My last post was about recognizing overwhelm before it gets out of control.
I shared a list of mental, physical, and environmental clues to watch for as early warning signs that things are getting too intense.
Because not only does that over-intensity damage our sense of peace and well-being, it also sets us up for failure. We can't think, work, or relate to others as effectively when we feel like we're drowning.
But once you've recognized that you've gotten to that stage and desperately need to take some things off your list, what do you do?
There are some classic time management tips we've all heard, such as better organizing ourselves to improve our efficiency, or delegating tasks that others could do so you can invest your time in the things that only you can do.
But those kinds of strategies, valuable as they are, can feel impossible when you're already under water. They're the kind of things that require some investment of time in order to reap longer term rewards.
Here are 5 strategies that I find most helpful for immediate reduction of the overwhelm that's associated with Too-Many-Things-On-My-List Syndrome:
- Ask yourself: "Who put this on my list?
- Renegotiate to reduce overwhelm
- Ruthlessly prioritize
- Make self-compassion a constant
- Be a vocal advocate for yourself
Read on for more detail on how to put these strategies to work for you...
1. Ask Yourself: Who Put This On My List?
I'm going to assume you have an actual list of the stuff you need to do. If you don't, stop right now and write it down. Just five minutes should be plenty to get all of the really pressing things out of your head...
(Why are you making a list? Because just getting it out of your head and onto paper will make it feel a little less overwhelming.)
Once you've got that list, take a look at it. For each task on your list, ask yourself who put it there. Here are the four types of answers you'll probably come up with...
#1: Request from Other. Someone (e.g., boss, client, coworker, family member, friend) asked me for this.
#2: Promise to Other. I promised this to someone, even though they didn't explicitly ask me for it.
#3: My Own Choice. This is something I myself really want to do (e.g., because it will make me feel better, it will save me future trouble, it will move me toward a goal, etc.).
#4: My Own Expectation. This is something I feel like I *should* do, although no one explicitly said so.
You may find that the "Who put it there?" question doesn't have a straightforward answer. That's because there are actually three elements to each task that can contribute to how much stress it's causing:
- The task itself — what it is you need to do and how comfortable you are with it.
- The timeframe for completion of the task.
- The standards you're being held to (e.g., how thorough, lengthy, beautiful, etc., it needs to be).
For each of these three elements, the "who put it there" answer might be different.
For example, your boss may have requested a written report from you. You may have decided for yourself that you need to get it to her within the week, even though she didn't give you a specific deadline. And because the reports your coworkers have produced are so glossy, thorough, and well-written, you may feel like you're expected to come up with something similarly polished.
As with writing down your list, sometimes just doing the above reflection can bring clarity and perspective that helps reduce your stress.
But even if it doesn't, it will set you up for success with the next step.
2. Renegotiate to Reduce Overwhelm
Time management guru David Allen has wisely pointed out that stress is a result of unkept commitments. The only way to reduce that stress, he says, is to meet the commitment or to renegotiate it.
Who to renegotiate with depends on who put it there...
#1: Request from Other.
Depending on who the "other" is, sometimes this is really easy. Reschedule that night out with your friends. Skip the choir rehearsal, knowing the concert is two months off and you'll have no trouble catching up.
Other times, though, it's just not possible to renegotiate this type of commitment. Think important grant proposals and filing certain tax forms.
But more often than not, there is some aspect you might be able to renegotiate. Don't make assumptions about what's off the table. You need to have a conversation with the person who made the request in order to clarify what's important to each of you and how best to meet those needs.
Meanwhile, don't fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking; even if you can't get rid of the entire task/commitment itself, you may be able to scale it back or adjust the deadline or both.
#2: Promise to Other.
Remind yourself that the other person didn't ask for this. You volunteered it.
It's very likely that the degree to which they care about whether or when you follow through doesn't come close to the amount of stress you're causing yourself by trying to fulfill your promise.
Go ahead and hold a #1 type of conversation if you feel like you really need to. But probably something like the following would suffice: "I know I promised you this (or promised it to you by such-and-such date), but I've had several other pressing things come up. I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to get to it (or not until this later date)."
#3: My Own Choice.
There can be many reasons why you would put something on your own list. For the things you're currently dealing with, ask yourself what the consequence will be if you don't do them, if you change your deadline, or if you scale back the scope of the commitment.
Will you go to jail? Will you incur a major financial penalty? Will you damage an important relationship? Will you scar your child for life? Will the world end? Then by all means, do the thing as planned.
Otherwise, you are entitled to (and would be smart to) change your mind.
Be a little wary here, though. Don't use this as an excuse to succumb to procrastination and continually put off things that are truly important but maybe not so urgent. In these situations, look for opportunities to just bite off one little chunk at a time rather than trying to eat the entire watermelon in one sitting.
#4: My Own Expectation.
Don't succumb to what Albert Ellis called "musterbation". (As in, "I must do this. I must do that.")
If you have perfectionist tendencies like I do, your standards for yourself are much higher than what most other people would view as acceptable. You might be able to scale way back and still knock their socks off. Make it into a game; see how far you can reduce your standards and still get compliments on the quality of your work, your cooking, your kindness, etc.
Renegotiating commitments has been a tremendously helpful strategy for me.
I get trapped into thinking I "have to" do this, or "have to" get it done by a certain date, or "have to" meet my exceptionally high standards for myself. (Yes, that's right. I do a lot of "musterbating".)
But I'm usually wrong. And the quicker I recognize that reality, the better off I am.
3. Ruthlessly Prioritize
After you've done the important step of renegotiating, you should be left with fewer and/or smaller tasks, or at least with some less imminent deadlines.
Now you'll want to prioritize what's left, so you can focus on one thing at a time.
Part of what's so stressful when you're so overloaded is the feeling that even when you're working your butt off on one thing, there are other things you should be doing too.
And then it becomes tempting to multitask, which I've mentioned previously has been shown to be far less efficient (and actually not humanly possible — it may look like you're doing two things at once, but actually your brain is rapidly switching back and forth between them, with each shift taking up energy and mental resources).
So take a few minutes to make some intentional choices about the importance and sequencing of your tasks.
Be ruthless. Remember, you can't have 12 "priorities".
Ask yourself, "If I could only get one thing done today, what would it need to be?" That's your top priority. Do it first, and let the rest go for now, knowing you're focused on the right thing at the moment.
And remember not to see this as a compromise or a failure. (We're not "musterbating" anymore, right?)
By deciding what's most deserving of your attention and putting the rest aside for the moment, you're making smart decisions that will help you be calmer, more focused, and more effective. Pat yourself on the back!
And on that note...
4. Make Self-Compassion a Constant
I'm not talking about self-indulgence here. I'm not even talking about self-care — things like getting enough rest, exercise, etc. (although I do see those things as foundational to productivity).
I'm talking here about self-compassion.
The attitudes you hold toward yourself, the way you talk to yourself in that inner dialogue we all have going on — these things affect your energy levels, motivation, focus, goals, creativity, relationships, and much much more.
How could they not? Would you expect others to work well if you were providing a running negative commentary on their performance? Of course not. But that's exactly what we do to ourselves at times.
So stop now and say a few kind, reassuring words to yourself about your current situation. Be genuinely compassionate.
And over the long-haul, try to get good at catching yourself in the act when you start badmouthing yourself, so you can make an intentional switch to a kinder way of talking and relating to yourself.
To build your skills with this, try visiting psychologist Kristen Neff's self-compassion website, where she shares lots of helpful free resources — a self-assessment, guided meditations, informational videos, and more.
5. Be a Vocal Advocate For Yourself
If you've got the self-compassion thing down, this should come more easily to you.
That's because what we're really talking about here is assertiveness, which is defined as behavior that values your own needs, wishes, and opinions as much as others'.
Over the years, I've come to see assertiveness as an essential and underused personal productivity tool. Consider some of the many things assertive communication can help you do:
- Say "no" to something in the first place.
- Renegotiate tasks and commitments, as in #2 above.
- Set important limits and boundaries with other people.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Curtail interruptions when they occur.
So when you're under the gun, don't add to your stress by trying to "people please" while pushing your needs to the side, or by feeling guilty if you do focus on your own needs instead of taking on still more things at others' request.
Recognize that your needs are important.
Recognize that it's ok to say, "I'm sorry, I can't talk right now — I really need to get this done before my next meeting" or "No, I just can't add anything else to my plate right now."
Recognize that by doing so, you're ultimately being kinder to both yourself and others.