My life hit the fan one ordinary weekend.
I was in the midst of running errands when it happened. I'd just settled into my car seat when I realized I'd forgotten the bills I intended to mail. As I dashed inside, the phone rang.
"Hey, Mona," my friend said cheerfully. "I haven't seen you in ages. Want to get together today?"
"Uh, sure, what time?" I said, distracted by my "to do" list. We set up the time and place, and I hung up the phone.
Then, on my way back to the car, I did something that startled even me: I sat down on the big rock by my driveway and cried so hard, I couldn't catch my breath.
Later that night, after my three-year-old was tucked into bed, I pondered why my friend's phone call had brought me to tears. My emotional meltdown showed me how stressed-out I was by life's demands—many of them self-induced. I needed to take better charge of my life. After all, God hadn't created me to run around constantly "chasing the wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14)—which was exactly what I felt I was doing!
The answer to my problem narrowed down to a simple word: "No." But the problem was that "yes" rolled off my tongue so easily that "no" seemed cumbersome … even embarrassing. So if someone needed snacks for the office, I'd bring them. If my child's playgroup was meeting, I organized not only the activity, but the crafts too. Add all this to working full-time, or full-time-plus when a rush project came along, and it's no wonder I was exhausted. Eventually I taped a neon "Just Say NO!" sign to my phone. Once I'd said "no" a few times, my lips began to form the word more confidently. It's still not easy, but I'm gradually gaining more balance in my life.
Are you feeling exhausted? If so, you may need to say the word "no" more often, too. Here's how.
Know Yourself … and Your Slots
What's your energy level? Personality? Family situation? How much "regroup" time do you need? Do you crave interaction, or run from it?
Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, trying to please everyone by "doing" only brings about exhaustion or bitterness. And that's certainly not the way God calls us to live. Psalm 139:1-3 makes it clear: "O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways." God knows your personality intimately because he made you, and he doesn't expect you to be someone you're not. He also knows you need to stop sometimes and rest.
So figure out how many activities a week you're comfortable with, and then consider those "available slots." For instance, my friend Mary craves time alone since she works in a busy office. One evening out a week is enough for her, so that's all she schedules. On the other hand, Claudia, a friend with incredible energy, schedules four evenings out and still longs for another!
When I was single and worked full-time, I booked every lunch during the week. After all, it was a great opportunity to grow relationships with someone other than my roommate. But after a year of running every day from work to lunch with a friend and then back to work, I discovered I needed some downtime. So I made a personal policy to book only three lunches a week and to save the other two for "necessity runs" (to buy groceries or run to the post office), or simply for some me-time (even if it meant sitting alone in my car to read an encouraging psalm while I ate my sandwich). When I got married, I lunched with friends twice a week and set a standing weekly lunch date with my sister, since it was more difficult for us to get together after work. Our Wednesday lunch date continues to this day.
Instead of blindly booking activities simply because they arise, make sure you save the slots in your schedule you need for "sanity time."
Learn to Prioritize
Some of your stress-inducing situations may be nonnegotiable—such as traveling for your job or keeping up with an energetic toddler. But other activities may be negotiable, such as hosting a wedding shower, chairing a "Fun Fair" at your school, or attending a Pampered Chef party. The crucial question is this: Do these negotiable activities stress you out … or energize you? Your answer will reveal whether or not your life is in balance. If your blood pressure rises when you even think about the activity, why not take a pass?
Recently I was invited to three product-demonstraton parties in friends' homes—all in one week. After thinking through my priorities (one of them being time for my husband in the evenings) and praying about my use of my time, I said "no" to all three. Although I felt guilty turning down the invites, I also felt relieved when I hung up the phone after each of these conversations. And because I'd said "no," I had the time and energy to say "yes" to an impromptu stroll later in the week—complete with a picnic and a chat by a bubbling fountain—with my soul-rejuvenating friend Linda.
God alone knows what's ahead for us and can help us sort out our priorities. As Jeremiah 29:11-13 says, "For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." But Scripture also says, "Commit your way to the Lord" (Psalm 37:5). We need to ask God to guide us—so we'll do what he has for us instead of doing everything that comes our way. Then we won't have to worry about "missing out."
Set a Limit—and Stick to It!
To most people, it's the getting together that counts, not the length of the stay. Even a short lunch can mean as much as an all-day outing. And telling friends or coworkers, "I have from 12:30 to 1:30 free for lunch. Would that work?" sets comfortable parameters for you.
Recently I had a Saturday with nothing planned—a rare treat indeed. I was looking forward to organizing my neglected photos when a good friend phoned to invite me to an impromptu party that was to start at 6 p.m. But because my "to do" list at home had been growing, I said, "I'd love to come. But I won't be there until 9 p.m. because I have to get some things done at home first." This response allowed me to be a real friend—and also protected me from a too-scheduled weekend.
Many of us juggle multiple roles, including keeping up a house/apartment, working either inside or outside the home, and playing "relationship fix-it" for people we love. Add a boyfriend or husband, kids, or in-laws and it's no wonder we feel overwhelmed at times! But setting a time limit—then sticking to it—can work wonders in balancing the demands of your multifaceted life.
I've discovered if I wait for others to come to me, I react by jumping to action and marking my calendar before I really have a chance to evaluate the activity or my looming schedule. Initiating activities gives me time for advance planning; it prepares me not only physically, but also emotionally.
So don't wait for others to contact you. Contact family and friends first. "I'd love to get together. How about two Saturdays from now, from 1:00-3:00?" When you do receive a phone call, say, "That sounds like fun. Let me check my schedule and get back to you." That will give you the emotional distance to evaluate your week realistically.
A friend of mine once quipped, "We women accomplish 90 percent of the world's workload … and we look and feel like it, too!" The reality is, we're afraid of letting people down even if we're driving ourselves crazy with activities. It's no surprise that "no" seems like a four-letter word we must avoid at all costs.
But "no" isn't a dirty word—in fact, sometimes it's one of the healthiest things we can say. After all, sometimes we have to say "no"—even to good things—in order to say "yes" to the best things. If we're constantly scurrying around like the well-known Martha in Luke 10:38-42, we won't have time to sit, like Mary, at Jesus' feet.
So go ahead … say "no" loudly. It won't kill you. In fact, it just may revolutionize your life.
Ramona Cramer Tucker is co-founder and editorial director of Oak Tara Publishers. www.oaktara.com. She and her family live in the Chicago area.
Copyright Â© 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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