered if maybe some different words to call on would help. I thought about the situation overnight and the next day dashed off an email suggesting this:
Instead of speaking or thinking the words
"I can't do everything I have to do/ought to do",
try these or similar words:
"I have a lot of responsibilities, so I have to prioritize."
This strikes me as useful, I wrote to her, because it is
- (A) true
- (B) honors the huge amount of work she accomplishes every day
- (C) is a good personal mantra that anyone can repeat to herself especially in overwhelming situations
- (D) is a useful "script" that would be helpful if it were the first thing that comes out of her mouth when someone tries to pile on some additional work or yet another expectation.
So, to take an example my friend described, if the therapist were to say,
"I'd like you to go home and take a photograph of every chore and activity that your kindergartener has to do every day at home, so that we could make a visual aid for him to use in the therapy room."
instead of saying immediately "I guess I could do that" (and thereby committing to following through), or else protecting herself by saying "I can't do that" (which might not even be true), the first reply could be
"Well, I do have a lot of responsibilities, so I have to prioritize."
Which should be a cue for the therapist either to give her more information to judge exactly how important and helpful the visual aid is, or to suggest a less involved project. And it gives her time to think: How much time would I have to commit? When would that block of time come along? Maybe saying no to this is the best choice. On the other hand, if it turns out that it would be worth my time, maybe I can do at least some of it.
+ + +
Another example could be about expectations. This example is something that my friend told herself:
"You ought to make sure that all four children have had a good breakfast before they come to therapy in the morning."
But there is a reply to that:
"Maybe. I have a lot of responsibilities going on at once while we are getting ready to leave, so I have to prioritize."
And indeed, it may not be worth the effort to make sure that they all eat breakfast and that the breakfast they eat is a "good" one before therapy. After all, there will be other chances to eat throughout the morning, so perhaps forcing food into the ones who aren't hungry enough to spontaneously eat would be counterproductive, and the time could be better spent helping them find clean clothes and managing outbursts.
+ + +
I added two notes.
(1) Take care that the statement "I have to prioritize" doesn't represent an additional burden (another thing you "have to do") but instead represents a simply true statement that follows from the normal limitations of human beings. Perhaps you might prefer language similar to
"I have a lot of responsibilities, so at all times I am going to prioritize among them."
...just because it lacks the possible emotional trigger words "I have to."
(2) Prioritizing happens in the time that is available.
Sometimes you have sufficient time to sit down and analyze the competing responsibilities carefully according to the goals that make the most sense.
Sometimes the available time is short, and the prioritization happens with only brief thought. This still counts as prioritizing.
The minimum deliberate prioritization is to stop for a moment to ask yourself "wait -- what is the reason that I have all these tasks to choose from in this moment? Which ones, if not done, will really keep me from accomplishing that goal?"
(So, for example, on those hectic pre-appointment mornings, the entire reason my friend is rushed is so the kids can get to their therapy sessions. Therefore it's reasonable to assume that having a fruitful therapy session is the main goal of the morning. So one prioritization strategy would be to skip, abbreviate, or postpone all tasks that don't actually affect the quality of the therapy session.)
But on the rare occasions that we don't have time even to ask ourselves that one question and answer it briefly, we do prioritize without deliberation (maybe instinctively, or maybe using some other habitual, unconscious rule). Because we find ourselves choosing tasks until we run out of time or strength to choose any more. And then when it's all over, no matter how much time you had and no matter how conscious we were about our choices, we can say about our actions in that overwhelming moment,
"I had a lot of responsibilities, so I prioritized them."
It's also true, also a mantra, and also a perfectly acceptable answer to anyone who questions the judgment that went into the prioritization.
Indeed, there is no sensible retort to this statement. If challenged, the best response is probably just to keep repeating it until the challenger backs down. This is a way to set a boundary: you get to claim the right to use your own judgment in a difficult situation, and there are very few people who have the right to criticize that judgment without your permission -- only the ones who are very close to you, directly affected by your choices and so in possession of potentially useful feedback information, or who have demonstrably walked in your shoes.
If it feels emotionally safe, I think you can revisit how you prioritized in retrospect. Faced with responsibilities to do A, B, and C, you chose to complete A, to do a half-job of B, and to discard C; why was that? Maybe exploring whether there is a habitual or unconscious rule that you follow will help you construct conscious, examined rules of thumb that you can quickly call upon. Maybe that will give you confidence that you can prioritize wisely.
But unless it helps you look forward and move forward, looking back might not even be worth doing -- depending on your priorities.