I’m sure all of you are all too familiar with the suffocating feeling when there’s so much to do that you’re not sure where to begin. I hate that feeling, but unfortunately, things get to that point now and then. Sometimes it’s a full week, and other times it’s only a day. No matter how long it lasts though if I’m feeling overwhelmed, my gut reaction is to freeze completely. As in, I can’t get anything done. (Can you guess where I stand in the flight or fight response?)
The major problem is that this paralyzing fear doesn’t help the situation at all. The longer I take to get things under control, the more behind I end up getting. So what should you do when you don’t know where to start? Here’s what I do:
Is there something that you can take off your plate? // I always ask myself this question when I’m starting to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things that I have to do. Often just removing one (maybe two) low priority tasks can help alleviate the stress just enough so I can roll my sleeves up and get to work. This can be anything from moving a specific to-do to another day of the week because the deadline’s a little further back to rescheduling an appointment that can wait.
I also want to share how this has helped me on a bigger scale. When I was struggling to keep my head afloat during my first semester of college, I considered taking a leave of absence. My academic dean suggested that I try dropping one elective class before I made a drastic decision. The elective didn’t even matter (since I came in with AP credit), but I felt like such a failure for withdrawing from it. For some reason, it seemed like a bigger deal than withdrawing altogether. It wasn’t. In fact, although the class was essentially negligible, removing it from my schedule allowed me to give more focus on the classes that I needed to graduate. Looking back, it was 100% the correct choice.
Prioritize // Once I have the list of things that must be done and have removed/rescheduled things that can wait, it’s time to prioritize. While everything may seem crucially important, you physically cannot complete everything at once. You will have to prioritize. I try not to think of things in terms of importance here so much as what needs to get done in what order. Picking up supplies for a school project may have to get done before you get started on an English paper if you know the craft store closes at 5 pm, for example. Think critically about your prioritization so that you’re also efficiently maximizing your time!
Additionally, I find that prioritizing goes hand in hand with writing down everything you need to do. As you’re running through everything, get it all on paper! Sometimes seeing it written down, in the order you need to do everything, can help keep things in perspective.
BREATHE // I’m a naturally shallow breather. (If you’ve ever been around me for more than an hour, you’ve probably heard me take a weird gasp of air at some point.) When I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, the problem is only exasperated. I don’t forget to breathe so much as I’m simply not getting enough air. And what does that lead to? Feeling even worse.
I have a few breathing exercises that I keep in my back pocket, so to speak. My favorite one (and easiest) is to inhale deeply for a count of five and then hold the breath for a count of five and then to exhale for a count of five… and repeat. This helps cut down on thoughts on overdrive and slows my heart rate down too. There’s also a few great “SOS” meditations on Headspace that I’ve found helpful.
It’s a healthy break and it won’t hurt anyone (including your productivity) to take a few minutes for a breathing exercise.
Break things down // Okay, so you’ve prioritized and you’re breathing. Take a few minutes to break down the tasks into bite-sized “to-do” chunks. I love doing this because it makes everything, even the biggest of tasks, feel more manageable. And it’s a great way to feel productive since you’re crossing things off with more frequency.
One visual I like to refer to is a bookshelf. I’ve read almost every book on my bookshelf. If I were to be handed one book with every page that I’ve read, I would immediately scoff and say it was impossible. But when I look at the shelf, I’m not seeing one huge book with thousands of pages. I’m looking at individual books that I worked through over time. A thousand page book seems daunting, but ten one-hundred page books are doable.
Get the ball rolling // Even after those steps, if you’re still feeling like you don’t know where to start, try picking one tiny thing off your list. Even if it’s low-priority, just do something. Empty the dishwasher, clean out your purse, type the cover page of your English paper. Get the ball rolling and then work off that momentum.
Schedule one good thing // Even though you’re overwhelmed, you do have time to get everything done. (Yep, you really do.) Don’t forget to schedule in one or two non-tasks into your schedule. Take the time in the morning to enjoy breakfast, go to a yoga class, or go to bed with a brand new book to crack into. At the very least, it’s something to look forward to while you’re cranking through.