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Blog Short #55: What to do When You’re Overwhelmed

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Photo by fizkes, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Overwhelm is such an uncomfortable state of mind. No one likes it, and why would they? It’s painful!

More importantly, it can seem impossible to lift yourself out of it and get moving again.

Two feeling states usually accompany overwhelm. You might feel one or the other or fluctuate back and forth between the two. They are:

  1. Agitated paralysis. You feel like you can’t move. You might sit and stare into space yet feel restless at the same time. Sometimes people go to sleep to escape or binge-watch TV or engage in anything that moves them away from that state of agitated limbo.
  2. Anxiety. In this case, you’re actively anxious. You can’t sit still, can’t focus on anything, your mind races, and your thoughts tumble over each other. You catastrophize, thinking far into the future about the demise of your life or your goals or your relationships. It’s dark.

So what do you do to get out of this?

You can’t think your way out.

Overwhelm originates in your mind, so trying to use your mind to get you out of it usually fails. There’s too much mental static in the way.

You have to distract yourself with something that focuses you and break up the paralysis. I want to share my favorite strategy with you because it’s usually quite effective. I’ve used it many times myself, as have my clients, with success.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Select three small, doable tasks. These can be as simple as folding one load of laundry, making one phone call, returning one email, making your bed – whatever seems super easy and won’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes.
  2. Write these three tasks on three separate pieces of paper. Just take one sheet and cut or tear it into three parts, or you can use index cards if you have them.
  3. Pick one and put that piece of paper face up in front of you. Put the other two face down somewhere else, like on your desk or kitchen counter.
  4. Make yourself do that one thing. It doesn’t matter if you feel like it or not. You don’t have to be energized by it or care all that much about it. You just have to do it.
  5. Then repeat this process with the next two.

Once you’ve completed all three, you should feel some shift in your mood. You probably won’t feel like jumping up and down with joy yet, but there should be a tiny beam of light coming into focus.

Take that emotional energy and create a new list of three more tasks to do. Make this list right now, even if you don’t intend to do them until tomorrow. Having the list ready will set you up for success the next day. And again, put each task on a separate piece of paper or index card.

Now reward yourself with something that soothes you and is enjoyable. Maybe it’s having a good dinner or watching your favorite TV show or visiting with a friend. It should be something small but satisfying, and something not self-destructive like drinking a bottle of wine.

Let yourself feel good about the three things you accomplished, and don’t allow your mind to go back to frenetic catastrophizing.

You CAN get everything you need to accomplish done by doing only one thing at a time and not looking ahead more than three tasks into the future.

The effects of working this way are:

  • You begin to whittle down your gigantic to-do list.
  • You gain momentum, and things seem more manageable.
  • Your mood shifts.
  • You break up your paralysis.

“Okay, that’s great. I’m out of my current state of overwhelm, but how can I apply this to more challenging tasks?”

Let’s check that out.

What’s next?

Next is to take what you’ve learned and use it to tackle bigger things.

The three essential lessons are:

  1. Taking action rather than thinking about taking action creates momentum.
  2. Doing minimal tasks that take little time and effort is the best way to start.
  3. Doing one thing at a time and blocking everything else out increases your success rate.

Using these ideas, you can approach your more complex tasks without getting overwhelmed. The key is to:

Break everything down into the smallest, most doable units of work so that you don’t resist doing it.

There are three methods you can use.

1) You can work on a time basis.

This means working for specific amounts of time as opposed to working by the task.

There’s a technique that uses this strategy called the Pomodoro Technique. You choose a task, figure out the total time it will take, and then begin doing it by working in 25 minute periods. Work 25 minutes – take a 5-minute break – work 25 minutes – take a 5-minute break – and so on until you’ve completed four total sessions or 2 hours. Then take a 30-minute break before starting again or doing something else.

This is helpful for tasks you want to stay focused on until finished.

You can also choose a specific amount of time to work and complete it without adding a second. For example, you might decide to write for 30 minutes today and 30 tomorrow. In this case, time is the primary measure – not the task.

2) You can work on a task basis.

You create a list of tasks and make them small enough not to seem overwhelming. Using the same method we used above – write each task on a single piece of paper and finish doing one before viewing the next one.

You can do this daily, which I recommend because your task list stays on the smaller side, and you can also do it weekly yet still only focus on one day at a time.

Keeping a long list in front of you at all times has the effect of crowding your mind and overwhelming you.

Some people like to put a large whiteboard on the wall and list everything that needs to be done for the next 6 months to a year. This can be extremely overwhelming. You can make that long list, but keep it tucked away and only pull it out when you need to add to your daily or weekly list.

3) The hybrid.

This method combines the use of time and tasks. Schedule a time block, and list what you think you can accomplish in that time. This limits your time consumption which is helpful because you know you’ll only be working for a specific amount of time. But it also keeps you focused on the tasks you prioritize as most important. Just remember to break your tasks down into their smallest components.

How do you choose?

You’ll know what works best by staying aware of when you begin to feel overwhelmed. When that happens, drop back to smaller lists, smaller time segments, and smaller tasks.

That’ll do it for today. I hope you have a great week!

All my best,


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