Here’s how to develop a clear system that tells you what to do when you feel overwhelmed so you can reduce your stress and ensure you get busy doing the tasks that matter (not binge watching shows on Netflix!).
You wake up and get ready for the day.
There’s already a tight ball in your stomach because that to-do list has been growing at an exponential rate.
Plan those lessons.
Mark those papers.
Reply to those emails.
And that’s just stuff for school.
You know you have to deal with this. You’ve committed your weekend to get it sorted.
You sit down, ready to begin. But instead of taking action, you feel paralyzed.
There is so much to do, you have no idea where to start. And the more you go through all those things in your head, the more overwhelmed you feel.
The next thing you know you’ve picked up your phone and lost 20 minutes scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed.
Clearly this isn’t helping.
Developing a clear system that tells you what to do when you have too much to do, and repeating it every time you are feeling overwhelmed by your tasks, will reduce your stress and ensure you engage in productive not avoidant behavior.
In simpler talk, it will make sure you actually get things done and don’t get lost watching Netflix.
Here’s the system that works for me.
List all the things you have to do
The first thing to do is to write down all the tasks you have to do.
Having to remember what you have to do is a fast-track to feeling exhausted and stressed because you’re trusting yourself to not forget.
This creates a heavy mental load.
In addition, if you have tasks written all over the place, copy them to a central location.
I have multiple lists for all areas of my life (not just school) on the computer, but when I get to this point, I need them down on paper.
Allocate everything you have to do into a category
Now you have the list, it’s time to categorize.
Group all those things into relevant categories. Niche down when you can – for example, don’t just have “work” as a category.
For teaching, I group it by all the work I have to do for each of my classes, then tasks related to the specific aspects of my job description.
If you have physical things to do (eg a pile of books to mark) you can group these into a pile for each category as well.
Get started with quick wins
The first job is to spend half an hour on as many quick wins as you can.
Set your timer for 30 minutes, go through your list, and knock out what you can in that time frame.
You’ll not looking for any big things here- we’ll do them next.
The types of activities you should do are emails that are quick to reply to, phone calls, necessary purchases…
The idea behind this is you’ll get a fast momentum going, take off a lot of little stressors, and feel success.
This will help you when you get to the next stage.
Prioritize your remaining tasks
Now it’s time to work out what you’re going to do first out of the important stuff. You can do this in different ways.
- What’s due first. When things are really full-on, you need to start clearing the decks, and this is one of the times where my job needs to come ahead of everything else.
I look at my timetable for the next day and other deadlines to help select tasks. If I have a particular class in first period, then my first job is to make sure I have the planning done for that class and sorted any resources I need to.
I then work through the rest of the day in order.
- What other people are counting on. Nothing says to people faster “I’m not coping” than missing deadlines and letting people down.
Look at your list and see what other people need to get their jobs done. For example, report writing.
You may need to write the report but the next stage is for people to check that report. They have a time frame and if you blow yours, you also blow theirs.
- What the category is. I learned many years ago that when ALL the things seem overwhelming, that I can start to gain control by having ONE category sorted.
Depending on the nature of all the tasks, you can work through all the must-dos on your list by category and move on to the next when you have finished that one (you can also use time in this way which I’ll discuss below).
- What’s important but not urgent. Sometimes we’re so busy operating in the urgent and important quadrant of the decision-making matrix (source) that we don’t do other really important things that could grow us long-term.
If you can, make sure you have these types of tasks high on your priorities as well.
Based on this process, you should be able to come up with a list of what to tackle and in what order.
Top tip: write your tasks on post its so you can move them around and work out the best order to do them in.
Set up your environment for success
Now you need to support yourself to focus.
You do this by taking all the things you know act as distractions and making them just that little bit harder to access.
Take your phone and put it out of reach or sight. If you don’t need the internet, turn off the wi-fi on your computer. If you don’t need your computer right now, shut your computer lid.
By delaying your need for instant gratification and making what you want more challenging to get, you can help keep focused.
You can also make bargains with yourself if it’s harder to eliminate distractions.
For example, if you need to be on the internet, it can be super tempting to have Facebook tab open and just flick over when you see a notification. So close all the extra tabs for a start.
Then tell yourself that you can check Facebook- but if you do then you have to stop working on the task you are doing and you are not allowed to return to it.
You will realize then that what you are doing is way more important than some random post in one of your groups.
Finally, get yourself a large glass of water and have it next to you to keep hydrated.
Allocate time for tasks
Give yourself blocks of time to work on each task.
Take 45 minutes of every hour to work on those longer tasks, such as writing a report.
Do not allow yourself to get distracted with other things during this time.
Focus solely on the task at hand.
Then, in the 15 minutes that you have left every hour, do other quick chores.
For example, if I’ve ended up with a number of loads of washing to do in the weekend, I’ll take that 15 minutes and use that to put on a new load and put the completed load in the dryer or hang it on the line, depending on the weather.
That way, I am still making progress on my household tasks at the same time as moving through my important tasks.
I mean, I need clothes too, right?
There’s a few other things you can do that will help you as well.
Ask for help
Tell your loved ones that you’re under the pump today and you need help.
If it’s usually your night to cook, see if they can do it.
Delegate whatever other household chores you can.
If you are both under pressure, have a quick discussion about what must get done to make sure that the home will function.
Divide these up and tackle them in those 15 minute windows.
Under-promise and over-deliver
If there’s stuff that’s been weighing on your mind, but doesn’t have an urgent deadline, send a quick email to those it affects. In it, under-promise but aim to over-deliver.
For example, you might email people to tell them a particular task will be completed by the end of the week, but then make it a priority to have it done by the end of tomorrow.
Not only will they be impressed you bet your schedule, you will also feel like you are winning!
Know your perspective will shift tomorrow
Finally, I’ve lost count of the times I have felt overwhelmed by having too many things to do, and have felt as though I would never get out of it, BUT woken up the next morning and felt like I had it under control.
Get yourself through the day as best you can, believe that tomorrow the sun will come up (cue the Annie song) and you will feel differently.
It can be super hard to know what to do when you feel overwhelmed. Most of us will go into some form of freeze mode where we don’t even know where to start.
- doing a brain dump
- sorting tasks into categories
- whacking out some quick wins
- prioritizing remaining tasks
- setting up your environment for success
- allocating time for tasks
- asking for help
- making a point to under promise and over deliver
- knowing your perspective will shift tomorrow
you can shift your perspective from overwhelmed to under control.
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