We all get overwhelmed at times.
We’re all dealing with too much information. Expectations that are far too high. Too many tasks to possibly fit into a day. And so much choice that it can be paralysing. No wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed.
I’ve noticed that coaching clients who pivoted gracefully and were endlessly resilient and resourceful during the pandemic are now fraying round the edges. They either shut down, and do nothing. Or they’re running around like headless chickens, doing everything, everywhere, all at once.
This is the process I share with them, to get out of overwhelm.
Most of it is common sense. But common sense goes out of the window when it all gets too much.
Trivia suddenly seems hugely important.
When I feel overwhelmed, I don’t know what I want to do. I can’t see what I need to do. So I end up playing a computer game to avoid thinking altogether. Or reorganising my wardrobe, repainting the hallway and obsessively getting my in-box to zero because this seems a way of controlling the uncontrollable.
Sound familiar? If so, stop. Now. Take a breath or two. Be kind to yourself.
Then follow the steps below.
1: Gather up all your open loops
Write down everything that’s making you feel overwhelmed. Everything on your to-do list, or on your mind. Not just work stuff, but chores, repairs, social commitments, bills, deadlines, worries, responsibilities.
- List all your existing projects
- Ideas you want to work on but haven’t yet begun
- Work you have out there, but haven’t promoted recently
- Ideas you’ve worked on, but haven’t pitched to anyone
This might only take 5-10 minutes. But even if there’s a lot to get down, don’t spend more than an hour on it. Anything you haven’t thought of by then can probably wait. Or you can add it later.
The list in itself might feel overwhelming. Rest assured that you don’t have to do all of these things. Just get them out of your head and onto paper.
Once you’re done, take a break. Make a drink. Go for a walk. Clear your head. Then take a few more deep breaths, and move onto the next step.
2: Assess and edit
Look at your list, and apply these filters. Dump whatever you can.
Do you really need to do it?
Notice all your shoulds, musts, oughts. Check in with yourself. Are these really your projects and priorities, or are they other people’s expectations? If you didn’t feel you were letting anyone down, would you still do it?
Cross off everything that isn’t authentically yours. Even if you are letting people down. Just be honest about feeling overwhelmed, and let them know as soon as possible. They’re often more understanding than you imagine.
Also get rid of anything you’re worrying about that’s out of your control. Focus on what you can do, what is in your power.
Can it wait?
Make two new lists. One is for tasks you’ll deal with soon. Schedule a time in the next month to look at this list again. Some things will become active projects; others might not even feel relevant by then.
The other list is for things you’d love to do someday. Again, schedule a regular time to look at this again: I check mine every three months, as part of my quarterly review.
Maybe by then you’ll have space to move one or two items to your active list, maybe you won’t. But they won’t be forgotten. Or sit accusingly on your current task list when you clearly don’t have time to do them.
Can you delegate it?
If you can assign any of the tasks on your list to someone else, do so. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Family or friends. Colleagues, an assistant, a VA. Could you hire someone to do it? Sometimes, even a good chat with a friend can spread the emotional labour and make you feel less overwhelmed.
Do you need more information?
Sometimes items linger because we just don’t know the next step. If there’s something you need to find out, do that – or add research time to your list.
Or do you just need to make a decision?
Sometimes we’re paralysed by choice. If the decision is likely to be life-changing, write down what else you need to know, and schedule time to research that.
But if the consequences aren’t going to be huge, just make the call and take action, quickly. Then you’ll get results, data that will enable you to make better decisions next time.
Take another break if you need it. Then look at what’s left. What is most important, right now? Maybe you have an urgent deadline, or you need to generate more income. Or perhaps it’s getting a personal project moving, finishing something that’s niggling at you, solving a problem or removing an obstacle in your way.
Perhaps you just have a lot of ideas, projects that all feel urgent, and you aren’t sure which to focus on first. If so, think about where you’d like to be in 5-10 years’ time. The impact you’d like your work to have, and the lifestyle you want for you and your loved ones. Which of the projects on your list are most likely to move you in that direction?
Also consider the challenges, the stuff that gets in your way. What drains you? What takes up more time than it should? What can you do to eliminate these?
Now categorise each item left on your list
A: Urgent and important
B: Important, but not urgent
C: Urgent, but not important
D: Not urgent, and not that important
Within those four categories, number items in order of importance. Then choose number 1 on your A-list. And begin.
Once you’ve worked your way through your A-list, you’ll probably find that B is the category most likely to stop future overwhelm.
When I did this exercise a couple of years back, I realised that my badly designed website was a time-suck that was taking up far too much of my time and energy.
After clearing my A list by paying some bills and writing a feature with an urgent deadline, I decided to focus on this B-list item because it would move a lot of things forward.
So I put creative projects on hold while I chose a theme template and found a designer to move my site to the new platform. Then I hired a VA to look after the maintenance and inevitable tech problems.
Once the site was up and running, it attracted more of the creatives I enjoy working with as a coach. My mailing list started to grow. And I gained at least an hour a day to focus on the projects that were important to me, instead of fiddling about with a broken website.
Fixing this one thing made everything else easier. Look for these levers on your own list.
Clear a block of time in which you can really concentrate on moving a task forward, or getting it off your list.
This might mean neglecting other things for a while. Perhaps your home isn’t as tidy, or you cancel a few commitments. You might say no a little more often. That’s OK. This is not forever. Later on, you can choose to focus on the things you’ve neglected.
If you have a lot of small but important jobs on your list, you might also put aside an hour or an afternoon to blitz the more trivial stuff, and create more headspace.
Make that phone call, answer those emails, sew the button back on that jacket then take it to the dry cleaners. (While also picking up something for dinner and returning that overdue library book.)
Many of the jobs we put off when we feel overwhelmed don’t take so long once we have clarity, and gain some momentum.
5: Celebrate and rest
This is the stage we skip too often. But that’s why we feel overwhelmed in the first place. Very few of us can consistently do more than four hours of focussed work in a day. We need to take breaks. And to reward ourselves for getting stuff done.
There will always be new ideas to execute, new problems and challenges, new buttons to sew on and books to return. And more meals to make.
It’s important to recognise when we’ve made enough progress for the day. Then stop, and recharge fully. That’s how we work steadily, without burning out.
It’s also how we have a life, as well as a job.
Which is surely why we’re here, no?