A Survival Guide to Feeling Overwhelmed

May 18, 2022

One of the biggest problems many people face today is feeling overwhelmed by work and personal tasks. There’s so much to do, never enough time to do it, and uncertainly about what to focus on. Everyone feels that they’re always behind and barely treading water. Fortunately, there are some powerful strategies for not only surviving an overwhelming life but turning it into a life of joy and positive impact.

First Steps

When feeling overwhelmed, start with a first-aid approach:

  • Do some triage. Make a list of everything that needs to be done soon, then choose a few tasks to tackle first and put them on a “today” list. (This isn’t a long-term solution–just something to provide some immediate relief.)
  • Buy some time. Ask for extensions or reschedule some items on the “do soon” list.
  • Lighten the load. Cross some items off the “today” list immediately, let people know not to ask for certain things, and delegate tasks or ask others for help.
  • Focus. Put full attention on one thing on the “today” list and forget about the rest for now.

At the end of the day, take 20 minutes for the following actions:

  • Create a long list. Separate everything that needs to be done into categories such as “work,” “personal,” “financial,” etc. (Use whatever categories make sense; the goal is to get everything down in one place.) Add tasks from e-mail inboxes, messaging systems, open browser tabs, etc. This is likely to feel like a huge undertaking, but persevere and get it done!
  • Build tomorrow’s “today” list. From the long list, pick a handful (3 to 5) tasks to do tomorrow. (Keep this list short: if the tasks are completed early, more can always be added!) Creating tomorrow’s “today” list at the end of each day makes it possible to start the next day already knowing what to focus on
  • Create some space. If there’s still some of those 20 minutes left, let go of some tasks on the long list and buy some time for other tasks.

Long-Term Practical Steps

Once the emergency has been addressed, spend time figuring out some long-term strategies:

  • Simplify or reduce the workload. For example, a business owner might spend time hiring or training someone to take things off their plate. Automating or using simpler software for certain processes can also help. The goal is to have things running more smoothly so they don’t require as much hands-on labor. Time spent here is an investment that will pay off many times over.
  • Block off time for important things. If big projects or important tasks have been sitting on the task list for a while, set aside an hour or two at least a few times a week (but on most days, ideally) to work on them. Creating a work session with someone else to do this kind of focus work will help move things along.
  • Create structure for the small things. When there are a thousand little things to take care of, and it all feels random, create blocks of time to work on those small things. For example, set aside 30 minutes twice a day to clear out messages and e-mail, or a couple of hours every Friday to tackle administrative or financial tasks. This kind of structure ensures that these little tasks will get taken care of, leaving the rest of the time for focusing on the big and important things.
  • Create impact. If tasks seem random and meaningless, commit to accomplishing something over an extended period of time (for example, over a year), then align a year’s worth of tasks with that goal. Line up each daily task with a weekly target, which in turn leads to a monthly target, which in turns makes it possible to hit the goal for the year. Small tasks can have a big impact when they’re lined up with impactful goals.

Obviously, these all don’t have to be done in one day. But implementing one of these strategies each week will lead to a longer-term reduction in feeling overwhelmed.

Create Total Focus in Chaos

Feeling overwhelmed can lead to a lack of focus. After all, how can someone focus on one thing when they feel pulled in a thousand directions? The solution is to find focus in the middle of chaos.

  1. Pick one task (it really doesn’t matter which one) from the “today” list
  2. and decide to work on it for 20 to 30 minutes.
  3. Clear away distractions.
  4. Focus fully on this one task, as if there were nothing else in the universe.
  5. Take a break, then go back to the first step and repeat this process.

Focusing on tasks this way is the same as focusing on one breath at a time in meditation. Each person takes a lot of breaths in their lifetime but can’t take them all at once, so they take them one at a time. Each breath is the only one happening at that moment–the rest will come in time.

Mindset Shift

Finally, what if it were possible to transform feeling overwhelmed into something powerful? What if feeling overwhelmed didn’t have to be a big deal but instead became an opportunity to find play, focus, commitment, joy, or curiosity?

People feel overwhelmed because they relate to tasks as burdens or as chances to let others down or fail or look foolish (or something similar). When people relate to tasks this way, then the more tasks they have, the more stressful and burdensome those tasks will be. Under these circumstances, having two tasks isn’t too bad, but having a hundred chances to fail is super stressful!

What if a task were viewed as an opportunity to practice focus and to be present? An opportunity to serve and add value? An opportunity to play and be curious? A place to find joy and transcendent experience?

Here’s how to achieve that:

  1. When feelings of being overwhelmed or wanting to procrastinate arise, reflect on what view of the task might be causing this kind of feeling.
  2. Choose a new view of the task (such as one mentioned above). What would it feel like to view the task this way instead?
  3. Try viewing the task in the new way and see how things feel. Practice this as often as possible, to slowly start to shift the default view of the task.
  4. If feelings of being overwhelmed arise again, no problem–just remember the new view of the task.

When people relate to their tasks as opportunities for play, joy, and adventure, or as ways to serve with love and focus, having more tasks only lights them up even more.

Written by: Leo Babauta

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