Do You Have Too Much on Your Plate?

Or do you just need a better fork?

How often do you hear someone say “How about next week? This week is CRAZY!”, or “I’d love to, but I’m just SO busy”? Recently a friend of mine who’s starting a new business used the phrase “I just have SO MUCH on my plate right now!” three times in three days. When someone says something like this, you want to be sympathetic, but at the same time, you want to say “Who ISN’T busy?”, right? I asked her what was going on, and it really didn’t sound that crazy in comparison to my schedule, or those of many people I know. I have another friend who is a single mom, runs a thriving massage practice, and devotes most of her free time to supporting others in their recovery process. I don’t think I’ve EVER heard her say anything about how busy she is. So what explains this difference? Well if you do some superficial research, you learn that one’s ability to handle stress can be influenced by anything from childhood memories to estrogen levels, to (assuming we’re like mice) basic brain chemistry. We can’t do much to change what happened in our childhood, and although there are myriad ways to manipulate body chemistry, there is also always the peril of ending up abusing substances, like the cocaine-fiend mice in the study referenced above.

Building a Better Fork

The fact is that – aside from possibly having an actual chemical imbalance that may require professional treatment – when we feel like our plate is too full, we’re probably just using the wrong utensils, or our “eyes are bigger than our stomach” as the old saying goes. Part of the problem is often that once you’re bumped up into some level of stress, there’s a good possibility that your mental faculties are slightly impaired, and the effect can snowball a little, so that things that are actually very manageable seem in our mind to be an un-tameable monster. We’ll discuss more sophisticated forks in a future piece, but one simple tool that I turn to myself on occasion, and that I’ve shared with others numerous times with instant results is what I call the Breakdown Scale. If you have a big ball of confusion in your head right now, grab a pen and paper and try the simple method below.

The Breakdown Scale

First, without prioritizing or trying to order things, list the things that are eating at you. Second, we’re going to use a scale where zero is no stress at all, and ten is a figurative nervous breakdown. Go through the list, and try to honestly assess how stress-inducing each item is. There’s nothing scientific here, but you may notice a couple of things right away. The first is that once you externalize these items, before you even score them, you may notice that the hurricane in your head was really only three or four things, and simply writing them down alleviated half of the stress and confusion. Another thing that you may notice – especially if you really DO have a lot going on – is that if ten is a nervous breakdown, the total of all the individual items could easily be over twenty, depending on the highly subjective nature of the scoring we’re doing here. So first, let’s talk about the scoring, and then we’ll touch on what to do with the numbers. As we said, this is highly subjective, so for one person, something like moving to a new home can be a 9 or 10 by itself, while for another person, moving is simply time and work, with little stress attached at all, and may be only a 2 or 3. The same applies to lots of things in life. We all find different things stressful.

What To Do With These Numbers

Well, if you only had two or three items on your list, and the scores were similar, just arbitrarily pick one item to tackle, do as much as you can about it, and whatever you CAN’T do anything about, make an achievable task list for the item, and LET IT GO for now. Then do the same with the other item or items. If your list was a little more elaborate, we’ll apply the same principle. Here’s an example I’ve recreated from memory from years ago when I learned to use this method. I was changing jobs, was in an unhealthy relationship, and was in the process of moving to a new city as well! My head was a frantic but undefinable mass of mental flotsam and jetsam. I was PARALYZED. Here’s roughly how I scored the list: Moving 8 Relationship 12 (yes, this is cheating for dramatic effect) New Job 5

Using A Fork & Knife In Unison

That’s a pretty darn short list to make someone crazy in the head, right? Simply looking at the list and the numbers immediately gave me a framework to operate within though, and an opportunity for a little humor. Of COURSE I was freaking out; my “Breakdown Scale” was at 25! I was in double-breakdown mode! The reality was that looking at the short list and the simple numbers gave me a start. Yes, from a subjective point of view the relationship score was off the scale, and yes, even if I were less dramatic in the scoring, I’d still be over ten. But what it helped me realize was that I needed to carve this big rump-roast of trouble into bite-size pieces. “Moving” was like a big piece of meat in itself. I needed to slice it into little bites like “call utility companies”, “buy more boxes”, and “take items to Goodwill”, all of which are quite easy to swallow, and can be paced over several meals. The “Relationship” score was off the scale because relationships can be like open buffets, pot lucks, or all-out food fights. It depends on what the parties are bringing to the table. I realized that with that item, I needed to sit down and discuss the menu with my dining partner before I even knew what the score really was. So how do we tackle such a wide variety of things with justs lists and numbers? With logic and and common sense. And more food metaphors to keep it amusing for ourselves.

Creating Bite Size Pieces, and Making a Diet Plan

The way to approach this list has two simple rules:

  • Small achievable items first
  • Break big items into little items

Nibble at the appetizer or small salad before you tackle the entrees. Make sure to clear the table and take your time between courses. If some item on your plate is unwieldy and keeps sliding around, maybe you shouldn’t be eating so fast! Put it into a to-go box and snack on it later. If you know how big your plate really is, and how big a meal you’re tackling, pretty soon you’ll be in the Clean Plate Club with no signs of indigestion at all.

About Ian

Ian is a media consultant, writer, musician, and budding public speaker with an eye on being the next Ellen. Ian's interest in helping others find success and happiness stems from his experience with events planning and media consulting with organizations like and the Kenya/US NGO Amara Conservation from 2000-2008, which taught him how little we all know about what we're really doing. From 2008 until April of 2011, Ian wrote for and maintained the site Ian learned long ago that the journey to success may take occasional detours, and often eschews the road map in favor of taking in life's scenery. His first business venture was a small telecom company in the late 1980's, but subsequent ventures included pursuing a pop music career, screenwriting, and the foodservice and retail employment that often follows such pursuits. After struggling with addiction for years, Ian is happily embracing recovery and the clarity it brings.