It’s amazing (and incredibly frustrating) how quickly overwhelm can halt your progress when you’ve got a miles-long to-do list.
Instead of picking something to work on and jumping right into productivity mode, you feel stuck — paralyzed by uncertainty.
Everything feels important.
But you can’t decide what to focus on first.
You know you need to take action, but the clarity you need just isn’t there.
So instead of tackling the important stuff, you half-heartedly answer a few emails and post in a few Facebook groups. As the day goes on, you know you’re not making any progress on the tasks that you really need to focus your attention on.
You’re stuck in an overwhelm cycle.
I’ve been stuck in an overwhelm cycle more times than I can count. Trust me when I say that I know exactly how un-fun they are.
Here’s the good news: you can break out of that cycle.
These 5 techniques will help.
Take Mindful Action
Awareness is a critical component of each of these techniques. Without awareness, it’s easy to just fall back into the same overwhelm pattern again and again.
So, start by taking a moment to build awareness by asking yourself: “What am I feeling, right now?”
Practicing non-judgment, notice what you feel without judging it as bad or good. Then, with a bit of awareness of how you’re feeling, you can skillfully employ these five strategies.
1. Create space by removing unnecessary tasks
Use this technique when you feel like you have WAY too much stuff on your plate.
Look at your to-do list for today. Read through each item on the list.
Then, take a look at your calendar to review any meetings you have scheduled.
Once you’ve done this, pause for a moment and take a deep, centering breath. Feel a full and slow inhale through your nose. Then a slow, full exhale.
After this centering breath, go back through your to-do list and ask yourself: “Which of these items can I remove?”
And here’s the challenge: find at least one thing you can take off your to-do list for today.
It takes a ton of courage to do this.
But by removing just one or two things from your schedule you’ll discover that you have the power to create the time you need for the work that you need to do.
By doing less, you can focus on the essential.
Fewer distractions leads to easier focus on what’s truly important.
We all have a few distractions and unnecessary tasks hiding in our to-do lists.
So, what distractions might you remove from your to-do list today?
2. Work at a (slightly) slower pace
Use this technique when you feel frazzled, exhausted, and like you just need a break.
It’s a cliché, but sometimes it really is better to be the tortoise than to be the hare.
If you’re used to working as fast as possible, manically running through your day, try slowing down for just a portion of your day.
You might discover you can actually accomplish more by intentionally taking part of your day at a more deliberate pace.
What does an intentionally deliberate pace look like?
Well, it could mean taking more frequent breaks to stand up and stretch and let your mind wander. Or it might mean pausing to breathe and look away from your screen every few minutes.
A slow morning might be one in which you do tasks that are more introspective. I often like to do research and reflective work during intentionally slow work hours.
Some of my clients prefer taking the morning at a slower pace while others prefer letting the afternoon be a bit more open, so feel free to choose whichever works best for you.
By working at a slower pace, you’re decreasing your intensity level. In this way, you’ll discover you’re able to do more careful and meticulous work. That means fewer edits, less time re-doing tasks, and less time on tasks that you never needed to do in the first place.
It is far better to work at a steady, relaxed pace and get a few important things done than to work at a break-neck pace and do a whole bunch of unimportant things not very well.
For your next work day, choose which half of the day you’d like to take a little slower: before lunch or after lunch.
Then, during your intentionally slower period of work, select only one thing to focus on. Work at a more deliberate pace than you’re used to. Let there be space. Take breaks. Allow yourself to breathe. Prioritize the essential over the non-essential.
3. Reconnect with your “why”
Use this technique when you feel like the work you do is pointless or when you’re starting to feel cynical and burnt-out.
Grab a sheet of paper (or open up a fresh Google Doc) and write your professional title at the top of the page.
Then, give yourself 3 minutes to answer this question:
“In my professional life, how do I help others?”
Consider: what challenges do you help others with? How do you make their lives better (even in the smallest way)? Write down as many things as you can think of in 3 minutes.
When that 3 minutes is up, give yourself another 3 minutes to answer these questions:
“What about my work is important to me? What do I enjoy about what I do? What impact do I hope to have in my community?”
Jot your answers to these questions down, too.
After only 6 minutes, you’ll have tapped back into your “Why.” And (bonus!) you’ll have created a fantastic resource that you can use to reignite your motivation whenever it starts to wane. Keep this list nearby and return to it any time you need a boost.
4. Set your intention
Use this technique when you can’t seem to focus on your work.
Have you ever started a task only to find yourself wondering — just 5 minutes later, while scrolling through Facebook — “Wait, what was I working on?”
We’ve all been there. But if this happens more often than you’d like, try setting a clear intention for the work you’re going to do each time you sit down to work.
When you arrive at your desk, pause for a moment. Feel your hips resting in the chair. Take a breath.
Then, decide what ONE THING to focus on.
Once you know what you want to work on, set your intention:
“I am here to work on [insert activity/task/to-do list item here]. I intend to stay focused on this task until [insert when you plan to stop].”
Setting your intention helps you to do focused work AND it helps to safeguard against giving up half-way through a task (ugh, that’s the worst, right?).
5. Mindful work: dive in and keep re-focusing your attention
Use this technique when you have tons of energy, but you keep getting distracted.
This strategy follows the same principles as mindfulness meditation.
In mindfulness meditation, the practice is to consistently bring your attention back to a single focus: the breath.
Throughout a period of meditation, you might find your mind wandering dozens of times. But the practice is not to avoid thinking. Instead, the practice is to consistently notice and return your focus to the sensation of your breathing.
This serves as excellent training for the brain, empowering you to consistently return your attention to any activity or task.
So, as you work:
- Intentionally focus on one thing at a time
- Notice when your mind wanders from the task at hand
- Gently guide your attention back to what you’re working on
- Repeat, without judgment
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, sometimes just getting to work is the best thing. So jump right in and when you inevitably find yourself distracted, keep bringing your attention back to the work you’ve set out to complete.
Remember to Return
None of this is easy.
But it is possible for you to move past overwhelm and do the work that is essential for you.