How to Find Balance When Your Life Is Overfilled with Tasks and To-Dos

by Alli Polin on December 12, 2017

Leaders help their teams to do less so they can accomplish more

I admit it, I rarely enjoy the checkout experience at the grocery store despite the fact that I’ve met some funny, kind, and engaging people while waiting in line.  It’s the bagging of my purchases that makes my blood pressure rise.  Part of me thinks that there is an unofficial contest between cashiers to see who can get the most products in the smallest number of bags.  My cashier may win, but I always seem to lose, as I struggle to move the bulging bags even a few feet.

Yesterday, I brought six bags with me, more than enough to keep them a reasonable weight and make them easy for me to carry.  Still, despite my hope that more bags would mean even distribution, I struggled to move the bag filled with milk, juice, fruit, yogurt, bread, kid’s snacks and cereal from the counter into my cart.  Ultimately, with a thud, I made the move while squashing the bread, bruising the fruit and actually puncturing two yogurts along the way. At the end of the transaction, she returned my two remaining empty bags to me with a receipt and a smile.

That’s when it hit me:  The woman filling my bag wasn’t worried about the weight; she saw a small pocket of space and was determined to fill it.  She was not satisfied unless she was maximizing every possible inch available.  It didn’t matter if I could lift it, what mattered is that she got it all in. 

Holy Moley!  We do that too!  We strive to fill every minute of every hour with doing leaving little room for anything else.

We’re all too willing to forgo balance and believe that if our bags are lightweight, it makes us light weights.  I’m here to tell you, that’s not true.  Work-life balance is not about the scales, it’s created by our self-aware decisions about where we put our time and effort.

Work life balance isn't really about scales and 50 - 50

Ask yourself, how heavy are you packing your personal bags and what’s the risk?  What are you giving up as the load gets heavier and heavier?

Do you need to join over packers anonymous? (Most of us probably do)  Do any of these fill-it-to-the-limit styles ring true for you?

Work life balance continuum personal and leadership styles


In a valiant effort to “do it all” and the belief that there will be time to sleep in retirement, what are you missing out on today?


Leaders also over pack not only their own bags, but also those of their team, especially high performers.  Ask yourself: How can you show your value beyond pushing production levels to the limit?  Are your expectations of yourself and others realistic?  How do you know if you’ve put too much in the bag beyond waiting for it break?

Let’s head back to the checkout line… What are my options at the store and how do they apply to your life and leadership?

Struggle, Whine and Complain

Bad choice, right?  When I’ve said (louder than a mumble) how heavy the bag is as I’m dragging it to my cart, it does not make the next bag magically lighter, it just serves to annoy the cashier.  Feeling like you are drowning in to-do’s?  Trust me, whining is rarely the path to success.

Speak Up

I’ll smile and laugh about how weak I am while I remark that the bag is too heavy and it’s OK to leave some space.  The surest way to increase our effectiveness is to leave room for more, yet resist the temptation to fill it.  The unexpected derails us when we’re already at 100%.  If you’re already there, speak up before you go past the point of no return.

Reorganize the Bags Myself

Sometimes I’ll suck it up, walk away from the checkout and just reshuffle and reorganize the bags myself.  When I take things out of the bag, I’m empowering myself to make the decisions and not accept how they’re handed to me.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but we can all take things out to lift more. Leaders can delegate and individuals can ask for help to lighten their load instead of waiting for someone else to do it.

Buy Less at One Time

At the store, you can go once a week and load up or a couple of times to get necessities and meals. The same concept holds true for your to-do list. When you stop treating your to-do list like a catch-all, suddenly you’re focusing on the right stuff at the right time and getting it done. A lighter load leaves room to enjoy connection, relationships and have fun with the work instead of a constant “heads down, crank it out” mentality.

REMEMBER: It doesn’t matter if you can squeeze it all in if you can’t lift the bag.  The secret to success (and work-life balance) is to pack in less so you can accomplish more and enjoy the journey along the way too.

Are you on overload?  Is your work “bag” so full that you have no extra capacity for your life?  How do you find balance?

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Dionne May 21, 2013 at 7:31 am

So resonant Alli – you’re right – and the overwhelm can paralyse us into inaction –

It also requires multi-tasking to try and keep all the balls in the air and I was reading the other day that we can’t really multi-task even if we think we can and accomplish more with focus –

Great post – I like your everyday analogy too –


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 8:14 am

Dionne, I’ve read the same things about multi-tasking. Even when we think we do it incredibly well, we’re still not as effective as when we simply focus on one task at a time. Hard to do with so many things competing for our attention! Many thanks for your comment and the reminder that trying to do it all, can actually overwhelm us and stop us in our tracks as well.


Dan Forbes May 21, 2013 at 7:38 am

Another great post, Alli. I ALWAYS enjoy reading what you write. It just resonates with me. “We strive to fill every minute of every hour with doing leaving little room for anything else.”


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 8:16 am

Many thanks, Dan! It’s crazy, right? We’ve gotten to the point that if we’re not busy, we’re restless and feel antsy to do more. Sadly, it can be downright confusing to have time for ourselves, friends, family, to read a book, take a walk… live a life with balance and not just busy.


Karin Hurt May 21, 2013 at 7:39 am

Great post. For me, the tricky part is making the bags heavy enough to build muscle, but still be effective.


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 8:18 am

Great point, Karin! Too heavy and we can’t lift them, too light and we’re not really pushing ourselves enough. The focus on building muscle feels just right.


D'Anne Hotchkiss May 21, 2013 at 7:39 am

Alli — marvelous insight and you are spot on. Thank you for putting a spotlight on this to increase our awareness about the decisions we make about where we put our time and effort.


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 8:20 am

Thanks, D’Anne! It does take awareness, doesn’t it? We don’t need to accept non-stop, go-go-go as our default ~ we just need to make another choice!


Mike Cowan May 21, 2013 at 8:31 am

Alli, another great article that hits home. I have alway thought there are 28 hours in a day and that if there was any void in the grocery bag I was not maximizing my space efficiently. I have struggled for years with work life balance and for the last few months trying to improve this. Timing of this article was perfect. Thanks


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 8:36 am

Work life balance feels like a never ending struggle. What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t happen unless we make it happen! My guess is that if I had 28 hours in my day I’d magically fill the extra four just like that darn grocery bag. Your feedback means a lot, Mike. Thank you!


Matthew Hawley May 21, 2013 at 9:34 am

Great, thought-provoking article. Thanks Alli!

For a while now I’ve advocated work/life “integration.”

To be integrated means that you put the pieces of your life together in a way that makes sense according to your values. What this means is that sometimes you work very hard and don’t see you kids or family as much as you might like. But there are times when you do stop and take “real” time for both yourself and your family.

When I hear the word “balance” I think of someone struggling to develop some perfect set of time-proportions and feeling bad when the day-to-day reality isn’t different.

The solution is to get clear on Values and live accordingly. Is it hard sometimes? Sure. But integrity is about living one’s Truth. Sometimes you work late and miss dinner with the family, sometimes you leave early for a kid’s T-ball game — or whatever the equivalent is in Australia . . . 😉


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 9:40 am

I’m with you, Matt! Balance isn’t about getting scales to somehow magically appear in balance with a 50 – 50 split between work and life. I think about balance as conscious choice and awareness of where we’re putting our time and energy. When we’re aware, we can make another choice and truly enjoy the ebbs and flows by giving them both our all. Semantics aside, you make great points that understanding our values help us to choose our priorities and live a full life – not just a busy one. Thanks, Matt!


Kath Roberts May 21, 2013 at 10:04 am

Thanks for reminding me about balance-good timing!
Funny I teach this and still struggle to integrate the concept fully. I get so carried away sometimes that I forget to come up for air and leave some white space in the diary for thinking/reflecting/creating!


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Like you, I teach it, speak about it, coach others… and then I fall into the same traps! Ahhh to be human 🙂 White space is KEY and moreover, to treat it as sacred and not the first place we look to bump and “make more time.” Thanks for that great reminder, Kath!


Karen Jolly May 21, 2013 at 12:28 pm

I wanted to shout YES when I read your title Alli! 🙂 My favorite fill-it-to-the-limit style was “downtime is for when I’m dead” – choked on my tea as I read that one!! I think I’m going to post that on my computer today and remind myself to slow down and enjoy the moments. A great balancer for me is to take on one task and don’t focus on ANYTHING else until it is done. It pulls me into the moment and calms me. I’m a multi-tasker so its fun to tackle one or two things a day like this and SO good for me.

Thanks for brightening this busy day Alli!!!


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Karen – I LOVE the focus of one and done! I’m too easily distracted, except when I really commit to the importance of a task, I can break my multi-tasking tendencies to give it all I’ve got. So much pressure to be and do more and more – the more time we can have like you describe – in the moment… the richer our lives will be. ALWAYS value your insights and experiences! Many thanks for sharing them here!


Laura Bacci May 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm

I love your post Alli!!!
The image of the grocery bag is fantastic. I’ve just published a post about why leaders get into high productivity frenzy and the link between this and the way in which they manage their teams. You can find it here: But your shopping bag image and fill-it-to-the-limit styles illustration are fantastic. Thanks for sharing! – Laura


Alli Polin May 22, 2013 at 7:19 am

Thanks so much, Laura! I enjoyed your take on it too!


Alice Chan May 21, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Great analogy, Alli! For a lot of folks, myself included in the past, part of the frantic need to fill our bag is so that there isn’t any room left to question why we’re unhappy and unfulfilled. We don’t have time to figure it out! It’s a defensive tactic our ego comes up with to give us the excuse to stay in our comfort zone, even if we’re miserable in it. I also loved the classification you made. I was so the type to do it all myself if it were to be done; anything less than perfect isn’t acceptable! Still have my tendencies to want to perfect things, but I’m much better at delegating and trusting that, just because something isn’t done the way I’d do it myself, it doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Thanks, Alli!


Alli Polin May 21, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Alice – what an important point you raise… the busy is a cover for what we don’t want to deal with waayyyy at the bottom of the bag. We’re filling every moment so we don’t need to be alone with ourselves.

Like you, I’ve had my perfectionist moments but the more I accept people for giving and doing their best, the more I can let go of just grabbing and doing it so it looks like the way I want… I am learning to love what is 🙂

Many thanks, Alice!


Jon Mertz May 22, 2013 at 8:58 am

Yes, I am guilty of trying to jam it all in, although I am beginning to say “no” more often. You bring a vital reminder to us all, Alli. What we really want to capture in life needs space, and we need to remove things of un-meaning to focus on the things of meaning.

A wonderful reminder for us all. Very grateful! Jon


Alli Polin May 23, 2013 at 8:39 am

Big YES to that, Jon. We need to take out the things that don’t add meaning and make room for the ones that truly matter. Appreciate you!


Terri Klass May 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

Really enjoyed your post, Alli as it reminded me of the frenetic way we lead and live our lives! The first thing I attempt to do each day is ask myself: “What don’t I have to do today?” By acknowledging that something has to be put on hold or not done at all, I feel like I gain a little control. Your metaphor of stuffing the bags so each inch of space is filled, made me laugh and sigh at the same time. I guess I have too many overstuffed bags daily! By the way, Gen X created the work/life balance or should I say, demanded. I appreciate that great gift they offered all of us. If only we could take them up on it!


Alli Polin May 23, 2013 at 8:42 am

Terri – I had no idea that work-life balance really came to the forefront with Gen X. It’s something that we all seem to talk about but so few do well! One of the best things about living here in Australia is how much I see parents present at school and events with their kids – far more than in the USA. People seem to flex their time for what matters most in their lives ~ something that I let get away from me for far too long!

Love your daily question and that it does put you in control. Always appreciate learning from and with you! Thanks for your wonderful additions here!


Lalita Raman May 23, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Loved your post. Oh I think I do the fill as much as possible most of my days. This post could not have come at a better time. I was unwell today and as a result barely did anything and was feeling I could have done something. But when our body really wants to rest, it lets us know and today was one of those days.

Excellent post.


Alli Polin May 24, 2013 at 9:32 am

Lalita – I’ve totally been there! Sick and unable to do much and feeling guilty for not doing enough. You are so right, our bodies do tell us when enough is enough and it’s up to us to listen. Sometimes the universe intervenes when we’re overpacking our days and nights and shows us another way. Many thanks for your comment. Appreciate you!


theteapixie May 24, 2013 at 12:37 am

Alli, I love the way you have represented this struggle as something as simple as a packed bag of groceries.

I have had the misfortune of being part of a meeting where attendees were comparing the number of hours they each worked in a week. It was a competition whereby numbers like 80 hours a week were being thrown around. Of course, no one discussed how productive they were during those hours.

As I am sure you know, it is easy to let work become somewhat of an addiction, as multi-tasking can also become an addiction. The two are definitely linked. I don’t know if there is any research on this topic, but I believe there is a place for multi-tasking, with limits. I just wish I knew the equation for those limits. I have had to make conscious efforts to balance out work, parenting, and down time.
I love having time to listen to the birds sing in the morning and to watch my pixie play sports in the afternoon.

I focus on how I pack items into my shopping bag, ensuring that all of the pieces fit together like a puzzel, and that the luxury items are balanced with staples and nutrition. If I can’t carry the bag, everything falls out and some of the items are damaged. I could blame the bag, but in the end, it’s all about my planning skills.


Alli Polin May 24, 2013 at 9:27 am

Amazing how long hours and giving up our lives becomes a badge of honor. Crazy! What you wrote about productivity really rings true too. There is an element of keeping up appearances. How can I leave at 5:30 or 6:00 even if I’m done my work and prepped for the next day if everyone else is staying until 9:00… I don’t want to be the one that looks like a slacker. It’s an awful cycle to get stuck in and all too common.

I’m with you on multi-tasking too. If you figure out the equation – please share it!

“I could blame the bag” < Love it. I've tried it too! Appreciate your insights and comments very much! Thank you!!


James May 10, 2017 at 9:29 am

Unfortunately this rings true for me. The real problem is, sometimes I’m the bag!

My mission: Apply this simple concept to my life today and see how it goes. If it works, great! – time to apply it to my week.


Alli Polin May 10, 2017 at 6:49 pm

Thanks so much for your comment, James! I can totally relate to sometimes feeling like I’m the one who’s the bag 🙂


Gary Gruber December 12, 2017 at 7:13 am

I didn’t see this post back in 2013 but thank goodness for old posts which I have used on occasion and updated, edited or revised, only slightly sometimes. It fits with the recycle, re-use, adaptive life style these days anyway. We used say that trying to put 10 lbs of stuff in a 5 lb. bag is a losing battle from the get-go so why stress out trying. Learning from experience, you should be ahead in the game even if you feel you aren’t sometimes. However, I am confident that when you find yourself in these kinds of situations, you have some good resources to apply and lighten the load. Just do it, my dear.


Alli Polin December 12, 2017 at 7:34 am

I’ve been writing a minimum one post a week for over five years and have a lot of content that’s hidden away. I did revise this one and it feels good to share this one again with some new insights too.

That saying is what happens to me at the store and in life too. “Trying to put 10 lbs of stuff in a 5 lb. bag.” It’s time to acknowledge that even a five-pound bag needs some room too.

Many thanks, Gary!



Chery Gegelman December 13, 2017 at 5:20 pm

Such a great analogy Ali! I learned some huge lessons from trying to pack too much work in my bags. I am much more careful now about what I say yes to. But the pressure to keep adding is frequently there. This is a great reminder as I get ready for 2018! Thank you!


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