Some amount of pressure or stress can be a positive thing. Having deadlines to meet can help us be productive, and being busy with meaningful work gives us a sense of purpose. But when we’re pulled in too many directions for too long, or consistently facing challenges we can’t meet, we can feel overwhelmed and the stress becomes harmful.
Often this happens when colleagues go off sick or leave the company, when we’re given more responsibility without the corresponding pay increase, or when there are difficult challenges elsewhere in life, perhaps with family or at home.
When we feel overwhelmed, our energy is drained and it can be difficult to make good choices. Even little things can become stressors and this can become a negative spiral.
When we’re being pulled in too many directions or have too much going on, it helps to have a process to follow like this one. To do this you’ll need to set aside some time where you can focus, uninterrupted. This can be difficult when we’re already busy, but consider this an investment of time that will help make things more manageable both now and in the future. Ideally you should set aside a minimum of 20 minutes a day to focus on working through this process.
Step 1 – Creating Calm
When you’re already drowning in tasks and responsibilities, you need some quick wins to take away some of the acute stress.
Clutter in our environment is a surprisingly significant stressor. For now, a quick clearing of floors and surfaces will be enough. You don’t need to do any sorting or organising; just fill a box with all of the clutter and put it away in a cupboard or cover it with a throw or blanket.
Take a breath
Make yourself a relaxing hot drink (chamomile, rose, green tea or hot chocolate – whatever does it for you). Sit by a window, take a few deep breaths and watch the world go by for a couple of minutes. Feel the warmth of the mug, smell the aroma, really taste the flavours. This will help give you the mental space for the rest of this process.
Know that everyone can get overwhelmed. It’s not an indicator of weakness, just a sign that you’ve had too much going on for too long. People don’t like to talk about it, but you’d be surprised to find out just how many people are struggling like you. Keeping things internal and failing to address the problem will lead to burnout, but making changes like the ones detailed here will help you become more resilient.
Step 2 – Stemming the Tide
Once you’ve achieved a small degree of calm, the next step is to reduce the number of new tasks and stressors that are coming in. Here are some examples of ways you can do that:
Say ‘No’ to new commitments.
This isn’t about dropping commitments you’ve already made, just saying ‘no’ to new ones. Whether that’s optional projects at work, social events you’re not excited about, or helping with fundraising for your kids’ school.
It can be hard to say no, but having a stock phrase at the ready can help. Something along the lines of:
“I’m really sorry. I’d love to help, but I’ve got so much on right now already, I don’t think I’d be able to give this the time or attention it deserves.”
Talk to your boss, your partner or friends. Letting people know that you’re feeling overwhelmed can be scary, but most people will be able to understand how you feel and will try to help if they can.
If you’re not able to talk to your boss like this, but they’re piling on more work than you can handle, you could try something along the lines of:
“This sounds interesting, but I’m currently at capacity working on and don’t have the bandwidth to prioritise this task for the deadline. Would it be possible to shift this deadline? If not, what should I de-prioritise to get this done?”
If you are really struggling, and feeling anxious or depressed you may find it helpful to speak to your doctor, a counsellor or other mental health professional.
Just looking at our email inboxes can be overwhelming. Notifications have been shown to trigger a release of the stress hormone cortisol, and having an inbox with hundreds of emails makes us feel like we’ve got more to do than we can cope with.
Managing your email to reduce stress is a big topic for another article, but for now we’re just going to reduce the number of incoming emails by unsubscribing from email lists.
If there are any lists you get enormous value from, there are a couple of options:
1. Don’t unsubscribe, but set up a rule to send them straight to a separate mailbox so you don’t see them in your inbox.
2. Unsubscribe now, and if you find you’re missing the emails later on, you can always subscribe again later.
Either way, these emails no longer feel like something you need to deal with, but are something you can choose to read when you have the time and capacity.
Step 3 – Energy
Feeling overwhelmed drains your energy, which makes it harder to be productive. Soon tasks are piling up and the situation gets worse and worse. To break this cycle, we need to focus on improving our energy.
It can’t be overstated how important it is to take breaks, rest and get enough good-quality sleep, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
There is plenty of evidence showing the harm caused by a deficit of sleep, the benefits of rest and relaxation, and the benefits of taking breaks for focus and motivation, consolidating memory and learning, and boosting creativity.
No health topic is more widely contested and confusing than nutrition. Healthy eating can be very difficult to define with so many opinions and such variety in people. But there are some general guidelines that are well supported by the science: Eat a varied diet with lots of fruit and veg, whole foods, and as little sugar and processed foods as possible.
You can take this further by tailoring your diet to your individual constitution, which I’ve written a little about here.
Moderate exercise can help us feel more energised. It has also been shown to improve feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and has a positive effect on immunity. However, intensive exercise seems to cause a decline in immune response and increase stress.
This reflects the advice from the Chinese medical classics:
“The way of nurturing life is to constantly strive for minor exertion but never become greatly fatigued and force what you cannot endure.”
— Sun Si-Miao, 7th Century
“The body should always be exercised… yet even in exercise do not go to extremes.”
— Ge Hong, 283-343
Good options for moderate exercise would include walking, cycling, bodyweight strength training and internal martial arts like tai chi.
Step 4 – Getting Things in Order
Hopefully by this point you’re feeling a little calmer, have stopped things getting worse and have a bit more energy to deal with everything that’s on your plate. Now it’s time to start dealing with the overwhelming number of tasks you have to do.
1. Get tasks out of your head
Often we have a huge number of tasks to do at work, at home, for the family, as well as things we want to do for ourselves. Many of us write To Do lists, but very rarely will we capture everything. This presents a couple of problems:
• Keeping this list of tasks in our heads makes it difficult to see the edges – everything swirls around together and the number of things we need to do can seem endless.
• It can be easy to forget or overlook things, and even if we don’t there’s the stress of worrying that we might forget something important.
To address these problems, David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ approach starts with writing down every task you can think of in every area of your life.
To avoid distraction, you may find it best to do this on paper. You may find you need several A4 sheets. Don’t worry about categorising at this stage, just write down everything you can think of.
Now, categorise the tasks according to different areas of your life. You can either stay on paper, or move to a digital tool. (I like to use Todoist, which allows you to filter tasks in various different ways.)
Doing this means we can work on a smaller number of tasks at a time, breaking the process up into manageable pieces.
The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
If you have separate task lists for home and work, or for different projects, you can filter out anything irrelevant to what you’re doing right now. If you know that the lists capture everything, you can relax knowing that nothing will be forgotten.
Taking each category in turn, you now want to prioritise your list.
It’s a good idea to start by thinking about the larger picture of what you want to achieve. What are your life goals, or career goals? Try to be as clear and specific as possible. How do the tasks on your list support those goals?
Next, for each category draw out an Eisenhower Matrix. Here we categorise tasks according to whether they are ‘Urgent’ or ‘Not Urgent’, and ‘Important’ or ‘Not Important’.
If your work is assigned and you don’t have a lot of autonomy you might need to get clarification from your boss on which tasks are most important.
4. Delete, Delegate, Do or Defer
These are known as the 4D’s of time management (from The Power of Focus by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Les Hewitt).
Delete – Tasks that are Not Important and Not Urgent should be dropped immediately if at all possible.
If it’s something you’d like to do rather than something you need to do, you could move it to a separate ‘wish list for the future’, but you don’t need to think about them right now, while you’re under pressure.
Sometimes we’ve committed to doing things that are really not important, but don’t feel like we can graciously extract ourselves from the commitment. In this case, you may need to do the task anyway (or delegate it), but you should take extra care to say no to any similar commitments in the future.
Sometimes you’ll need to make the case to someone else (your boss, or spouse perhaps) for dropping tasks that you don’t feel are important, especially if they’re large projects or repeated tasks. This can be a difficult conversation, but try starting it with something like:
“I was wondering how important you think it is that I continue to do ?”
Sometimes these tasks are more important than you realise, and sometimes they’re just something that’s always been done and nobody has ever questioned whether it’s a good idea to keep doing it.
Delegate – If a job needs to be done, but doesn’t necessarily need your skills and expertise to do it, you should delegate it if you can.
Tasks that you’ve identified as ‘Urgent’ but ‘Not Important’ could also be candidates for delegation (if you haven’t already dropped them).
If you don’t have any direct reports that you can delegate tasks to, you may find other colleagues who would be interested or at least willing to take on certain tasks.
Or it might be outside work that you delegate tasks — paying for a cleaner or teaching your kids to do certain chores, for example.
This brings us to the most common objection to delegation: ‘But I can do it so much quicker and better if I just do it myself.’ It’s probably true (especially with kids), but taking the time to teach someone else to do a task that you’re going to have to do repeatedly (especially every day) is well worth the investment. It might be slower to start with, you might find things get messier before they get better, but it won’t be long before they’re doing the job (almost) as well as you would. Besides, you’re giving someone the opportunity to learn new skills and take on more responsibility, and that’s good for you and for them.
Do – The tasks that remain on your list need doing, either now or later.
Tasks that take less than 2 minutes to complete should be done immediately. The rationale (from David Allen again) is that it will probably take more than 2 minutes to process the deferring of a task anyway, so it’s more efficient to just do it immediately.
Hopefully everything else is already separated out into ‘Urgent’ and ‘Not urgent’ lists. Assign the urgent tasks in order of urgency, and focus on one task at a time.
Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. Quite often the hardest thing is actually starting a task. Once we get started we’ll often be able to carry on without too much difficulty.
Defer – Everything that can’t be done within a couple of minutes and isn’t urgent will still be on your list. I find it helpful to assign 3 important tasks for a day. Sometimes I’ll be able to work through those three and more, while other days are full of distractions and I may only get one or two finished. But even on these days, at least something important got done.
5. Tidy Up
If you followed this process, you should have a box full of clutter somewhere. Now is the time to start sorting through it.
Add it to any other papers or filing you have lying around.
1. Throw away whatever you can
2. File anything you need to keep but don’t need to action
3. Action immediately if it won’t take long (less than 2-5 minutes)
4. If it’s something you need to deal with later, add it to your task list and file it away.
Next you’ll follow the same process for your email inbox: Delete, file, action or move to your task list.
Finally, have a look at your computer files: Delete, file, action or move to your task list.
Working through all of this will probably take a long time — don’t expect to do it all at once. Set a timer for 10 or 20 minutes a day and stop when the timer finishes. If there’s lots to do, you might want to move on to the next step while you’re gradually working through this.
Step 5 – Help Your Future Self
By this point, you should hopefully feel much calmer and more in control. The challenge is now to keep from slipping back into overwhelm. Here are some suggestions to prevent things from building up again.
Systems for repeated tasks
If there are tasks you have to do repeatedly, are there any ways you can streamline or automate them? Are there any software solutions, templates, shortcuts or macros you could use?
If you aren’t technical yourself, is there anyone in your company who can help you? If you’re self-employed or run your own business, can you hire a virtual assistant, or pay a developer through a service like Upwork or Fiverr?
Protect your time
Your time is your most valuable commodity. Having worked so hard to get things under control, you’ll want to defend your time fiercely.
• Continue saying ’no’ to commitments that you aren’t excited about.
“Every event you get invited to. Every request to start a new project. If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about it, say “no.”
• Eliminate tasks or meetings that are not providing real value.
• If you have any choice, don’t check your email until you have completed your most important tasks of the day.
Schedule according to your energy
I’ve already said it in this article, but it’s so important I’ll say it again: Schedule breaks into your day. Use an app or set a timer to go off every 25-30 minutes, even if just to stand up, reach overhead and look out of the window for a few seconds.
In When, Dan Pink talks about identifying how your energy levels change through the day. This is likely to be fairly consistent, and can help you schedule difficult tasks for when you have the most energy and mental freshness, leaving easier jobs (or longer breaks) for when you have less energy to spare. There’s a great summary on the Doist blog here.