Overwhelmed? It happens to everyone. The good news is that you have the power to get out of it. Here are my favorite ways to overcome overwhelm:
1. Write it all down.
Make a list and get it all out of your head. This helps clear out the clutter so you can think more clearly. When you write it all down, you can release all those pent-up thoughts so you can think more clearly.
2. Take a deep breath.
If you’re overwhelmed, a few deep breaths can do a world of good to shift your energy and bring some calm.
3. Can’t control it? Let it go.
I have a friend who writes down all her worries on paper, then burns the paper. She’s releasing all the things she’s worried about that she can’t control. Overwhelm comes from worrying about future consequences – and those are precisely the things we can’t control. So do what you can, and let the rest go.
4. Chunk it down.
If you’ve ever heard me speak about project management, you know that I’m a huge fan of chunking. When you’re faced with a big project, write down the next three small things you could do. Taking a massive undertaking and breaking it down into small, actionable steps is a proven way to stay out of overwhelm AND continue to make progress on your goals. If you chunk it down and it still feels too hard, chunk it down some more until you have a list of manageable action steps. Try it, it works.
5. Choose one thing from your list to start on.
You have a list. A big list. A list that makes list makers cower in fear. So what do you do? pick one thing – just one thing. And do that. Once that’s done, choose another thing. And so on, and so on.
6. Focus on the present.
Another tool in your arsenal of tools is to get really quiet, focus only on the moment at hand, and tell yourself that everything right now is ok. I do this all the time. When I’m worried about something, I look around me and notice all the things that ARE ok, and focus just on that. It’s simple and extremely effective.
7. Make a gratitude list.
Too often we worry about the future – what will happen if we do this, don’t do that, that comes through (or doesn’t), etc. Sort of like being in the present, make a list of all the things you’re grateful for. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the sun is shining today. Get in the habit of practicing gratitude every day.
Meditation is a fantastic way to get centered and calm. Even if you have just a few minutes, meditation can help. If you’re just getting started, try using an app like Headspace or Calm to guide you.
9. Think of the worst-case scenario.
When I’m especially stressed out with worry, I’ve often asked myself “what’s the worst that can happen?”. Most of the time, even the very worst thing that could happen isn’t the end of the world. Even thought it might be truly awful, I could recover. That helps to put things in perspective.
10. Take a break and get outdoors.
Fresh air will do wonders for your mood. If you’re somewhere where there’s even a tiny square of grass or trees (like a rooftop garden in the city), connecting with nature will help center you. I’ve been known to sit outdoors on my front step in the middle of winter, with hat and gloves and wrapped in a sleeping bag, because it’s that important.
11. Establish boundaries – and enforce them.
Often we’re overwhelmed because we’ve taken on too much – and that’s often because we don’t have good boundaries. So get comfortable saying no. If we’re constantly saying yes to everyone, we eventually say no to ourselves. Learn to say no, and stick to your guns.
12. Simplify – your space, your files, your life.
“When in doubt, throw it out.”. If something no longer serves you, get rid of it. If you’re not sure, pack it away until you ARE sure. It’s perfectly ok to acknowledge that something once served you but has now outlived its usefulness. Honor that and let it go.
You can be all and do all to everything and everyone. You just can’t. Make your list, choose your top 3 most important things, and put the rest on hold.
14. Plan for speed bumps and leave space.
I used to be late all the time. I was always rushing, and I hated it. Then I realized it was because I was trying to squeeze in as much as I could into every single minute. So if I had to be somewhere in 10 minutes, I’d swing by the bank or stop to get gas first. Inevitably, it always took me longer than I planned, and because I filled every single minute, I was always rushing. Then, if I got behind a driver who wasn’t driving quite as fast as I would have liked, I got annoyed and very impatient. Once I learned to give myself some buffer time, I realized how nice it is to arrive early and not have to rush. Along those lines, sometimes things don’t go as planned – so have a backup plan just in case.
Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. I can do a lot of things that aren’t the best use of my time, so I delegate them to members of my team. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s important. Find someone with the skillset you need, and learn to hand stuff off to them.
16. Let go of perfectionism – give yourself permission.
“Done is better than perfect” is a great mantra for perfectionists. My mother was a teacher, and she would spend weeks writing progress reports. She was often behind because she was so extremely detailed. Though she submitted a superior product, it was really stressful for her. The key is to identify a standard that you can live with yet won’t keep you from delivering on time.
17. Don’t try to get it all done now.
Your list is long. You feel like it all needs to be done TODAY, so you freeze and turn to Facebook instead. Go back to what we learned above about chunking and prioritizing. Not everything needs to get done right this minute, or even today, or even this week – even though you might feel like it does.
18. Keep track of your progress and celebrate it.
We tend to focus so much on what we need to do and what is in our way, that we neglect the things we checked off that list, and the things that went well. I love checklists that allow me to see what’s been completed – so paper works well, so do digital list tools that don’t delete the completed tasks (Workflowy is a good example of one that gives you the option to show or hide completed tasks). Looking back at how far you’ve come and celebrating that progress is a great way to keep your spirits up when you’re feeling down.
19. Clear the decks at the end of the day.
At the end of the day, clean up your desk. It might be tempting to just get up and walk away, but if your desk is a mess that’s how you’re going to feel in the morning. Do you really want to start your day with another mess? Make note of where you left off, identify what you’re going to start with in the morning, then put everything away.
20. Choose your three MITs every day.
My best tool for staying focused is the MIT (Most Important Task). Each day, identify no more than three MITs for the day. These are the things that absolutely have to get done. Focus on them, and once those are done you can feel like you made real progress.
The key to overcoming overwhelm is always to ask yourself these questions:
1) Where are you right now?
2) Where are you headed?
3) What’s the next step?
You always have choices, and the choices you make will make or break your day. Be smart about it, and keep your head up. If it all falls apart, tomorrow is a new day.
photo credit: Lisa Murray