I’d been looking forward to this day for over a year. Last week, it finally arrived. I’d been trying to create some space in my schedule for large blocks of uninterrupted time to focus exclusively on the things I want and need to do to build my writing/coaching business. As I finished up one last medical writing assignment, I could barely contain my excitement. Finally, four full days to indulge myself in the work I love!
I hit “send” and emailed that last assignment off.
I took a deep breath, and got ready to dive in….
I stared my monster list with at least 25 projects I wanted to work on. And I stared. And stared. This went on for at least 15 minutes. My brain was frozen. I couldn’t figure out where to start.
My thought process went something like this: “I could work on ‘this’… but I’ve put off ‘that’ for months and really need to get it done… oh, but I forgot about ‘this other thing’… but working on ‘that other thing’ would be easy and fun…” and on and on…
I was a victim of overwhelm.
A few of the definitions of overwhelm (v.) from dictionary.com: to overcome completely in mind or feeling; to overpower or overcome, destroy, crush; to cover or bury beneath a mass of something, submerge; to load, heap, treat or address with an overpowering or excessive amount of anything.
If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed (and in this day and age, who hasn’t?), those definitions offer a pretty accurate description. The feeling can be like drowning or being buried under an avalanche, of having the air slowly squeezed out of your lungs by a giant python.
The scientific explanation for what happens when we feel overwhelmed is that something triggered our good friend the amgydala, seat of the fight-or-flight response in our brains, and set off a cascade of fear. In my case, this tends to lead to paralysis, the mental equivalent of a deer in the headlights. It can also lead to flight – escaping through your favorite distraction (hello Netflix marathon!), or fight – anger and irritability.
According to psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, the underlying fear may be about scarcity (not enough time or resources), disappointing other people, or feeling inadequate. (1)
Whatever the source, being caught in the throes of a fear response isn’t good for our focus. It keeps us from doing our best work. It’s a roadblock on our path to excellence.
So what are we supposed to do?
Strategies for Managing Overwhelm
Change your scenery, change your perspective
One of the first steps when we start to feel overwhelmed is to change our environment. Get moving – take a walk (out in nature if possible), go to the gym, clean the bathroom, whatever. Get the blood flowing and flood your brain with oxygen. This can have the same effect as restarting your computer when it crashes because too many programs are running at once. I often find that all it takes is a good sweaty session in the gym to get unstuck and get some clarity about what to do and where to start.
Another thing that can help is to do a little cleaning and decluttering. Clearing up our immediate environment creates physical breathing space, and this can translate into the mental space we need. Hendriksen says, “tidying the area around you restores order to a tiny corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.”
Related to this is changing our internal perspective. Psychologist Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, says that negative thinking can cause mental paralysis, block the problem-solving centers of our brain, and keep us from taking action. (2) Listen to what you’re saying to yourself when you’re in the midst of overwhelm. Instead of telling yourself “I’m never going to get this all done” or “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” try asking empowering questions like “What is one thing I could complete today?” or “What is the first step to tackling this challenge?”
Organize, Prioritize, and Put It on the Calendar
When the cause of overwhelm is too much to do in too little time, one of the challenges is that our brains keep ricocheting from one to-do to another, making it impossible to think clearly. This is a situation where organizing and prioritizing is in order.
The first step is to capture all of those thoughts ping-ponging around in your brain and corral them on paper or in an electronic document. Our brains can get stuck in a loop trying to remember everything we need to remember. David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” says, “In order for your brain to let go of the lower-level task of trying to hang on to everything, you have to know that you have captured everything that might represent something you have to do.” (3) Capturing your to-do’s and unfinished projects and worries in a safe place frees up your brain to think about more important things, like coming up with creative solutions.
Second, reset your expectations – instead of catastrophizing about how everything needs to be done right now, take a realistic look at your list and ask yourself which of the tasks really and truly needs to be completed as soon as possible, and which ones would be nice, but the world won’t collapse if they don’t get done.
Using a tool called the Eisenhower Matrix can help with this evaluation. (4) You’ve probably seen variations of this tool before. Essentially, tasks can be divided into four quadrants based on importance and urgency:
- Urgent and Important: these are high-priority activities that really do need to be done by you as soon as possible
- Urgent but Not Important: these items clamor for our attention and often distract us, but when we take a close look, they really aren’t that important to our overall goals and can usually be postponed, delegated, or even dropped from the list altogether; key questions to ask to identify these activities are “does this really need to be done by me?” and “does this really need to be done?”
- Important but Not Urgent: this is the category of activities that would move us closer to the life we want but that tends to get drowned out by the urgent (eg, taking a class or reading a book that would help us advance professionally, spending time with family or friends, exercising or meal planning, etc…); these activities need to be put on the calendar or built into our schedule so they don’t get lost in the shuffle of life
- Not Urgent, Not Important: these are usually escapist distractions like mindless internet surfing, browsing our social media accounts, or watching TV, that usually don’t even warrant a place on our to-do list, but can suck up our valuable time nonetheless
Once you’ve used the Eisenhower Matrix to classify the tasks on your list, come up with a plan to knock out the much smaller list of Urgent/Important items, delegate or delete the Urgent/Not Important tasks, schedule the Important/Not Urgent activities, and eliminate (or strictly schedule) the Not Urgent/Not Important ones.
Break it down into manageable steps
Sometimes (most of the time?) I procrastinate because one specific project creates feelings of overwhelm all by itself. My calendar may be empty, but I’ll unconsciously do everything in my power to avoid getting started. When I start bleaching the tile grout in my shower, it’s usually a good sign I’m avoiding something else… Once I realize what’s going on, I remind myself of the saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Then I get out my fork and knife, and start carving up the project into small manageable bites. It may turn out to be a huge pile, but it’s a pile made of up of tiny bite-sized steps that I can handle easily. For a writing project, my steps may seem ridiculously small: set up and title a word document, write a paragraph (or even a sentence) on “X”, find a reference for “Y”, but that’s the idea – they’re all easily doable, which removes the fear trigger and allows me to get started.
Many projects wind up looking like a monster to-do list, but the steps are usually so quick that it doesn’t take long to get the satisfaction out of crossing things off, and I can relax knowing I’ve thought of everything that needs to be done with that particular project. And when I look at the individual steps, I can usually see there’s nothing scary that I haven’t done before; if there is an unfamiliar part, I break it into even smaller steps that include learning how to do that particular item.
It’s enough to get me moving again, and once I start moving, I usually keep moving.
Give up control and allow others to help
This can be a tough one for those of us who like to be in control. Society surrounds us with messages that promote rugged individualism, like “do it yourself” and “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” and “self-made success.” But once again, it’s about setting reality-based expectations. We may very well be able to “have it all”, but that doesn’t mean we can “do it all” at the same time. And we don’t need to. Take a look at any super-successful person, and the reality is that they usually have a village supporting them.
We’re all human, with the limitations of time and space that come with life on earth, and we create unnecessary stress for ourselves when we try to do it all. Let go of that expectation, take a look at your list, and see what you can delegate or farm out. Get the family involved in more of the chores. Hire help. Take advantage of convenience products or services. In groups, give other people a chance to volunteer and contribute.
Instead of trying to do everything yourself, focus on doing those things that bring you the most satisfaction or that truly require your expertise and talents.
Those are just a few strategies I’ve found helpful for conquering the type of overwhelm that comes from feeling crushed by the weight of too many responsibilities or a never-ending to-do list. If you have other helpful tricks, please share in the comments below. And stay tuned for Part 2 on dealing with some other common causes of overwhelm, like decision fatigue, boredom, and external pressures.
(1) Hendriksen, E. (2017, August 5) Feeling Overwhelmed? Here Are 7 Remedies. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/feeling-overwhelmed-here-are-7-remedies/.
(2) Tartakovsky, M. (2013, March 11) Overwhelmed? These 6 Strategies May Help. Retrieved from: https://psychcentral.com/blog/overwhelmed-these-6-strategies-may-help/.
(3) Allen, D. (2001) Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
(4) Introducing the Eisenhower Matrix. Retrieved from: http://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/.