Are you overwhelmed? The art of knowing your capacity.

Do you engage in the process of time design?  Photo by Di_An_h on Unsplash

Every day brings us things to do.  You will have noticed that, on some mornings, we can function reasonably normally, and on other days we can barely get out of bed.  In particular, on the bad days, it seems that our capacity for action – the amount of life that we can take on – is very limited.


First, let’s talk about what you are capable of.  Having lived for a while on this earth, you will have accumulated a fair idea of your abilities.  Perhaps you have found out you can run fast in a race.  Or perhaps your skill is not an athletic one, but you can pass an academic exam with flying colours.  Maybe your abilities lie somewhere else apart from sport and academia.  Maybe you have social skills, and, at your best, you have great ability to listen to others and help them on their way.  There are so many skills – things we can be deemed capable of.  We can be good at cooking, making clothes, maintaining gardens, decorating houses, mending equipment, designing systems… the list of potential human skills is extensive.

These could all be described as capabilities, or abilities.  You will have your own list.  Your curriculum vitae might enumerate them in some detail, outlining what you can do at your best.


Now, suppposing I caught you on one of your bad days, the ones where you can barely get out of bed.  Supposing I then asked you to demonstrate all of your skills, at their optimal quality and quantity, in the same day.  Even if you tried, the likelihood is that you would collapse in a heap towards the end of the day, and be exhausted for a while after that.

Supposing I woke you up the next morning, and insisted that you make the same multi-skill demonstration, again achieving your optimal quality and quantity of all skills.  Towards the end of that day, you may collapse even more, and be even more exhausted than the day before.  If this went on for day after day, you might eventually suffer some kind of breakdown, in which you turned away from the world of action, and your mind and body refused to cooperate any more.

What you would have discovered, is that however great your capability (your list of things you can do well at your best), your capacity fluctuates.  If I manage to catch you on a bad day, where your capacity is anyway limited, and then exhaust you further, then you are likely to reach overload quite quickly.


We are trained to be aware of our capability.  At social gatherings, we are asked ‘What do you do?’ , and we find ourselves able to come up with a credible list of roles we can perform.  But, at times, we will feel such hypocrites, because we feel, on a daily basis, unequal to the task of performing those roles as well as we would like.

This is where knowing our capacity comes in.  In my counselling work, I often encounter brave clients who are effectively beating themselves up for not doing more.  But when we delve into their daily life, we can begin to see why.  It turns out that they are competing with obstacle after obstacle – limited resources, bereavement, the prejudices of others, illness, and a host of intersecting roles and obligations which are bending the camel’s back, and sometimes bringing it near collapse.

Over time, we learn not only what we are capable of, but, importantly, our current capacity in the moment for particular activities.  More and more, a client may learn to say ‘I can’t do that right now,’ or ‘I need to take some time and get back to you.’  They learn a language of capacity, in which they admit to themselves and others that they are not superheroes in every minute, but fallible humans, who need to be selective in their task choices, and self-caring in their sculpting of each day’s diary.


In this regard, the idea of time sculpting can be quite useful.  Imagine each day’s diary page as forming a sculpted piece of art, which needs to work as a whole.  As an artist of their own time, a person can learn to give each day a beautiful simplicity matched to the energy available, rather than leaving it a messy, exhausting attempt to keep the world at bay.

Just as a sculptor may only have a certain amount of material available to shape, so a person has a limited personal capacity available for a day.  We have the repeated opportunity to engage in this process of time design.  In cases where we get overwhelmed, we can learn to scale back our ambitions.  In cases where we get slack, we can learn to give ourselve the odd extra task.


To get onto the path of life balance, we need, above all, to rediscover personal humility.  It is an act of arrogance to assume that we can perform 100% effectively in everything we do.  We need to learn to acknowledge our limitations, in order that we can have some flexibility of resource management.  Economies that insist on working flat out, end up flat on the floor when a crisis comes, because there is no slack, no tolerance, in the system.  In the same way, individuals who insist on rushing from task to task, keeping the world happy, periodically end up flat on the floor in crisis, because there is no tolerance for their essential humanity in their personal diary.

We all have a daily opportunity to rediscover balance, and it starts with an acknowledgement that we cannot do everything.  We can learn to choose.  And, more importantly, we can learn a language of choice.  At first, we will feel vulnerable, because we do not have a well-developed language of ‘I can’t’.  If we have been brought up to think it is a weakness to say ‘I can’t’, then we will resist such language, and fill our speech with phrases that emphasise our personal capability.

But sooner or later, our list of personal skills will be insufficient.  We will, in the end, have to face that we are beings of limited capacity, making choices all the time as to where to put our energy.  When we learn the art, and learn to speak out in defence of a balanced life, we will begin to feel calmer, to have more energy, and to become more mentally healthy.

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In short, I am sure you are a very capable person.  But that’s not what interests me.  What interests me is that you are happy.  To be happy, you need balance.  And to achieve balance, you have to be honest with yourself about what you can reasonably fit into a healthy day.  At other times we can talk about exactly how a well-sculpted diary helps to balance life.  For now, it is enough to acknowledge the need for humility.

Have a look at your day.  Make sure there are times in that day when you allow yourself some slack, some spare capacity.  I know you feel you have to give the world everything, all at once.  But you also need to look after yourself.  And that involves creating space.