Are you feeling highly stressed and overwhelmed – as though you barely have time to breathe? While these feelings seem to be a common state of affairs for more and more people, it is unhealthy and zero amounts of fun. While you are likely not thrilled to find yourself at this point, the good news is that these feelings are a self-protection mechanism that is trying to get your attention and help you.
Your emotions of stress and overwhelm are a sign that things are out of balance and that you need to make some changes and choices in order to get things back to a healthy balance. The status quo is not working, and it is time to take action.
Bear in mind that we are all human beings, and we have a finite amount of both time and energy, which means we have limits and boundaries. This does not mean we are weak; it is simply a fact of life. Therefore, we need to realize our limits and learn how to respect and honor them. I like to think of our boundaries as a framework in which we learn to maximize our productivity as we perform our work and live our lives within them.
Tips for surviving today, or even the next hour
I start here because I have been in your shoes – many times, in fact. Especially before I finally accepted that I was a mere mortal with limits, which meant I could not continue pushing myself at an inhumane pace for months, and even years, on end as my normal mode of operation.
With that said, I know that when you feel like a rat running in a wheel, just furiously trying to keep up and survive, you can’t imagine the thought of taking a step back, a timeout, to consider how to make real and lasting changes to your current situation. So, friend, I am going to meet you right where you are – furiously treading water – and we are going to talk survival.
Here is the survival mantra I recommend: K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, silly), and do what you gotta do quick and dirty. Ask yourself, ‘What absolutely must get done today? If I could only accomplish one thing today, what should it be?’ Start there. Focus on that. Knock it out as fast as you can.
I learned this trick as a new mother, home alone in a foreign country with a colicky baby, my husband at work, and my family thousands of miles away. Some days, that one thing was all I managed to get to. Other days, I did not get it completed, but at least I made some progress on it. At any rate, it helped me quickly and easily cut through the noise so that I could focus and make progress on the most important priority at hand.
Sometimes I may also ask myself, ‘What would have the most massive positive impact? What will most move the needle forward on my top priority? That is where I focus.
And when you feel you have so many things that are competing for top priority and you can’t decide? Stop the analysis paralysis. Go with your gut instinct – research shows it is at least as good as rational decision making, and it is much faster (e.g. Gigerenzer, Todd, & the ABC Research Group, 1999; Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1993). Follow your gut, your intuition. Decide. Take action.
Quick & Dirty Guide to being strategic in planning your day and week
Okay, so now let’s talk ideas for how you can quickly plan your day or week when you are feeling very stressed and overwhelmed, and you are short on time.
Often when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I like to do an exercise that I learned from the book Instant MBA by Nicholas Bate (2008). I take out a piece of paper and make a list (or do it electronically in a program like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote). At the top of the page, in all capital letters, I write: IMPORTANT. Under that, I make two columns & label one URGENT & one Not Urgent. Then I start listing things where they belong. If something isn’t really important, it does not make the list. This helps me cut through some of the noise and better figure out where to focus my time and energy. I find that this helps me get a better handle on things and have a better focus on what needs to get done next. It helps me pull my head above water and be more strategic.
I also like to use this tip I learned from Steven Covey (2004, p. 95), which is to ‘begin with the end in mind.’ I ask myself, ‘What do I want to have accomplished by the end of the day?’ (Or whatever your time frame is – e.g. hour, afternoon, week, month, year, lifetime, etc.) Once I have this intention in mind, I then work backwards in figuring out what I need to do to make it happen.
Getting to the root of what is causing your stress and overwhelm
Once you’ve got a handle on surviving your day and your week, I’d like to recommend that you carve out a bit of time to yourself to think – even if it is 10 minutes during your commute or before bed. I’d like you to take a moment to try and figure out what your stress and anxiety is trying to tell you. You can even say something like, ‘Okay stress, I’m listening – what are you trying to tell me? What is your message?’ Then be open and listen. You might want to just think on it; you might even want to write down your thoughts. Either way, be present and pay attention to what comes up for you.
How do you feel about it? What concerns or worries you the most? You might also ask yourself, ‘What is my biggest pain point? What could I do to improve it that would have the most positive impact on my situation?’ This can be a good place to start in figuring out ways to improve your situation and relieve your stress.
Identify your biggest stressor. Is it something that is within your control? If so, then make a plan – small steps to influence and change it for the better. Taking action helps you feel more in control and more positive by putting you in the driver’s seat.
If the stressor is not something within your control, then for the time being, try to cope with it as best you can & try to adopt a more positive outlook around it. At the very least, decide that you won’t waste your time & energy worrying about something outside your control. Instead, focus your time & energy on what you can actually influence & change. With that said, in the situation of a serious stressor that is outside your control, do you believe you can cope with it or find another solution? In some cases, you may have to ask yourself if you need to make changes that would get you away from the stressor.
You might also ask yourself how you have coped in the past when feeling stressed or overwhelmed? What worked well? What did not work well? What did you learn from your past experiences that you could apply to your current situation?
Make a plan and take action to improve your situation
You realize that your feelings are a sign that you currently have too many demands on your time and energy. Now it is time to figure out how to free up some space to give yourself some breathing room. Even though we may wish it were otherwise, it is not humanly possible to get everything done in the same period of time. Some things will get done, and others will not. It is as simple as that. Keep in mind that by not making a decision or taking action, you are, in fact, making a decision and taking action. Is it the right decision and action? Is it helping you or harming you?
I know you may think, but I can’t stop doing anything. I have to keep doing it all. Please understand this: you are human, not a super hero. This is true for all of us – a simple fact. While it is true that you might be able to keep pushing yourself at this inhumane pace for a while, at a certain point, you will crash and burn. It is not a question of if; it is a question of when.
Keep in mind that in navigating our life and work, we are always dealing with a case of tradeoffs. We can do it all, but not at the same time. Figure out the most important things in your life and work and focus on those.
Also consider any special circumstances that are going on in your life or work. Especially during challenging times and phases such as an important project or event or a personal or family illness, it is important to readjust your expectations and workload. You have to focus more time and energy on these priority areas, which means you must lighten the load somewhere else. It truly is a balancing act.
Try your best to simplify – remember K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Silly!). Things don’t have to be complicated or perfect. Focus instead on keeping things simple and efficient. Also, keep in mind the season of life you are currently in. For example, if you are the parent of a baby or small children, expecting to have a perfectly clean and tidy home, worthy of a magazine cover, is probably not realistic. Consider your must-haves/bottom line. Focus there, and relax your standards and expectations on the less important elements.
Cut or de-prioritize the rest. Look at your schedule and responsibilities. What are some lower priority items/tasks that you can remove from your plate or say no to for now? Consider things that you really dislike doing. Are there some you really dread? Some that really drain your energy? Do you really have to keep doing them? If not, then why continue? Even if they must get done, could someone else do them? Could you delegate or outsource? Could you trade your task with someone else and take on a different task that you don’t dislike so much?
What are the things you feel you ‘should’ do? Examine these ‘should’ tasks carefully. Be very honest with yourself. Do these tasks fit in with your top priorities for your life and work? Do you feel miserable when you consider them? What is the best and worst that could happen if you crossed them off your list? Now go through your list and be intentional about what you mark off and what you decide to keep. Decide for yourself and what you truly believe is best for you and your goals, not what you feel you ‘should’ do.
Once you’ve created some space for yourself, start to think about the bigger picture
Moving forward, I encourage you to be more strategic & intentional in how you choose to use your time and energy, and ultimately, your life.
Stephen Covey (1994, p. 88) uses an analogy that I love – focus on the ‘big rocks’ first. He describes starting with a large glass vase that you are then asked to fill with sand and large rocks. If you start filling the vase with sand and then try to fit in big rocks, it will not work – you will run out of space. The problem is that if you always put the smaller things – the sand – in first, its level will always creep higher and higher until there is not enough space for the big rocks. For sand, think emails, busy work, household chores, scanning social media, etc.
However, if you put the big rocks in first and then pour the sand in on top, you can manage to fit it all in, or at least most of it. The sand fills in the crevices and spaces left between the big rocks. Be intentional and strategic in deciding what your big rocks are – the areas you want to prioritize in your life and work. Make sure you dedicate the bulk of your time and energy there. Then turn your attention to the other tasks that you need to complete.
In addition, getting clear on your priorities and your life and work purpose can have such a massive impact on helping you better organize your life and work. These fundamental elements become a powerful organizing principle and help guide your choices to live a life of purpose and alignment. Check out my article on How to figure out your purpose in your career/life to learn more about discovering your purpose.
Improve your mindset and perspective
When we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it is easy to focus on what is wrong in our life and work and adopt a rather negative outlook. However, I encourage you to make a concentrated effort to focus on the positive – what is working well. This is because the more we focus on something, the more that guides our thoughts and actions and what we attract. If we are constantly focused on the negative, we tend to become unhappier and attract more negativity into our life.
Instead, choose that you will aim to be more positive. For example, you can adopt a daily gratitude practice – ideally, first thing in the morning. Think of three things for which you are grateful and three things you are looking forward to. These things can be big or small. For example, you might be thankful that you have a clean, warm bed, and you might be looking forward to your cup of coffee. I realize that this may seem like something small and insignificant, but please give it a try. Making it a daily habit changes your focus and your attitude. It helps you start your day off on a positive foot.
Make self-care a priority in your life
Self-care might sound to you like a luxury that you cannot afford right now. But friend, I ask you to see it not as a luxury, but as an investment in you and your future. The fact of the matter is that we all need some downtime and unstructured time in our lives. We all need a bit of fun and relaxation to help recharge our batteries. This is not a luxury – it is a necessity, and it is key to maintaining our productivity, our health, and our well-being.
Self-care areas to consider:
- Make getting enough sleep a priority.
- Eat healthy, and drink plenty of water.
- Find ways to incorporate exercise and movement in your life.
- Consider stress reduction activities like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
- Seek out humor and comedy in your life – laughter really is the best medicine.
- Spend quality time with the people you love.
- Surround yourself by your tribe – those who get you, appreciate you, and love you for who you are.
Create some time and space to regularly check in with yourself to see how you are doing and how you are feeling. What is working well? What is not working well? What is lifting you up? What is bringing you down? Adjust accordingly.
Once you have identified your top priorities and what you most want to achieve in your life and work, then just keep taking the next small step to move you closer to your goal. Weed out and say no to the tasks and requests that do not fit in with your priorities and direction. No matter what life throws your way, do your best to keep standing, keep moving forward. Be flexible, be prepared to adapt and readjust to maintain the proper balance for you, but just keep standing and putting one foot in front of the other – confident that you will get to where you are headed.
Bate, N. (2008). Instant MBA. Oxford: Infinite Ideas Limited.
Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1994). First things first: To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gigerenzer, G., Todd, P.M., & the ABC Research Group (1999). Simple heuristics that make us smart. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut Instinct. London: Penguin Books.
Payne, J.W., Bettman, J.R., & Johnson, E. (1993). The adaptive decision maker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.