How To Get Stuff Done When Life is Overwhelming
My friends, I am seriously in the weeds. There’s just so much going on and I hardly know how to keep up with it all.
I work 20 hours a week at the library and it’s summer reading planning time. That means there is a TON to do and it all needs to be done NOW because librarians need stuff from me to get their own work done. At home, I run this business, Harmonious Renewal, and do some freelancing on the side. I have so many irons in the fire right now that I can barely keep track of them. On top of that, I finally found a new place to live, so I’ll be moving in a few weeks.
It’s all exciting, but I’m really struggling to get it all done without burning myself out.
This is why I realized today is the perfect time for this post. I’m going to tell you how I get stuff done when life feels totally overwhelming. The next time you get into a similar situation (or right now), try out my system and see how it works for you!
The very first thing you have to do is just STOP. Honestly. Stop panicking. Stop stressing, Stop moving. Stop trying to get anything done. I know some of you are going to say, “I don’t have time to stop!” Actually, you do. Because stopping to follow these steps will give you more time back than you will spend doing this process. Trust me.
Now that you have stopped trying to frantically get it all done, what you need is your phone, a bunch of paper, and something to write with. Go get that stuff and come back.
Silence your phone and write
The next step is to put your phone on Airplane Mode or Do Not Disturb. This process will be much easier if you aren’t getting interrupted. It’s unlikely anyone will desperately need you in the next 20 minutes.
It’s time to pick up a piece of paper and start writing down every single thing you need to do in the next week (two weeks, four days, or whatever time period you are stressing about right now). I like to put in basic headings like “work,” “home,” “emails,” etc., and then list as much as I can. Anything that is on your mind right now needs to get on paper. Just doing this part of the exercise is really good for your brain. Seeing your lists of tasks in print helps your brain categorize it all and start to calm down.
Still with me? Good.
Your next step is to set your phone to a 10-minute timer (don’t take it off airplane mode yet). Take your paper and go lie down.
Yes, really. Go lie down somewhere. I know you might fall asleep or lose track of time. That’s why you set the timer.
Now, in your prone position, try to let your mind go blank. It’s likely within about 20 seconds, something new will pop into your mind. That’s ok! Write it down on your paper and then let your mind go blank. Repeat until there is nothing more floating to the surface of your brain. If the 10-minute timer goes off before you have dumped all the tasks out of your brain, then reset it and keep going. Continue until you really think everything is out and written down.
Awesome. Now, all that stuff that’s been frolicking around in your mind is neatly (or, in my case, very sloppily) recorded on your Master List. Take a moment to see if you feel better. Do your tasks feel less daunting already? Being able to lie down in the face of the overwhelming number of tasks you need to get done sends a clear signal to your body and brain to stop panicking and relax. From this relaxed state, you’ll be able to think more clearly and work more effectively.
Now comes the fun part. You are going to need a whole bunch of pieces of paper.
You are going to have to face the fact that you probably can’t do everything on this list. It’s time to get rid of some of it so you don’t burn yourself out doing low-impact tasks. Go through your Master List and look for things you can just get rid of right now. What is low on the priority list? What did you agree to out of guilt? What sounded fun before you realized you didn’t have time this week to enjoy it? Maybe you said you’d bake cookies for that function at work, but is it really worth staying up until 2 am to do it? Do you really have to attend that optional meetup at the coffee shop? Stop feeling social guilt and just say no. Cross it off your Master List and write it on a new piece of paper called “Just NO.” Putting it on the new list means you can follow up later and actually cross your name off the signup sheet at work or tell people you won’t be there. It will also remind you that you decided to say NO to that thing. So, when someone tries to talk you back into making those cookies or going out with them, you can confidently say NO.
Ok, now that you have removed all that stuff, go through your Master List again and cross off anything that just doesn’t have to be done right now. I know you’ve been wanting to order those new sheets, but does that have to happen this week? Put it on a list labeled “Later” so you won’t forget it, but it’s also off the plate for the near future.
Now look through your Master List and find anything you can delegate to someone else. Maybe it’s time for your dearly beloved to step up and take care of getting the oil changed. Maybe you can bribe your kids into doing the dishes all week. Maybe you can pay to have your groceries delivered. Be creative and see what you can push off to someone else. It might not be done as well as you would do it yourself, but for this crazy period of time, that’s OK.
Up to this point, we’ve been working on ways to get stuff off your list. If there was nothing you could remove, then maybe the problem isn’t that you are busy, maybe the problem is that you don’t know how to say no or give up control of things. That’s something you’ll have to work on.
If there were quite a few things you could remove, then celebrate how much time you already saved yourself just by being willing to go through this process!
Now let’s look at what is left on your list that you need to actually do yourself.
Easy/Annoying/Low input tasks
Grab another piece of paper and get ready to go through your Master List again. This time you are looking for those tasks that probably won’t take long to do, but you’ve been ignoring or avoiding them. Things like bills that need to be paid, phone calls that need to be made, orders you need to place, etc. If you can put them off for a bit, then add them to your Later list. But if they really need to be done now and they don’t take a lot of preparation to get them done, put them all on one list. We’ll talk about how to tackle these later.
The important stuff
Now, finally, what should be left on your Master List is the most important stuff that needs to be done this week. Most of this probably has hard due dates. Some of it will have multiple steps. It’s the stuff you simply can’t drop but will take some time and energy to complete. Go through this list and start to label WHEN things need to happen. If you are having a party on Saturday, then write that down. Does that mean you need to order food on Wednesday? Write that down. Do you have a work project due on Friday? Record that. What needs to happen on earlier days so that your final goal is reached? Add things to your list at this point if you need to. Make sure you assign every task a date to complete it.
Now, take more pieces of paper (I told you you’d need a bunch!) and label them with the days of the week starting today. Go through your Master List and start plugging those list items into the days when they need to be accomplished. I personally try at this point to separate my work and my home tasks. So Wednesday I might need to make calls for ____, email 3 people, work on the presentation for Friday, etc. Once I get home, my list turns toward preparing for the event happening on the weekend, grocery shopping, etc.
What we are trying to do here is get an idea of what needs to be accomplished each day to meet the deadlines you have determined for the big tasks in your life. It also gives you an opportunity to see if any one day is going to be completely overloaded with tasks. Maybe you need to shift your tasks a bit to accommodate. Or maybe your wildly busy Thursday will be a good day to eat leftovers because you won’t have time to cook. This is the time to figure that out so you are ahead of the game and not panicking all week.
Hey, look at all you’ve done! Now you have a plan for when things need to happen. Your brain feels less overwhelmed because we’ve taken that whole, messy pile of tasks and assigned them to dates, dumped some off on other people, and gotten rid of others we just can’t deal with right now. This exercise is extremely calming for your mind and your body. Usually after doing this, what felt impossible now feels very doable. Collectively, all these lists are your PLAN to conquer your week and get it all done!
Now that you have a PLAN, you need to start following through with it. You can copy it all into a calendar or digital task list, or just work off your papers (I just stick with the papers myself). This is a good time to take your phone off airplane mode and go through your Just NO list. Politely and confidently back out of whatever you decided you aren’t doing. If you have to communicate with people, say something like, “I’m sorry, I have a crazy busy week coming up and I realized I just can’t do ____ if I want to get it all done and get some sleep. I apologize for any inconvenience.” Don’t leave an option open to do it later or get anyone else to do it for you. Just say no. And yes, I think this is a good time to apologize. You are backing out of something you said you would do. You don’t have to feel guilty since you are backing out for a legitimate reason. However, I think apologizing and moving on is polite.
You can also take time to communicate with the people you are delegating to. Let them know what you need them to do and by when. Tell them why it is important and why you need their help. Then walk away and trust them to do it.
Personally, I like to tackle my Easy/Annoying/Low input tasks next. I know some productivity gurus would not recommend this, but it usually works well for me. What I do is set my timer for 30 minutes and then I see how much I can get done in that amount of time. Usually, the rush of crossing things off my list quickly is enough to make me power through a whole bunch of annoying little tasks. Sometimes when I have REALLY been avoiding something, I’ll promise myself a reward when I’m done (yes, bribing yourself is a valid option at this point!). Whatever works for you is allowed. I love being able to get that easy stuff off my list so then the rest of the week I’m just focused on the big stuff. You may not prefer to do this list upfront. Maybe you assign 2-3 low-input tasks to each day. That’s fine too. Just make sure the items on that list get done!
Now, for each day of the next week (or two, or whatever you created) you have a list of what has to be done that day. Focus your brain on those important tasks and don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by what is coming up. If you think of new things that need to happen, put them on the correct list/day. Make sure your list for each day gets fully completed so you are ready to tackle the next list when tomorrow arrives.
What makes this process successful is that everything is out of your brain and on paper. That significantly decreases the overwhelm and gives you more brain space to work quickly and efficiently on what matters most. To keep up with this organizational tool, you need to add, delete, edit, and maintain the list throughout the week. It may seem like another task, but your brain will thank you and you’ll be more effective and efficient at actually getting all that work done.
I just want to note here that if you aren’t a paper person and like to do things on Trello, Asana, Clickup, etc., that is totally fine. I suggest disconnecting from your technology to do this process because there are fewer opportunities to get distracted. Perhaps you can go through the process on paper and then transfer the info to your digital management system. Perhaps you just want to do the whole thing digitally. That’s up to you. Even if you are a digital person, though, do the first few steps with your phone and computer off. Get your Master List on paper, lie down, see what needs to be added, and then you can continue the process digitally. I firmly believe that you won’t regret walking away from your computer for that time.
Let’s wrap up here with the steps of this process you can save them for later.
Notice you are feeling overwhelmed.
STOP. Put your phone on Airplane/Do Not Disturb.
Get some paper.
Write everything down that you need to do.
Set your timer for 10 minutes and lie down.
Let your mind go blank.
See what else comes up and write it down.
Repeat until you have everything on your Master List.
Get more paper.
Move items from your Master List to your Just NO list.
Move items to your Later list.
Move items to your Easy/Annoying/Low Input Tasks list.
What is left is important.
Start to put due dates on items.
Assign a piece of paper for every day in the next week, two weeks, etc.
Move important items to the day they need to be accomplished.
Now you can start to implement your plan!
Say no to everything on your Just NO list.
Delegate everything on your Delegate list.
Make yourself power through the Easy/Annoying/Low Input Tasks list.
Leave time for the things that really matter. Do your best to stick to your daily schedule. Add and delete items from your daily lists as you work through them.
Does this process feel overwhelming? It's probably only because it's new. Try it once and see what you think. It’s better to try this BEFORE it feels like life is trying to cave in on you. Then, when you’ve hit a challenging spot and you aren’t sure how to get through, pull out this process and do it. You’ll feel better at the end AND you’ll actually get your tasks done!
Burnout is not a pretty thing for anyone. It is better to drop things you said you would do, enlist help where to can, and put off anything you can easily avoid for now just to get through the important things now. There is no guilt in letting some things go so that you can focus on doing the important things well. Or at least 90% well. Not everything needs to be your 110% best work!
After you try this out, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you think! Is there something you’d do differently?
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