I got to do one of my favorite things last week. I moderated a panel discussion for the Women SCORE Higher Conference sponsored by the Service Corp of Retired Executives, aka SCORE. The conference’s theme was Healthy Mind, Body & Business, and the panel discussion was all about “Coming into Balance.” The conversation was a lot of fun and chock full of insights about burnout and tips for how to stop being a victim to the grind of everyday life.
I love participating in panel discussions because you never know what new perceptions will pop up. Listening to the opinions of several people answering the same question is insightful, whether the answers build on each other or are entirely different. One of my biggest take-aways from the session was saying “no” and letting go – two things I am notoriously bad at doing.
One of the panelists suggested having a list of criteria, or a rubric, that she uses to help her make decisions about what she’ll say “yes” to, which is an excellent, structured way of avoiding getting in over your head. But, the biggest gem I discovered was from an audience question – "What do I do if I’ve said yes to things I shouldn’t have, and now I’m drowning?" Everyone on the panel agreed; sometimes, you simply have to let go and move on.
Right now is an excellent time to decide what to give up. COVID has changed so much over the past two years. So, this pause is a fantastic opportunity to look at what was working and not working before and make changes – that includes rethinking all the projects we’ve hung onto for years. I recently had drinks with a friend I worked with on the huge ArtAID fundraiser for 20 years. While it was an amazing event with an extravagant fashion show and art auction that raised over $1.5 million, we were shocked at how long that event kept going, especially after we should have moved on.
These conversations have me thinking – if we can have a rubric for when to say “no,” we can also create criteria to know when to let go. I need this because I've always had a hard time knowing when to quit. I got it in my head a long time ago that quitting is a bad thing, so I’ll try to keep things going even when it’s past time to stop. I obviously need an objective tool to help me, so here’s what I’ve come up with:
When was the last time this project brought me joy?
Someone close to me reminded me recently of my “Joy Suck” rule – when anything is sucking the joy out of my life, it has to go! It’s a good rule to keep in mind, and I couldn’t believe I needed that reminder.
Am I continuing this project out of a sense of duty, or am I stuck?
Continuing to work on something because you think you should will turn any project into an uninspired drudge that usually doesn’t work for anyone involved. Feeling numb can be a strong signal you're not fully engaged. So let go and open up the position for someone else who will be inspired by a new challenge and move on to something new to reignite your spark. Term limits on boards happen for a good reason.
Do the reasons to step away outweigh the reasons to stay?
Good old pros versus cons lists help gain insight – only if you’re super honest with yourself and dig deeper than a few obvious answers. Even when one list is longer than the other, you get to decide which side is weightier and means more in making the best decision for you.
How much give and take are involved in this project?
Because I like to help people and want to make the world a better place, I’ll often put my needs on the back burner. That needs to change. Years ago, I cut out relationships in my life that weren’t equal parts of give and take. I have recently realized the same can happen while working on projects. Knowing my worth is recognizing that I deserve to receive and not just give until it hurts in work situations.
Have I tried everything I can to make this work?
I know myself well enough to know that it’s hard for me to give up if I feel I've left any stones unturned. Sometimes there are lessons to be learned and growth to be achieved by trying to work things out. Are there boundaries I haven’t upheld? Have I clearly communicated my expectations?
As a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, I’ve also learned that “making things work” isn’t always up to me. People can be toxic, and if I don’t have the support of the other people in the equation, there is no way I can succeed. So if what I’ve tried doesn’t seem to make any difference and still isn’t good enough, I know it’s not about me, and I have to let go.
Do I feel like I’m losing my mind?
Another lesson I learned from the Hard Knock Academy is that when I’m around toxic people and situations, I start to feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience. My brain gets foggy, and I question my judgment. I’m beginning to realize this feeling happens when a trigger from past trauma pops up before I even know what’s happening. Thankfully I can recognize this feeling that I’m going crazy as a red flag now and realize that I’m in an unhealthy situation that I must step away from immediately.
What does my body say?
Our bodies really do have a mind of their own and have so much to tell us if we listen. My body has learned that subtly doesn’t work with me, and it has to send a strong message that I can’t ignore to let me know something needs to give.
Because I hold tension in my throat, I have problems swallowing when I get super-duper stressed. When this first started, I went to three different doctors to find out what was happening. They all told me nothing was wrong and that it was stress. So now I know that when I can't swallow, it's time to make a change.
What do I really want out of my life?
I just celebrated a birthday, so this question is on my mind. I still have so many things I want to do with my life, but I've finally realized that my time on this earth is finite. Making a list of the top four projects I want to make a reality with the time I have left helps me prioritize what I want to get done. Losing focus on where I want my journey to take me makes it easy to get lost along the way, allowing someone else’s priority to become my project and wasting my precious time.
How will I let go?
Knowing it’s time to let go and actually making changes are two different things. Whether you’re rethinking a friendship, marriage, job, or community service, continuing to do something you don’t enjoy only makes you miserable. Martyrdom doesn’t look good on anyone.
It’s okay to cut back, though there will be people who won’t be happy about it. The guilt of letting others down is powerful, but it may also be a sign that you’ve let others become too dependent on you.
Depending on how entrenched you are, it may take some time to orchestrate your departure. Sometimes the best way to quit is to take baby steps. Sometimes the right way to leave is to run screaming down the street. Take some time to sit in stillness and consider your options rather than act rashly or in anger. It helps me to write everything out because as I’m writing, more answers come to me so I can make a dignified plan before I act.
This really is all about you.
Quitting takes bravery. It’s scary to make a decision and act on it to step out into the unknown. But I’ve found that every time I’ve broken the yoke to run free, it feels like a lifetime of weight has been taken off my shoulders.
No one ever said you have to continue what you're doing forever. Just because you start something doesn’t mean the responsibility can’t be passed to someone else or put aside to free you to create another fabulous something new.
Remember, this is your life, and it really is all about you. It’s time to let go of what is expected of you and live YOUR life.
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