Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should

full diaryLast year I realised I was using the phrase “I’m so busy! I need more hours in the day!” quite a lot. I felt stressed out because I was always working to the last minute of a deadline (despite starting things well in advanced and making a good effort to be organised). This got me thinking…How did things get so out of hand? How did I end up with no time to do fun things?

Was it because I was taught that if I could help someone I should?

My mum was an especially good multi-tasker and re-arranger and with 4 kids and working full time, she had to be. It seemed to me growing up that things always got done. I don’t recall a week we didn’t do the cleaning and there were very few meals where we had take away as a kid: my parents just did what needed to be done. There was no “too busy” even though they were busy people. I now know they were very sleep-deprived busy people and that’s how they did it all. So perhaps it is some of the values they’ve instilled in me and my Italian upbringing but I had this innate feeling – that if you could help someone you should. If you had something and they didn’t then you should share – it was polite. Of course as an adult and parent I understand that there must have been so much that my mum went without because she was sewing a dress for a formal or making cakes for a birthday party, or taking me or my sisters to the hospital for tummy aches or migraines (and that’s even when she had one herself).

It actually makes me want to cry thinking about it. And so possibly because of the ethics I was taught, I grew up feeling guilty if I didn’t help out if I had the means to.

As an adult it’s taken a lot for me to learn that just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.

This is not one of those posts encouraging people to “put themselves first” which sadly nowadays has been translated to “Make sure you get what you need and then don’t feel obliged to honour your commitments”, but a cautionary tale for over-givers around the world. Some might question my IQ given that it took me 39 years to figure this one out, but if you save yourself some burnout and time from my lessons about managing my time (and other resources) I will consider it years well spent.

Bosses that take too much

I once worked in a retail store with 13 or so other staff. Myself and another worker managed 1/4 of the store each, the other 11 employees managed the other half of the store. It was just before I discovered I had endometriosis and I was getting run down in a big way. What made the whole situation worse though, was that we didn’t have a good manager: the other 11 would often gossip (quite loudly) about their social lives, their love lives, and all manner of other things. One morning, the other busy worker and I were taking a rare 5 minute chat while we were pricing objects when the boss walked over to us and said we should get back to work. I laughed thinking she was joking until I realised she wasn’t. So I took the her out the back for a chat. I found it both ridiculous and hypocritical to give us a talking to when the other 11 were still chatting and not even working while they did so! Her response was “Well Lisa, not everyone has the same work ethic that you do.”


Apart from being one of the silliest things a manager could say to a worker, it was also completely unreasonable.

My sister used to have a mug which said “This place is full of willing people. Some are willing to work, and the rest are willing to let them.”

Needless to say I left that job as soon as I could but unfortunately not before I was so burnt out that I pretty much had to spend a month in bed recovering before I started my next job.

Just because you can work yourself ragged, when it is not appreciated and no-one else does, should you?

‘Sharing is caring’ except when it is only one-way.

In another instance, I had a voucher for a free coffee so I shared it with the friend I was meeting (eg. we bought a coffee and paid half each for it). A few weeks later, when the same friend and I were at a conference and went for a walk, she suggested stopping for a coffee. As I rummaged through my pocket for some coins she asked me if I had brought my free coffee voucher? When I replied “no” (given that we had gone for a walk and not a coffee) she laughingly responded with “oh too bad, you’ll have to watch me drink my free one!” I thought she was joking given she’d happily shared my voucher not long before. But no, I was wrong  apparently for some people sharing is caring only when its you sharing with them.

There were more incidences like this with much bigger priced items and after a while I began to draw the line and say “No” and you know what is funny, she thinks I’m the unreasonable one!

Recognising that you’re the back-up plan.

In another instance I had a new acquaintance approach me to write a professional piece for a project they were publishing. I knew I didn’t have the time and I politely declined a few times until one day the acquaintance looked quite desperate and so I said “ok.” So I stayed up late to make the deadline and left 4 messages to see if my contribution was suitable as the guidelines were pretty vague. I didn’t receive a reply for 2 months until I was told that they had enough material now and as my contribution “wasn’t quite what they were looking for” it might go in a subsequent publication or when they had a gap because there wasn’t enough time for me to re-write the piece for the current publication.

I was annoyed because after hearing them complain about how no one was respecting their deadlines, I’d been given less time to create the piece to begin with, rearranged my entire schedule to get it done on time and put myself behind on my own important projects (which is why I’d said “no” in the beginning ).

I politely checked they had received my 4 messages (which they admitted they had). And after a few more questions I elucidated that they’d got some articles back from the original contributors and they didn’t want to include the article they begged me to write in such a short time frame.

They used the “too busy” excuse twice to get out of the situation they’d created: by being “too busy” to reply and by contacting me when there “wasn’t enough time” for me to re-write the piece.

I felt pretty upset with myself for falling for this one because my intuition had said a clear, loud “no!” from the beginning.

So the take home message is: Know when to stick to your “no”.

These experiences all confirm something to me, just because you can help someone out, it doesn’t always mean you should.

Now I don’t want this to sound like I’m mercenary and only want to give things to people when I can get something back – or that I’m advocating not helping people in need because that’s not it at all (I think helping people out when you can is a great thing to do). It’s more a rallying cry for people who find it hard to set boundaries because they don’t like to see people struggling or stressed out from being used and then get their kindness, time, efforts and expertise taken advantage of. I saw a great quote on social media the other day which said “Givers have to set boundaries because takers rarely do” and that is exactly what I am talking about.

How many times have you totally rescheduled your day to help someone only to have them cancel, arrive late, never be available to help you or take the credit for the work you did?

Historically I’ve been one of those people who feels like I can’t say “no” to someone if I could actually help them out. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve lost sleep and numerous weekends with my family, my kids have missed their sporting events and my husband has rearranged his schedule because ultimately it was do-able to help the friend in need.

And then I started to realise just how many people weren’t doing this back. I was in a project where one of the team members was totally dropping the ball. They came late, left early and generally were so unreliable things improved after they left the project. One particular part of the project was massively rescheduled because this “team member” couldn’t make the time that had originally been agreed on because they had a prior commitment. Imagine our surprise to see this “commitment” was tickets to a concert booked well after the original date had been set. They ultimately saw their commitment to the project as flexible and “Lisa will work around it”.

Another time I’d managed to block out our first weekend off in a long time and I was really looking forward to sleeping in because my kids weren’t sleeping well and I was feeling so exhausted. So when a colleague asked if we could reschedule a meeting to one of the days I’d blocked off because she couldn’t make the other time, I silently cried while saying “ok.” Because it wasn’t like I had a surgery scheduled, I just wanted to sleep in for the first weekend in a long time which seemed frivolous. So my sleep in would have to wait for another day. Anyway, at our meeting, to which she arrives late, I hear “Oh thanks for this. I’ve got a day off on the day of our original meeting and I wanted to sleep in.”

It’s possibly one of the reasons I now have a night guard to stop my teeth grinding.

In yet another example from my hubby, he was on a committee and had done a large part of the work for a project, including contacting the stakeholders in the event, organising a location, getting approvals, securing sponsors. On the day of the event, someone else took the podium and my hubby didn’t get any recognition for doing all the work making it possible in the first place.

Doesn’t that suck?

If someone takes credit for the work you’ve done,  or for example they copy your idea without giving you credit for coming up with it in the first place…steer clear of them because they will always think it is ok to take credit for your ideas and your efforts and you’ll be perpetually busy thinking up new things and starting from scratch.

I wish that I didn’t have so many examples of times I’d rearranged my day, added more to a workload I already knew was packed to the brim and carried the load for people who weren’t pulling their weight, but sadly, it’s taken me a long time to learn this lesson.

What’s all this got to do with time management?

Well because I was “so busy” helping people I’d left no time for myself and my own health and I left myself wide open for burn out and was too tired to live and enjoy my own life.

Too often I’d allowed the series of late, late nights, early starts, working weekends and rescheduling to fit in other people’s needs, usually cut into the time I’d cut out for myself to exercise, eat well, relax and play with my kids, or to catch up on my work so I wasn’t always feeling the pressure of looming deadlines.

So I ask you to really think about the following questions:

What does your schedule really look like? If you wrote down every commitment you had for a week (including the last minute changes you make to your schedule when you rearrange your priorities) what does this say about how you spend your time?

Do you consider commitments to other people more important than commitments to yourself?

Do the things you actually put first reflect what you believe is the top of your list of priorities in life?

If they don’t then we need to work on making sure we are prioritising the right things. Include self-care activities like exercise, giving ourselves the time to eat healthily and have time out (in an honourable way, ideally not at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing) and learning that it is ok to say no.  If you don’t value your time, unfortunately other people won’t either.