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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Create and communicate clear expectations.


stack of index cards and pen with the words It's OK to say NO

When we are overwhelmed, where does the fault lie? With ourselves or others?


If we are honest, we must admit our role in taking on more than is reasonable, expecting higher standards than necessary, or not communicating our limitations clearly when others demand more of our time or energy than we can give.


These are all in our power to control. We are not powerless in preventing and overcoming overwhelm.


Overcome overwhelm by following A-B-C

This post is the third in a 3-part series. The suggestions in the first post began with A – ask for and accept help, the ones in the second post began with B – break tasks down and build boundaries, and the suggestions in this post begin with C – create and communicate clear expectations.


As stated before, the alphabetical order does not reflect the order in which to initiate each step – do them all and in any order to be successful. Each suggestion can be implemented to either prevent or overcome overwhelm.


Feeling overwhelmed? Create clear expectations.

Creating clear expectations is essential for preventing situations that lead to becoming overwhelmed.


Without clear expectations, we have no standards by which to determine whether we have taken on too little, enough, or too much and whether what we’ve accomplished has been done poorly or well. In other words, we need clarity on both the expected quantity and quality of our work.


In addition to being clear, expectations must be reasonable. Otherwise, the tendency will be to expect more than we can handle at a level of proficiency that may or may not be necessary.


High expectations seem noble yet may not be in our best interest. Let’s face it… as food and nutrition professionals we profess to have perfectionistic Type A personalities. As a result, we don’t settle for “good enough” and strive for all our work to be our best work. We easily think we can do more and do it better.


When is excellence essential and when is “good enough” the right choice? Let’s look at some examples.


If today’s task is to write the first draft of an article, doing a brain dump and getting 2,000 words on paper, rough and unpolished, is the proper expectation. If today’s task is fine-tuning a previous draft and getting it ready for publication, now is the time for expecting quality writing.


If today’s task is to host an informal open house for incoming students, order snacks from a campus hangout. If instead, it is to host a formal reception for your top donors, order high-end catering. Match the expectations to the situation and the audience. The same standards do not always apply.


Even when you love to do your own catering, if your time does not allow you to realistically prepare the food for either one of these events, ordering food prepared by others is a reasonable expectation.


Stop now. What are one or more tasks you are expected to accomplish? How soon? To what level of excellence? What are the expectations? Are they clear and realistic?


Feeling overwhelmed? Communicate expectations clearly.

Creating clear and reasonable expectations is only part of the solution. If we keep these expectations a secret, how will others know what is appropriate to ask of us?


Be prepared when others make requests of your time or talents to say…

  • “yes” only when it is best for all concerned,

  • “I need to think about it” when a decision needs careful consideration, and

  • “no” when taking on the request will result in a poor outcome in terms of either what is accomplished or your well-being.

Saying no may be disappointing in the short term but is better than the disappointment that will occur in the long term with a poor outcome. Do you need help saying “no”? Here are 80 possible ways to say no politely.


What if the request comes from your boss? Is “no” even an option? It is if how much you’re able to do and how well you’re able to do it suffers as a result. Include a question in your reply, “That sounds like a challenge I would like if my schedule allowed. What would you like me to remove from my task list to make room?”


Recall in our post on boundaries that when we say “no” to something we are saying “yes” to something else and vice versa. Say “yes” to your sanity, your health, and everything else that needs your attention by saying “no” when no aligns better than yes with your expectations.


Finally, expect respectful acknowledgment of reasonable expectations. When we are firm yet gracious in communicating our expectations, others will respond well in return. There is no need to anticipate resistance.


Stop now. Who do you need to communicate expectations? Be sure to do it in a timely manner. If “no” is your answer, don’t delay, or you will have stolen time they need to ask someone else. If “yes” is your answer, clarify specifics and don’t hesitate to ask for and accept help. Practice A, B, and C.


“Know when to say ‘no.’” ~ Frank Sonnenberg


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