bite off more than you can chew

Take on more responsibilities or tasks than you can handle.

This idiom started being used in America in the late 1800s. It may have originated from the habit of chewing tobacco. Some people would take a big “bite” of the tobacco — much bigger than they could chew — and end up having to spit most of it out before they choked to death! Another possibility is that the phrase was created by people who saw children stuffing their mouths full of food and not being able to swallow. And some of us are still doing that.

But, as the phrase is used now, it simply means you’ve taken on too many tasks. As a result, you may fail at one or more of the tasks you have agreed to do, and you might also have high levels of stress and unhappiness, depending on who has given you the tasks. If it’s your boss, you may have to insist on some compromises.

However, if you are a workaholic, like me, you may be the “boss” who has assigned you more work than you can handle. In that case, of course, you’ll have to have a serious discussion with yourself.

In the literal sense, putting too much food in your mouth may fill you with panic when you realize the mouthful is too big. You must either try to swallow the mouthful or spit it out and start over. Loading ourselves up with too many tasks has much the same effect.

I have often decided that I can do a particular task in an afternoon, say. Then I find I’ve underestimated the complexity of the task, or overestimated how fast I can do the work. If there is a deadline imposed by someone else, that can be stressful. If the deadline has been imposed by my inner tyrant, then I can say, “Chill out! It’ll get done when it gets done.”

Knowing your own limits is very important. Knowing where you can get help, if it’s necessary, is also important. Asking for help may be hard on the ego, but getting stressed out, wrecking your immune system, or dying of a heart attack is hardly a productive or a happy way to live.

We’ve come a long way from chewing tobacco, but I’d like to think that’s where this phrase came from. Kids, from the beginning of time, have stuffed their mouths with more food than they can chew but, since the phrase has only been used since the 1800s, which is when people were actually chewing instead of smoking tobacco, my choice makes sense to me!

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