5 Must-Dos to Avoid the Breaking Point in Your Life and Leadership

by Alli Polin on June 13, 2017

The shelf was near overflowing for months, but I wouldn’t admit it. There was always more than a sliver of space which was an open invitation to keep piling. Photo albums, cookbooks, and children’s books my kids had outgrown years ago. All happily co-existed – until they didn’t.

It’s like that Monty Python skit where the man is encouraged to eat one thin mint at the end of an enormous meal. The wait staff was sure that he had room, after all, it’s so small how could it be the thing that made him go from full to, well, done?

Yesterday, I turned around to grab something off of our magnificently packed shelf only to discover that it had twisted under pressure and our books were spread out in a wave on the floor. 

Like Monty Python’s wafer thin mint, I’m sure others who came to my house could tell that shelf was at its limit, I chose to ignore it. 

I see that a lot with my clients. They create lives that are so full that they get to a breaking point. Business trips, kids activities, family needs, work demands – it’s easy to continue to squeeze one more thing in until… boom. Something breaks.

Maybe it’s your health or perhaps your sanity that goes first. Maybe it’s an important project, or you miss your child’s big day. Each one of these is a sign that there’s too much on your shelf and your breaking point is near. 

How to Avoid the Breaking Point in Your Life and Leadership

Acknowledge that the space serves a purpose. 

For my bookshelf, it means I can take books I want to see on and off with ease. I can also see everything on there instead of a shoved in, piled on mess. It keeps me organized when I keep it in shape. 

For your life, it means you can fit the things that matter with ease. You know what’s there and don’t lose track of things (like meetings, events, notes or promises). 

In both cases, less clutter means more breathing room.

Recognize the book that breaks the shelf (or thin mint) before someone pressures you to put it into the mix. 

People will always have to-dos for you. Always. Team members, your boss, your spouse, friends, you name it. If you’re in the habit of helping everyone all the time, your shelf can get mighty full fast. 

You need to know when you’re at capacity. Yes, it’s possible that you could do more, but it doesn’t mean you can do it well or have an outcome that makes you proud of your effort. 

Those signs that something’s broken (or close) – don’t ignore them. 

Learn to say “no.”

There is a lot of pressure to say “yes” at work and fear that “no” will forever mark you as someone who’s not a team player or who’s inflexible. 

Let’s flip that thought. 

Learning to say “no” is key to your personal leadership. It’s setting boundaries so you can have the energy, time and focus to give your all to the things you say “yes” to at work and home.

Let things go. 

Not everything should be on your to-do list and not every book that I can squeeze in should be on my bookshelf. Many of the books from my children’s childhood were for me more than them. I was carrying them around from house to house, but they had outgrown them years before. 

What to-dos can you delegate? What to-dos can you forget about because the impact is minimal? What to-dos have you been rolling from one to-do list to the next, but never getting to it? Their time likely passed. Like my children’s books I schlepped around and insisted on keeping, it’s time to let them go. 

By the way, if you don’t want to let those rolling items go, let something else go off the list. Make a choice not only for your productivity but also your happiness. No one likes to have an endless to-do list. It’s like carrying around a ton of books on your shoulders and straining under the weight every single day. 

Create a must-do list, not a to-do list.

Lastly, if you’re still hooked on your to-do list, let’s reframe it. 

Instead of listing all the things you could do, should do, want to do, are thinking about doing, need to do, have to get to at some point (Whew!) Try a must-do list instead. Make it short and relevant to today. What three things are must-dos? That’s it. Three.Get ‘em done. Tomorrow there will be three more big ones to tackle. Put your focus where it matters most, and that may not be what or who is making the most noise at the moment.

I may not pare my bookshelf back to three books, but those that I don’t want to let go of quite yet can find a new home, on another shelf. They won’t disappear just because they’re not front and center. I’ll get to them when I need them today, not someday.

What one change do you need to make before your life, leadership (and books) come crashing down?

PS. I’ve included a clip from Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote skit. It’s funny but gross. If you’re not up for some gross with your humor, don’t watch it.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

gary gruber June 13, 2017 at 6:19 am

A familiar theme, Alli, and fortunately for me, very much in the past and even then, I scheduled routine times off, times out, times away. There are numerous ways to effectively deal with stress, overload and jam packed lives and schedules. My suggestion to folks was to find one or two that worked and make it a regular habit. I just wrote two blogs with some subtext of stress (in life, not work) and you, and others, can find them at the usual place on my web site. There was another one not too far back on the benefits of three days away. Writing about these things is only pointing others in what we believe to be the right direction. They still have to believe in the value of less work, more time for one’s self and get off the perpetual merry-go-round. I’m not sure when being busy became de rigeur and so many people thought that success was in some weird way measured by how full one’s calendar was. That’s simply ridiculous, IMHO. I love my calendar now with so much white space that I can fill any way I choose. It’s an exquisite luxury. Off to the Mexican consulate today in preparation for six months there this winter. Ta da!


Alli Polin June 13, 2017 at 6:34 am

Since moving to Australia, I admit, I’ve struggled. The person I was, who was always climbing her way to success… she liked to feel busy. Here, I have much more space. I also take exponentially more time off here than I ever did in the USA. Even my husband who works in an office takes 6+ weeks a year. At home, we’d likely never do that. He still has crunch times, as do I sometimes, but we acknowledge them as a push and not the norm.

Mexico sounds fabulous. We have some exciting adventures on our horizon here in the coming months. Love the anticipation.

With gratitude,



Terri Klass June 13, 2017 at 10:08 am

Excellent post, Alli and one that really calls to me!

I love your idea of a “must-do” list because it empowers us to focus in on what’s essential and urgent. Sometimes my “to-do” list gets so vast that I don’t know where to begin.

This past weekend we had to clear out our attic. We realized we had put too many things out of sight and had not made important decisions along the way. As we lined up at the curb old dishes, my kids’ high school notebooks and stuffed animals, we made a point to save things that matter.

Thanks Alli and will share!


Alli Polin June 14, 2017 at 5:49 am

Thanks, Terri.

I can relate to your attic. When we moved from the USA to Australia, it was amazing how much we gave away, threw away and sold at a yard sale. What we chose to keep were the things that mattered too. Now, we’re getting ready to move again (locally) and I know that we’re once again going to be shocked at how much we packed it that it’s time to let go.



John Bennett June 13, 2017 at 10:58 am

I might likely have shared the following with you before. The late Stephen Covey always talked about ‘the big rocks’ – when doing your calendar / must-do list (great focus…), put the important activities in first, proceeding to less and less important ones. I saw his demo many times, using a container and rocks. If you start with the sand (smallest ‘rocks’), proceeding larger, you most likely will not have room for the big rocks; but if you start with the big rocks, the smaller and smaller rocks will’flow’ around the bigger ones – more will get in.

I always shared this with my students as how to get more effective with time usage. I also shared the “Bennett” Corollary” – Don’t neglect the smaller rocks: Use the small time periods wisely. Maybe it’s catching up with friends, exercising, starting on a big rock (maybe really not as big, maybe will identify a need to get help / get additional resources), …

This latest super post of yours suggests to me the “Polin Corollary” – when doing the schedule / must-do list, consider each item (rock) carefully in terms of importance. Maybe it’s an even bigger rock, maybe a smaller one; maybe it’s no longer relevant and should be discarded. You and I have shared ideas about choices. Here’s yet another situation where conscious choices are so very important!


Alli Polin June 14, 2017 at 5:56 am

That demo, with the rocks, is incredibly powerful. I’ve seen it many times and never tire of it. It’s a great reminder for me to share it more!

As for the corollaries. both make tremendous sense. The small rocks DO matter. We don’t dump them by the roadside while we speed away to forever focus on the big stuff. What has surprised me over the years is that sometimes I’m mistaken too… I think I have a small rock and it’s actually a big one (and vice versa). I guess that’s why the Polin Corollary makes sense too – be sure to not make assumptions but consider what’s present before sorting something in or out.

Thanks so much for sharing your insights here. You and I are both big believers in the power of conscious choice.



LaRae Quy June 13, 2017 at 12:22 pm

I’ve been there! I’ve crammed every waking moment with activities and projects and ended up having a health crisis 🙁 This was several years ago and I like to think I’ve learned from my mistakes, but every so often I look at my calendar and say to myself, “I need to de-clutter.” As you say, Alli, there are so many places in our life we can de-clutter but the key is to get started. I agree that saying “NO” can be a great starting point. For those who have a “giver” or people pleaser personality, this can be an especially hard thing to do so I have always coached people to dig down and understand “why” they have a hard time saying no. I find that it is different for each personality type if they will truly try to understand themselves….


Alli Polin June 15, 2017 at 10:02 am

We have something in common! However, it’s been a struggle to declutter my days consistently. It all starts with awareness, doesn’t it? Some things we choose to ignore until it’s too late.

You’re spot on about people pleasers too. Plates can fill to overflowing fast. Figuring out the root is not easy but absolutely the way to go.

Thanks, LaRae!



Jon Mertz June 13, 2017 at 8:55 pm


Very relevant. Knowing when we are at a breaking point is essential. Even more important is learning how to avoid this points and clear the clutter. A lesson that I am really beginning to understand and use more completely in my work and life.

Great points (again), Alli! Thank you,



Alli Polin June 15, 2017 at 10:04 am


It took a move for me to Australia to really have the lesson sink in 🙂 There’s more emphasis on enjoying life here… not only living it in a blur.

Thanks, Jon!



Cynthia Bazin June 17, 2017 at 9:03 am

Awesome post Alli….. Just love all of your articles. I get something out of each one of them. I appreciate your leadership. You rock!


Alli Polin June 19, 2017 at 10:26 pm

Always grateful for your support and connection!



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