Feeling Overwhelmed? 5 Tips to Help

It's easy to get overwhelmed by everything you have to do. Most of us are playing at least two (and possibly many more) roles in our lives: student, employee, parent, business owner... of course we need some tips to help keep track of everything.

The long-term fix is to set up a good time-management solution that will help keep you from being overwhelmed. But in the short-term, how do you keep from getting buried under the work load?

Write it all down
I know this sounds counter-intuitive. You're already overwhelmed, right? Why would you want to come face-to-face with the entire list?

It's a little like losing weight or cutting down your debt: the first step is to figure out how bad of shape you're in. And the good news is that you're probably not in as bad of shape as you think. Most people can only hold 7 things in their mind at once, so we can't tell the difference between a to-do list with 8 items and one with 20 items. Writing it down is the only way to tell exactly how ovewhelmed you are, turning your nebulous "too much to do" into a definite task list.

Sort it into two lists
Assign each task to one of two lists:

  • This must be done ASAP
  • This should be done soon, but it would be OK to wait for a bit.
My cousin is moving across the country in three weeks, and she was only informed of this a few days ago, so she has prior commitments still on her plate. Things like packing up their stuff, arranging for a moving van, and finding a new apartment have to be done before they move, and some of her prior commitments also have to be fulfilled; those go on the do-right-now list. But some of her prior commitments are to friends and family, who are happy to wait while she gets through this crazy-moving-time and settled down again. Those items go on the can-do-later list.

Assign a time frame to everything
Go down your do-right-now list and write an estimate of how long you think each item will take you. This doesn't have to be a precise, scientific number (although if you have data to use, you're certainly welcome to), just a guess as to how much time you think you'll need.

Once everything has a time estimate, add up the total. Is it possible to do everything before the deadline?

Every time I've done this, it's turned out that there's plenty of time; usually I have twice as much time as I think I'll need. But if it turns out that you literally don't have enough time to finish everything on your to-do list, at least you'll know. Forewarned and forearmed, you can go to your boss or your clients ahead of time and be honest with them: "I'm very sorry, but something unexpected has come up, and I won't be able to do such-and-such. What arrangements would you like to make?" It's a very scary conversation, and they might be angry with you. But... they'll be much less angry than they would be in the conversation that starts off "I know I said I'd do that yesterday, but I didn't."

Even if you have plenty of time to finish your list, go through and put all your tasks in order of priority:

  1. If you could only get 1 thing done on this list, which should it be?
  2. If you could only get 2 things done on this list, which should they be?
  3. If you could only get 3 things done on this list....

This method makes use of your time estimates, but acknowledges the reality that things never go according to plan. If it turns out that your time estimates are off, at least you got the most important things done.

Prioritization can also be a great tool when you don't have enough time to do everything on the list. Instead of going to your boss or client and saying, "I can't do it", you can go to them and say, "I can't do everything, but I can do 20 hours' worth. What would you like me to focus on?"

Work on it
Many people (I among them) respond to overwhelming task lists by freezing. The freeze-in-the-face-of-stress reaction makes sense if your stress is caused by a lion that hasn't seen you yet, but it doesn't help at all if you're facing a huge to-do list. But still... you end up reading your favorite book for the 5th time, or watching Firefly for the 200th time, or playing on the computer, or chatting with a friend on the phone.

You have a trimmed-down, prioritized to-do list, and you've either notified people that you won't be able to do everything or you've asked for help. Now pull out that list, look at the top item, and work on that thing.

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