There is often a fine line between a healthy level of business and letting all the things going on in your life overwhelm you.
After all, most of us would describe ourselves as ‘busy’. Some people complain about it, others boast. Between school and work, we have to balance some form of social life, staying healthy, errands, hobbies, and ‘me time’ to avoid burnout. Life in the modern world is increasingly characterised by never-ending to do lists and a search for how to stay as productive as possible while leaving room to unwind and actually enjoy the human experience.
Granted, I like being busy. I like having clear goals and a multidimensional schedule that raises the significance of quieter moments. But just like we often get restless from boredom, ‘overwhelm’ is also a phenomenon most of us encounter at certain points in our lives. It’s when a healthy level of bustle turns into our lives coming apart and stress levels that take a toll on our physical wellbeing.
What does overwhelm look like? Well, you may go through your days wishing to be in two places at once. You work 24/7, fuelled by four hours of sleep and countless servings of coffee. Regardless, you never manage to get anything done. Perhaps you have many projects to complete and fifty tabs open on your computer. Empty boxes desperate for a tick loom next to each item on your to-do list and your workload keeps piling up and up and up. Nothing you do brings a sense of accomplishment or enjoyment. You lie awake at night, cursing the constraints of a 24-hour day and weeks that seem to conclude before they’ve even started.
Being overwhelmed makes us susceptible to anxiety, insomnia, scenarios of failure and unmet deadlines rushing through our mind. No wonder that the risk of burning out or giving up is high. We must develop strategies to not only recognise this phenomenon, but also prevent a normal level of stress transforming into something damaging. I think the hardest part is prioritisation: identifying what genuinely requires a sense of urgency within tasks we can safely postpone or eliminate.
We can’t eliminate stress in its entirety, and trying to do so often proves counterproductive. However, it certainly doesn’t have to reach proportions beyond your control.
1. Avoid multitasking
Many people pick multitasking as their go-to solution to all of life’s problems. After all, why not tackle numerous items on your calendar at once? Think trying to complete a school assignment while responding to emails, writing a blog post and checking social media.
This way of work is blatantly glamourised despite the fact that it’s been shown to stifle productivity. Which makes sense: you can’t achieve focus and efficiency when switching between different ways of thinking. When things take much longer to complete, you may not feel feel the same sense of accomplishment and start to feel unmotivated. Those five incomplete projects you have floating around? It is much better to tackle them one by one and give them your full attention, instead of running back and forth.
There’s nothing wrong with some forms of multitasking: for example, listening to podcasts at the same time as making breakfast or editing photos on your computer. However, when your tasks require different mindsets or a similar level of mental capacity, you’ll be much better off in terms of both productivity and stress levels by moving through them in a logical order.
I think the reason why I survived my IB exams and uni application process is because while the goal of completing these to the best of my ability loomed overhead, I made them priority number one. I worked hard and consciously chose lower-priority areas to take a backseat. After all, we can’t do everything at once. Without prioritisation, both our performance and mental health suffer.
So, if you have deadlines or something challenging coming up, don’t feel guilty for saying ‘no’ to social occasions or spending less time in the gym. Remember: you can always reintroduce those things when life gets less hectic once again.
To make a broader point, sometimes we must not fear letting go of certain things in their entirety. It’s good and advisable to have multiple passions, but societal pressures to be an entrepreneur, a mathematician, a writer, a pilot, a social media influencer all at once could be the underlying cause of your overwhelm. The solution? Understanding and setting long term goals that matter to you: I have a much more detailed post written about this, which you can check out HERE.
3. Talk to someone
And no, this does not have to be a therapist. Speak to a trustworthy friend or relative. Share your emotions. If you don’t understand where you’ve gone wrong and why you struggle to get things done despite sitting down at your desk for countless hours, they may give you the fresh perspective you need. Some people are great at giving practical advice, highlighting which useless activities are soaking up valuable time, and where your prioritisation needs a bit of work. Others will simply listen.
Or, journal it out! Start a journaling practice and invest 10-15 minutes each day to declutter your mind and gain a better understanding of yourself.
4. Declutter and organise your workspace
How much of a difference this makes always amazes me. Physical decluttering often translates into a focused, clear mind, going hand in hand with prioritisation as outlined in point 2 . Something as simple as clearing your desk can reduce anxiety, smooth out your emotions and streamline your workflow when you know exactly where everything is and what purpose it serves. Keep just what you need to finish a given task on your desk. Throw away any stationary, notebooks and resources that don’t have a tangible use. And as much as we all love hoarding interesting pens and planners, being mindful about what you buy in the first place certainly helps!
Extra tip: given the preeminence of technology in our work, treat your digital desktop as you would you ordinary table. Come up with an efficient filing system and schedule in times to delete the items you no longer need.
5. Reduce procrastination / ‘just go for it’
Put shortly: feeling dismayed by the length of your to-do list and postponing those big, demanding tasks will not make them disappear. The more you postpone something, the more urgent and hence overwhelming it’ll become, creating a bit of a cycle that worsens with further procrastination. Pushing past the fear of getting started, do your best to work through the tasks one at a time. Break them up into manageable chance and set up a reward system for reaching new milestones. Plus, once the big tasks are over and done with, your secondary priorities should feel easy to tackle in comparison!
6. Don’t neglect sleep
I know that at times it seems we don’t have a choice but to work until three o’clock in the morning. When overwhelmed, we mess with our sleeping pattern and accept the magical 8 hours as a foregone luxury. However, stress takes a huge toll on our bodies. Sleep is medicine, and therefore should go up your list of priorities when your schedule looks more cluttered than usual. A few restless nights here and there may be inevitable (in other words, don’t make sleep another thing to worry about), but avoid turning all-nighters into a habit because exhaustion will make you sluggish and damage your ability to perform under pressure. Stick to a routine and to sleep the amount of hours that helps you stay energised throughout the whole day without unhealthy amounts of caffeine.
7. Don’t neglect exercise and the power of good nutrition
This may seem contradictory to what I said earlier in the post, but hear me out. If you’re an avid gym goer, the hours you spend on the treadmill or in the weight room may need to be scaled back, or replaced with a less time consuming form of exercise such as HIIT. However, sitting down all day is counterproductive too. There’s never a good time in life for an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. A short walk every few hours is a great way to not only get more oxygen into your system, but also keep yourself grounded and in tune with your emotions.
Similarly, try to stick to a balanced diet and avoid copious amount of junk food (although, we can all agree that chocolate is the ideal vehicle to carry us through difficult times). And of course, eat whenever you’re hungry and don’t skip meals – unless you want to deal with mental fogginess and crashes on a daily basis. I’m always in awe when people say they ‘don’t have time to eat’ because well, food is a biological requirement we need to survive, let alone stay productive in busy times.
What are some things you can do to eat enough nourishing food when there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in a day? Start a Pinterest board of quick and nutritious recipes. Prep your meals in bulk on Sunday evenings. Always keep a range of healthy snacks (such as fruit, trailmix, either homemade or store-brought energy bars) on hand. As you can tell, planning ahead is key to experiencing the full benefits of healthy, optimal nutrition!
8. Change your mindset
While thoughts alone cannot influence our levels of success, they have a tangible impact on our actions and the energy with which we approach our daily pursuits. Moreover, people who are prone to overthinking are much more prone to feeling overwhelmed because the latter, more often than not, grows from out attitude to our daily commitments.
Make subtle changes in your thoughts. Replace ‘I’ll never get this done before my deadline’ with ‘as long as I prioritise and manage my hours wisely, I’ll finish this task ahead of time’. ‘I’m stressed and miserable’ sounds much better as ‘this is temporary and I’m fully in control of my life’. Instead of ‘I’m a failure and not good at anything’, think ‘are my goals and expectations realistic? Am I giving them my best efforts, eliminating distractions, retaining a good work-life balance?’
9. Tighten up your time management
Do excuse the accidental alliteration. But anyway, feeling overwhelmed may be, as the heading suggests, a signal to up the rigour of your time management. I recommend time-blocking to anyone who struggles with understanding how their days fly by so quickly to no avail. In a nutshell, you ‘time block’ by splitting your day into thirty minutes to one hour chunks and assigning the items on your to-do list to these ‘blocks’.
Some people prefer to take a more lenient approach to organisation and criticise this technique for its lack of flexibility. But, overwhelming times call for that extra morsel of discipline. Besides, time blocking is much less ‘over the top’ than it seems. It’s about achieving focus, getting more done in less time and being intentional with your breaks. It reduces the temptation to do many things at once, and, in light of that we have a very specific amount of time in which to complete a task, keeps procrastination at bay. Instead of wishing for a sixty hour day, we can use time blocking to put each minute to good use and recognise the true abundance of twenty four.
10. Take a break, and a step back
Okay, this may be the last action (or inaction?) you want to take, but it’s far less threatening than it sounds. I promise. After a certain point, we lose sight of our goals to such an extent that any further efforts lead to a dead end. Don’t ignore your responsibilities, but yourself permission to let go, even for a few hours. Do something enjoyable, unrelated to your obligations, and come back to your to-do list refreshed, with a clearer mind. Taking well-implemented breaks is far, far better than burning yourself out!
(From now on, each blog post shall feature at least one photo of my cat, but I don’t think any of you are gonna mind.)
Tailor your break strategy to your character and preferred work style. Some people like short bursts of productivity combined with frequent, 5-10 minute periods of rest. I prefer longer intervals. Through trial and error, find a rhythm that works for you and stick to it instead of thinking you can work for twelve hours in a row.
Overwhelm can feel disastrous. We finding ourselves in the middle of self-perpetuating cycle of stress that interferes with our vision and purpose like television static. But there are numerous solutions we can use to bring back productivity, focus and clarity. The hardest part may be coming to terms with that it’s not possible to do everything at once. Instead, take on your to-do list a step at a time with a realistic, yet positive attitude, while keeping both your physical and emotional health in the picture.
If you’ve found your strategy already, be sure to let me know in the comments – how do you deal with feeling overwhelmed? And are you someone who enjoys, or dislikes being busy?
Lots of love, Maria ♡