Ever have one of those days when you’re just completely overwhelmed? Too much to do, not enough time. Deadlines looming (or whizzing past), phone ringing, emails pinging.

Just everyday life for a lot of us.

And most days we manage to roll with it, deal with things as they come up, and get along just fine.

Some days, though, the clamor of multiple competing demands on our time, energy, and attention can be just too much to bear. We feel overwhelmed and out of control. It can paralyze us — dozens of things to do, and we do none of them, because we don’t know where to start. We fight the urge to just quit — crawl under our desk and hide, hoping it will all go away.

Quitting isn’t an option, though, and fortunately, it’s not necessary. In fifteen minutes or less you can take a few simple steps to retake control, overcome the panic, move forward, and regain workplace sanity. So when it’s all too much but you must get it done, try this:

  1. Close your eyes for one minute and just breathe. Grab hold of your mind, block out the screaming voices of panic, and purposely focus on just breathing in and out. Notice where you’re feeling tense, and intentionally relax those muscles. Slow your breathing, calm your mind. Just take those sixty seconds to reclaim quiet and peace.
  2. Clear your workspace. When we get too busy, our workspace usually reflects the clutter of our minds. Our carefully prepared organizational systems go by the wayside; we leave papers on our desk or on the kitchen counter as reminders to do something, and pretty soon the desk or counter is a mass of piles and sticky notes and reminders. Whether or not you consciously recognize it, the chaos of those piles distracts you and makes it nearly impossible to focus on anything. So take five minutes to clear off your workspace. Don’t sort or file anything unless you can do it in seconds. Toss the trash, drop the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, and stash the piles of papers in a nearby drawer or shelf for later attention. If you’re afraid you’ll forget something important, take a second to schedule an appointment to tend to those stashed piles. Your immediate objective is to create a clear, clean, distraction-free space for focused working.
  3. Take five minutes to write down everything that needs to get done. Use whatever method works best for you to capture everything. I rely heavily on technology, but when I’m in this situation, I prefer old-fashioned pen and legal pad. Don’t try to organize or prioritize the tasks; just do a brain dump. Part of the anxiety you feel is a fear that you’re forgetting something, so get it all there on paper in front of you.
  4. Scan the list. Is there anything there that somebody else could do? Your secretary or assistant? A colleague? Your spouse or child? This is no time to be too proud to ask for help — remember, we’re in crisis mode here. Take five minutes to offload anything that reasonably can be delegated.
  5. Is there anything on the list that can be put off until tomorrow (or the next day) without knocking the earth off its axis? Take one minute to check off those tasks that don’t truly have to be done right this minute. Circle the ones that do need immediate attention.
  6. Choose one of the circled tasks. Don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over priority. Just pick one. If there’s something that can be done in a couple of minutes — responding to an email or returning a phone call, maybe? — do that and enjoy the catharsis of seeing your list begin to dwindle immediately. But the main thing is to just pick one.
  7. Clear everything else away, and do it. Gather the materials you need for that task, then sit down and get it done. If it will take more than half an hour or so, considering using the Pomodoro technique: set a timer for 25 minutes and work steadily until the timer goes off. Then take a five-minute break — stretch, walk, get a drink of water — and then get back to work, with the timer set for another 25-minute segment. Keep up that approach until you’ve finished the task.
  8. When you finish that task, cross it off the list and choose another. One item at a time, work through the list until you’re caught up.

I know this approach works, because it’s saved my workplace sanity numerous times in my own professional life. I’d love it if you’d give it a try and then let me know how it works for you.

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(Photo credit: Meditating in Office via Shutterstock)

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