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How Many Plates Can You Spin?



When I was in college, one of my sociology instructors LOVED the analogy of plate spinning. He used it to describe everything from writing a paper to living in poverty. No matter how long and hard a circus performer trains, there is always a limit to how many plates he can spin before they all come crashing to the floor. Similarly, all of us reach a point where we simply cannot do more than we’re already doing. 

My life circumstances have helped me become an expert plate spinner. Every day, I juggle single parenthood, my real job, blogging, housework, taking care of my dogs, and occasionally taking time for things I enjoy. My entire life consists of multitasking – when I’m at work, I’m responding to blog emails between clients. When I’m burning up Twitter at night, I’m also doing laundry or helping my son with homework. I’ve found I can’t even watch a TV show or movie without finding something to do at the same time.

I’m not saying I’m some kind of amazing person. Plenty of people do WAY more in a day than I ever thought about. Some are worrying about how to pay all the bills or put dinner on the table. They may work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Thankfully, those aren’t issues I have to deal with at the moment, but I never let myself forget that it could happen. Easily.

There is always someone dealing with more than you are. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t struggling. 

Yesterday, I spent most of the day feeling overwhelmed by all the tasks I needed to accomplish. So much that I ended up accomplishing very little. I have a lot of issues weighing on my mind that are distracting me from the things I need to do. That’s unlike me – normally the pressure of a deadline gives me energy and helps me stay on track. In this case, though, I was absolutely paralyzed by the realization that there was NO WAY to get everything done.

So what did I do? Basically, I curled up in a fetal position and stayed there. I couldn’t spin any more plates.

How to Deal When You’ve Reached Your Limit

When I was a substance abuse counselor, I kind of hated the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. To this day, I cringe when I hear the Serenity Prayer. Most of my clients didn’t respond to a program that relied on following a generic formula – they wanted something specific to THEM. A lot of them were also turned off by the references to God or a higher power. While that doesn’t bother me personally, I can understand how it might distract someone from the bigger point of working on the problem at hand.

Instead, I had my clients work through what I call the 6 Steps for Dealing with Anything. This method uses a loose form of cognitive behavioral therapy to break through all the mental barriers that keep us from doing what we need to do. My clients loved it because they thought the smaller number of steps meant they would finish treatment faster (not so much), but they also liked having the ability to personalize each step. After I finished my miniature breakdown yesterday, I used this method to salvage what was left of the day.

6 Steps for Dealing with Anything

1. Identify the issue. 

2. Identify all the options.

3. Write down the consequences (positive and negative) of each option.

4. Make a decision.

5. Ask for help and/or share your plan.

6. Take action.

How it Works

Here’s what the steps looked like for me yesterday.

1. Identify the issue. I’m spinning too many plates. I have too much to do and not enough time. (Normally in this step, I would make a detailed list of exactly what things need to be done, but I already had a list.)

2. Identify all the options. I could bust ass trying to get everything done even though I know I can’t. I could do only the most important things and leave the rest for later. Or I could curl up into a fetal position again.

3. Write down the consequences (positive and negative) of each option. 

(+) for trying to do it all: I could accomplish quite a bit. I would feel like I was at least trying. I may not have to disappoint anyone.

(-) for trying to do it all: I already feel like crying, and trying to tackle my entire to-do list will make it worse.

(+) for doing the most important things: I can easily identify the most important tasks on my to-do list. If I do those things, I’ll be ready for work tomorrow. I would feel less stressed if I accomplished something.

(-) for doing the most important things: It’s hard to put off the less important tasks because I feel like I’m disappointing people.

(+) for the fetal position: I can forget about my stress for awhile. It’s kind of cozy in the fetal position.

(-) for the fetal position: All the overwhelming tasks on the list will still be there when I’m done.

4. Make a decision. Looking at it this way, I chose doing the most important tasks and leaving the rest for later.

5. Ask for help and/or share your plan. I asked my son to help with some of the tasks around the house. I let my friend know I couldn’t go to dinner because I had too much to do. I emailed the bloggers I write for to let them know that my staff posts are on pause for a bit.

6. Take action. This is the part where I actually did the most important things on the list (laundry, take out trash, clean out Jay’s backpack, groceries) and felt slightly better about life. The crisis situations that are bothering me are still bothering me, but at least the household stuff is no longer one of those things.

How Many Plates Can You Spin?

What are issues are you struggling with right now? What helps when you’re overwhelmed? Have you ever used a system like the one above to help shake off mental paralysis?

About Andrea Whitmer

Andrea is a freelance web developer and mom trying to maintain a sense of humor in an otherwise chaotic world. She blogs in hopes of helping others avoid the same mistakes she made in the past. Join in the discussion here on So Over This, or connect on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus. You can also subscribe to new posts via RSS so you never miss out!


  1. Geez this is like an everyday thing with me. I call it the Anxiety Nap Time. (ANTsies) I know I have x amount of days to write a paper but I feel like its not enough time or I'm worried about something else going on at the same time and I just get overwhelmed. The hardest part, at least for me, is Identifying the situation and not pretending its something else out of shame of not getting all of my 'measly' things out of the way when I know other people are doing 100% more than me (hyperbole is also a symptom of my anxieties)

    It helps to set timers. Like, if you can only do ONE thing, set a timer for 15 minutes and after that 15 minutes, you have permission to sit on your ass in fetal position again…for 15 minutes.  That sort of break down had helped me a lot to start taking small bites out of a big problem. IE: I hate looking at my bank account. So I only have to do it for 15 minutes a day. I hate doing Spanish homework. So I do 15 minutes before dinner and 15 minutes after dinner, that sort of thing.

    • It's hard not to feel bad when you know your struggles could be worse. But the fact is, you aren't living someone else's life; you're living yours and it's going to suck sometimes. It's perfectly okay to have a pity party from time to time! 

      The 15-minute thing reminds me of the Fly Lady… One of those things that I know I should implement but always put off "until I have time to figure it out." Good suggestion, though – that would probably help tremendously if I'd just buckle down and DO IT. I love the idea of limiting my nervous breakdowns to 15 minutes instead of letting them go on for hours. 🙂

      • LOL

        I totally took that from FlyLady. I used to think I could never do her system because it meant all those 'baby steps' But you know what? Even a little of what she suggests done a bit at a time eventually gets whatever scary closet monster/money monster broken down. I think that the site can be a bit cloying at times and I stopped the emails because they just seemed to clog up my inbox, but the concept is still a sound one that I've found effective for dealing with anxiety-making tasks.

  2. Hang in there!  I don't know if this will help but when I feel like that I try to take at least 5 minutes as "me time".  For me this is just curling up on my bed, covers over my head and think about nothing.   It's a short time so I don't feel badly about it (taking away too much time from doing those tasks, etc) and I normally feel refreshed.  (I also do this in the mornings when I don't want to get out of bed)

    • I won't even go into the method I use to clear my head because you guys would think I was a total weirdo. But I typically reserve that for bedtime. I have a horrible time calming my brain down enough to fall asleep. If I get in bed during the day when I'm overwhelmed, I'm scared I won't get back out! 🙂

  3. A couple of months ago, I had to promise my wife I wouldn't pick up any more business ventures.  I have:
    1.  My day job
    2.  A small web marketing startup
    3.  Gun/carry permit class I teach monthly
    4.  niche sites
    5.  My blog

    That's just the money plates.  Then I throw on:
    6.  Kid #1's vision therapy
    7.  Kids 2 & 3 in horse shows
    8.  Halloween(We go totally overboard to the point of being on the news a few years ago)
    9.  Time with my family

    Sometimes, it all goes to hell.

    • I'm dying to do some niche sites at some point, but I don't know when in the world I would have time. I have all kinds of ideas, just no time to implement them. I'm just hanging on for the moment and hoping things calm down at some point. (My 91 year-old great grandmother tells me the chaos won't end until I'm dead, so I'm not holding my breath!)

  4. How many plates some of us CAN spin is usually a different number from how many plates we HAVE to spin. That's part of the problem. It could be that someone can spin 3 plates at a time, but they HAVE to constantly spin 5, and they get used to that threshhold to the point they believe they CAN spin 5. Now, add another 2 plates, and watch all the pretty plates hit the floor… Sure, you can push yourself constantly, but that doesn't mean that's how many you can or should be doing.

    I'd love to join you for some fetal-position break down time, but I find that falling asleep is my escape from when the plates come crashing down. Must be one of the few benefits of being single without any children… I sometimes fall asleep as early as 8pm without dinner because I'm overly stressed, and then get back on track the following day. It's hard, it sucks, but someone has to clean the mess and time doesn't wait for anyone.  

    • I'm definitely a fan of sleep when I'm stressed – didn't do that yesterday because I didn't want my sleep pattern to be messed up, but sleep is a good thing most of the time. 

      I feel like there should be a limit on how much one person can be expected to deal with at once. We should have a magic assistant that appears when we can handle anything else. Maybe that could solve the unemployment problem – go be an assistant for some overwhelmed person, and you can continue receiving your unemployment benefits. I guarantee some of the slackers (not that all unemployed people are slackers) would try a lot harder to find jobs if they had to help me deal with all my crap for awhile!

  5. Wish I had a system – I just spin the plates however I can, even if I have to stack a few on top of each other to do it.  Thanks for the reminder that there's always someone with more plates spinning!

  6. When I get to my breaking point, I just scream really loudly, punch something, and grab the bottle of Patron.

    Actually, the juggling act isn't as bad in my personal situation since it's just me.  I do have my parents asking me to do stuff quite a bit, but they do mostly everything for themselves.  But, when I'm at work I feel like I'm babysitter, secretary, accountant, mailman, garbage man, and some other random jobs.  Then I go home and have to deal with the domestic responsibilities, my blogging responsibilities, and whatever I have going on in my side business.  If I can keep to a regular workout schedule it helps tremendously, but otherwise I'll drop everything and give myself a break if it gets too bad.

    • I'm more of a vodka person myself. 🙂 

      One time I bought a ton of random produce (pumpkins, squash, etc.), took it to the backyard, and smashed it all with a hammer. THAT was some good therapy!

      • Smash therapy.  That sounds like it could be very therapeutic.  I'll drink vodka only if it's Grey Goose (nothing from a plastic jug for me) but my old buddy Jack is always choice #1  

  7. Not sure how many plates I can actually spin.  Usually what I do when I need to get something done is to put it down on a paper to do list and then give myself a time deadline.  Then it is bust my butt til it is done and I can relax.  Things like laundry and cleaning the garage usually fall to the bottom of the list.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think we have a higher capacity for multiple things than we realize.  If you have some control over the situation, you can handle more.

  9. When you said "(-) for trying to do it all: I already feel like crying, and trying to tackle my entire to-do list will make it worse" I totally saw myself. I have been in this situation so many times. It is so frustrating. I really like your tips on how to manage multiple things at once. They are really insightful. 

    Hang in there and I hope things slow down soon. 

  10. Carrie Starr says:

    Spinning too many plates is the story of my life!  I get excited easily about so many things.  For me, I try to count the cost before I make the commitment.  When I get an offer to add something more, it's easy for me to love the idea and say, "yes" before I really think about it.

    This year I am forcing myself to wait a whole 15 minutes before saying "yes!"  For me, this is progress.  I try to remember that I am a wife and mom of three kids.  They all need my time every day.  There's my job, which is always demanding more from me. This is where I need to say, "no" the most!  Then there's the blog, my book and speaking engagements.  This is my new love.  I need to protect time for it, or I will never be able to pursue my passion for marrying personal finance with successful relationships.

    I've also found that I must make time for me.  It feels selfish but if I can't find time for a quick run, a long walk and/or pleasure reading, my life is out of balance.  These quiet moments refuel my tank and give me time to reflect and remember what is most important to me.  In the craziness of the spinning plates, I can only hear the urgent demands screaming at me.  When I go for a run or soak in the tub with a good book, the voices fade and my inner voice becomes loud and clear.

    Glad you are taking some time for yourself, your son and the things you love the most.  I appreciate you.

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