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Today while scrolling, I found somebody tweeted this text that confused me.

As retweets and sharing are allowed I will just copy and paste that tweet here, in order to keep the context.

Yesterday, I was offered an exciting opportunity and when I emailed my PhD mentor to let him know, he said congratulations and then asked:

What will you take off your plate so they get the best you?

Wow. Great mentors ask the tough questions that you need to hear.

The sentence that I didn't get is bold.

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To have something on one's plate is an idiom meaning to have something to do, usually work of some sort, that is taking up their time. The person's mentor is implying that the person has enough things to do already that are taking up all their time—i.e., that adding the additional tasks from this opportunity would be too much on their plate.

The mentor is asking the person, "what will you stop doing in order to make sure you can dedicate enough time to this opportunity to do it well?"

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  • 2
    This idiom is often used to indicate having too much to do. The implication is that a person can only handle so many tasks, just as a plate can only carry so much food.
    – barbecue
    Jul 23 at 16:21
  • 3
    Yes, 'what will you take off your plate' was probably based on the well established idiom to have too much on one's plate, but one should be careful in trying to create such derivatives of established idioms: they may be confusing, stylistically awkward, or perceived as unidiomatic, even if the audience is familiar with the (original) idiom.
    – jsw29
    Jul 23 at 20:24
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    There's absolutely no risk of confusion or awkwardness here, @jsw29, so I assume your stated concerns are merely abstract?
    – Cody Gray
    Jul 23 at 23:44
  • @CodyGray, there is some small possibility of confusion here: for all we know, it may be that the OP was familiar with too much on one's plate but still confused by take off your plate. But, yes, the point was primarily a general one: the quality of being an idiom is not readily transferable to something that may be derived from an idiom, even if the derivation would be unproblematic with literal meanings.
    – jsw29
    Jul 24 at 14:43
  • 1
    I've encountered the term metalepsis for this process of taking an established idiom and creating a derivative of it. I agree with @jsw29 that you should be careful about doing this, but "careful" doesn't mean "don't do it". Jul 24 at 18:13
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As jsw29 notes in a comment beneath Ryan M's answer, the source idiom is "have too much [or a lot] on one's plate." Here is the entry for that expression in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

have a lot on one's plate Also, have too much on one's plate. Have a great deal (or too much) to cope with, as in What with the new baby and the new house, they have a lot on their plate, or I can't take that on now; I have too much on my plate already. This expression transfers a loaded or overloaded dinner plate to other activities. {First half of 1900s}

Often the expression arises in connection with a request for help from someone else, as in "I have too much on my plate right now. Can you help me out by taking my place at the Bowser-wowser demo this afternoon?" But in some cases, as the posted example suggests, ridding oneself of excess responsibilities may entail simply dropping them rather than transferring them.

Another form of the source idiom is "have a full plate." Here is the entry for that expression in Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms (2003):

a full plate a lot of work to do or problems to deal with | Facing funding cuts and a lawsuit challenging the school's admissions policy, the university's new president has a full plate.

The implication of the metaphor is that if you already have a full plate, you can't add anything to it without first getting rid of something that is already on it.

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Also, being accused of "having too much on your plate" means that someone thinks you cannot do your job well now, so why would you look at more work?

I agree that the idiom mash up was a bit confusing, as the original idiom is either "I have enough on my plate" (I won't ask for more or I don't need more) vs. "I have too much on my plate already" (I am overloaded already, what are you kidding?)

As the mentor said this, they must be very concerned that if you take the opportunity, your doctoral work will suffer. Some people "are spread too thin" as they take on too many "excellent opportunities".

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