time management

How to Beat Back Overwhelm in 5 Steps

July 4, 2018

Reading Time: 6 minutes

READ TIME: 7.5 MINUTES

When’s the last time you felt like a game of Tetris?

I don’t mean felt like playing a game of Tetris.

I’m talking about that feeling where stuff just keeps piling up on top of you faster and faster and it’s getting more and more disorganized and all you can really do is watch wide-eyed as all the pieces hit the ceiling and whoops…. game over.

At least in Tetris, there’s a shiny “New Game” button, and you can start fresh, clear from the bottom, and try to do a little better this time. Or you can just turn it off and move on to something else.

Not so much in life, right?

Overwhelm. Let’s taco ‘bout it.

It happens to all of us. And if you’re looking for tips on a leadership blog, you’ve got your fair share of responsibilities.

You’re building a business – working IN it to keep that revenue stream going (gotta make that money, honey) and ON it to create a strong, sustainable foundation so you’re not one of the 50% of businesses that fails in the first 5 years.

You’re managing personalities and projects at your 9-to-5, navigating office politics, subpar “break” rooms, and employee reviews in both directions. And if you’re one of the 44 million Americans who has a side hustle, then you’re giving any extra minutes you have to building your passion project and working toward paying off that student loan debt.

My nonprofit volunteer friends – your commitment to the community is inspiring. You work for free (very often in addition to some of the above) to make lives better. Your calendar is filled with committee meetings, development training, seminars and hands-on service. As a member of the Junior League, I’ve seen up close and personal the passion for community translated into time spent sorting clothing, planning fundraisers and creating an amazing member experience – all while juggling more expertly than a circus clown – and with much better makeup, I might add!

And as I write this without any kiddos of my own, I am in absolute AWE of the moms and dads with little ones who do any of the above. Plus, we didn’t even touch on things like friend drama, family issues, squeezing in time for fitness or self-care and a myriad other things that contribute to the Tetris game of life.

It’s easy to see – with all of the wonderful (sometimes less than wonderful) responsibilities we have, deadlines to meet, commitments to uphold, children to raise, etc etc that we can feel overwhelmed from time to time.

And full disclosure – I, myself, have felt incredibly overwhelmed for the past few days.

Yes, this girl who writes about time management and routines and living well just wanted to stay in bed this morning and avoid facing a to-do list so massive, it’s not even all written down. It’s just floating around in my head like flurries in a snowglobe.

So – as I’m about to personally embark on beating back overwhelm and clear off my Tetris board, I’m sharing exactly how I plan to fight my way through it.

1. TAKE DEEP BREATHS

When you’ve got a to-do list a mile long, the first thing you want to do is jump in and just start doing, right? The last thing you want to do is stop and breathe. But – taking just 5 minutes to clear your head with a simple meditation or breathing exercise can slow your heart rate, calm you down and prepare your mind to begin tackling all the things.

I like to use 4-count breathing. This Navy Seal can tell you a little more about it, but in a nutshell, it’s inhaling 1-2-3-4, pausing with held breath 1-2-3-4, exhaling 1-2-3-4 and pausing 1-2-3-4. Repeat.

2. PUT ALL THE THINGS DOWN ON PAPER.

Trello is my go-to tool for managing my to-do list and project management. But, the tactile act of transferring thoughts to paper with an actual pen or pencil is cathartic itself. It’s capturing those snow globe flurries floating around in your head and making them real, and therefore, manageable.

Sure, making a list can take a little bit of time, and you’d rather just get started on the things.

But leaving tasks unwritten is a one-way ticket to distractedville, and you’ll be prone to think of something mid-project and want to jump over to “just do that other thing real quick, and oh wait, where was I?”

3. IDENTIFY YOUR PRIORITIES

You’ve got your giant list. Maybe you feel worse because you can see it all and it feels. so. daunting.

Or maybe you feel better because it’s not as bad as you thought it was. Woohoo!

Rather than starting at the top of the list and working your way down, it’s time to prioritize.

Let me introduce you to the Eisenhower Matrix.

Invented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower – a pretty important decision-maker during his time (understatement) – the Eisenhower Matrix is a tool for sorting “all the things” into categories and then acting on each category in a different way.

Everything on your list fits into one of 4 categories:

  1. Important + Urgent

  2. Important + Not Urgent

  3. Unimportant + Urgent

  4. Unimportant + Not Urgent

Yes – this definitely requires a little bit of critical thinking and to step back from the ledge of “BUT ANNA EVERYTHING IS URGENT AND IMPORTANT!!!!!!!!!.”

Except no, it’s probably not.

Here’s a quick breakdown of each category.

1. Important + Urgent — Do it first.
These are the deadlines you’ve already missed (yikes) as well as your fast approaching deadlines. This is the stuff that if it doesn’t happen fast, your career or business is on the line.

2. Important + Not Urgent — Do it later.
These are things with upcoming deadlines, but they aren’t immediate. There are more pressing things to attend to, so pull out your calendar and schedule time to work on these items later. Moving them to a monthly Duty Day is a good option so you knock out a bunch of important, but non-urgent tasks – like scheduling dentist, doctor, hair and pet grooming appointments all at once.

3. Unimportant + Urgent — Delegate or Decline
This is the networking happy hour the day before a big presentation. This is a client “emergency” that isn’t really an emergency at all. If you have a team, delegate these items. Keep track of what you’re delegating and ask that person to report back to you, or make a note to check in. Helping a client work through the problem without doing it for them is also a form of delegation. If you don’t have a team and can’t delegate, you’ve got to decline. Although saying “no” can be hard – these are items that you pass on in order to create space for the Important + Urgent items on your list.

4. Unimportant + Not Urgent — Eliminate
Hopefully you have very few items in this category. If we’re striving to live the lives of our dreams, why spend our precious hours on things that are not important? Cut these things out, and move on.

4. COMMIT TO MONO-TASKING.

“Wait, Anna – don’t you mean multitasking? I’m a pro at multitasking.”

Sure you are…

Studies have shown that only 2% of the population is proficient at multitasking. TWO PERCENT. I am 100% NOT in that 2%.

Many who say they are pro-multitaskers are actually engaging in something called “task switching.” Task switching is that thing when you’re in the middle of doing something, and you stop real quick and switch over to another just real quick and switch back.

Maybe if feels like you’re getting a lot done, but in reality, it can take a whopping 25 minutes to regain focus after a distraction like task switching. Can you afford to lose that time in your day? I sure can’t.

Focusing on one thing at a time can be SUPER hard, especially if you’re in an open working environment can’t easily eliminate distractions. Try putting your phone on airplane mode, closing your email browser (unless, of course, a primary function of your work is responding to emails for scheduling/logistics), put on your headphones, and keep your head down.

5. TAKE BREAKS.

Again – this probably seems counter-intuitive, just like starting our “beat back overwhelm” process with deep breaths instead of diving straight in.

Taking breaks keep you from getting bored or burnt out, they allow you to daydream – which results in unstructured thought that can lead to some awesome ideas (kinda like productive procrastination), and they give you an opportunity to consider how you’re feeling, how you’re progressing through your list, and to assess whether you’re accomplishing your priorities the right way. Taking a break gives you an opportunity to course correct if needed, and get back at it feeling refreshed.

I like to use a little cube timer at my desk to keep my breaks at 10 or 15 minutes.

Ok – those are the exact five steps I’ll be using today and for the rest of this week to push through the overwhelm and make a dent in my big list of all the things. If you’re in the weeds too, I’m cheering you on, sending good vibes your way and telling you that yes, there is another side, and you CAN get through this.

However, if you’re finding that overwhelm has become a constant state of mind, as opposed to a temporary feeling – I highly recommend seeking out a licensed therapist in your area, checking out an online counseling service like BetterHelp, or working with a life coach to develop strategies for nailing down your priorities and coping with overwhelm.

I’ve been there – and crying in the parking lot before work is not something that I want anyone else to experience on a regular basis. Talking with someone made all the difference for me.

Let me know in the comments if you have any techniques for beating back overwhelm, or if you’re in the weeds like I am this week. We’ll get through it together!

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