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Life Hacks

Five Steps to Overcoming Overwhelm

Overwhelm. We all face it. But where does it come from and how can we better manage it?

I am referring here to the overwhelm of having too many things and not enough time to do them all, not emotional overwhelm which comes from different sources.

A lot of the time, overwhelm is our own fault. It’s simply because we overcommit. Either to others or to ourselves. We think we can fit more into a day than we actually can. We want to do it all because were excited. Or we say yes because we don’t want to let the other person down, even though (if we stopped to think about it) there is no way we can fit it in. And there will always be random things that come up that interrupt our day or take us off at a tangent.

If we have a system in place – a method – we can manage a lot of these issues so we don’t experience overwhelm. This post offers a simple system to help plan the day out in a loose fashion. I prefer frameworks which can be adapted to your personal situation rather than an immutable system. You can refine the system and make it suit your style.

How do You Eat an Elephant?

This is the heart of the matter and overwhelm is our elephant.

So, how do you eat it?

The answer is simple – One bite at a time.

Break the metaphorical elephant up into chunks and finish them one at a time. You won’t be able to eat the elephant in a day, but you will be able to finish it piece by piece. And if you can get people to help you eat it (i.e. delegate), so much the better.

The important thing is that people know what’s on your plate (to continue the metaphor) so, no matter how much they really want you to eat their elephant, you can easily demonstrate your plate is full so it will have to wait. Furthermore, you get to manage your plate so when new things come along you stay in control and do not fall into overwhelm.

Your plan is your commitment to yourself to stay on track and live the life of your dreams. So, if you start to do other things you have to accept that other things (your things) may need to fall by the wayside. Don’t beat yourself up about this (that’s “overwhelm” talking). Stick to your plan but give yourself the mental space to allow things to change. If you complete some or many of your time blocks you have won the day.

How does that sound? A better way to deal with the problem, I hope.

I can hear you at the back … I know it sounds selfish to block out what other people want because you don’t want to let them down or look bad or appear selfish or … But you’re not being selfish. You’re just being realistic. Were you born to do what everybody else asks of you? Or did you learn that behaviour along the way? I know it sounds selfish but sometimes we help others more effectively by helping ourselves first. As they say in an airplane: “Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.”

Method to Manage Overwhelm

Here’s the framework I use to eat the metaphorical elephant:

  1. Write everything down that you need to do
  2. Identify what ONLY YOU can do
  3. Identify things you can delegate (yes, that can be chores at home too)
  4. Block time in your day to do 1 or more of these things
  5. Say “NO” to other things where you can

Step 5 can be the hardest! Overwhelm usually arises from saying YES to things we should say NO to, even if that means just saying no TODAY and coming back to it another time.

We are aiming for progress, not perfection here. You don’t need to do everything at once. Break it down and schedule it out. A straightforward time management method I use is called “time blocking,” and it is what it sounds. You block out a time in your calendar to do one or more related tasks. So, you could block 2 hours for “writing” or “business plans” or “messages” and into this block list the things you want to achieve.

I hate to micromanage and trying to block time for each task on my to list leaves me spending more time managing the calendar than the work itself! I tried it and nearly gave up with “time blocking.” It was an endless grind of shuffling and moving tiny overlapping blocks in my calendar software.

What works is to block out a larger window and then list the tasks you want to achieve under this block. A block of time is a container for work and tasks go in the container.

For example, my “writing” time block may include:

  • Write a blog post on X
  • Write the next scene in my fiction story (or write 1,000 words)
  • Add a note about the journaling playbook to posts A, B and C

Or my “messages” block might be:

  • Respond to Messenger contacts/leads
  • Respond to key emails X, Y and Z
  • Call the accountant to go through the tax return
  • Check newsletters and see if anything is worth reading later
  • Check in with online networks and DMs

These are all related, though separate tasks. I don’t allocate specific times for each but estimate they will be able to be completed in this time block. This gives me flexibility on each and I allow myself flexibility with the block also. If it takes me a little more than 2 hours to make sure the work is done, that’s OK, but if it looks like it will take a lot longer then some of the tasks get bumped to a future time block. A block can be any length also, but try to take breaks during longer blocks to avoid mental fatigue.

By grouping similar types of tasks together you remain focused on one type of activity. When you constantly switch or multi-task you lose forward momentum as you have to constantly re-orient yourself to a different task.

In a day I could have 3-10 time blocks and this can include things like exercise, plan activity Y (which will later be implemented in its own time blocks), journal about topic G, etc, etc. I don’t block time for breakfast or relaxing, though some people do. I know that my focus is on my “to do” list and I leave space around it for activities that happen every day.

Breaking it Down: Mornings

If you have downloaded my morning and evening journaling playbook you will have picked up a few tips on what you should schedule into your today to make progress on your broader life vision. I call these the “needle movers” as they move your needle towards your destination.

I use my paper journal for this planning. I find it more direct than a digital calendar as I can simply list out the key blocks and then bullet alongside them the items that fall into that block. I can quickly add to it (or delete) as the day progresses and I don’t need to switch apps to see or manage it. I can also jot notes alongside to further illustrate what needs to be done.

My digital calendar is used for meetings or calls or training sessions with fixed time slots. My blocks ‘float’ around these. That’s my style – fluid – but still keeping to a plan. I also use a digital to-do list to record all the things I remember that need to be done. This is easier on the move, but the daily plan pulls these together onto a paper spread. But that’s just me. What tools you use are up to you.

Have you faced overwhelm? Have you used any other approach to dealing with it? Have you tried the methods I mention here? Let me know in the comments.

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