What to Do When It's All Too Much

Things have been pretty hectic around here. We lifehackistes talk about and write about productivity as a way of dealing with the everyday distractions and time-sinks that prevent us from getting our important work done — whether that’s career-related tasks or following our personal goals. But what happens when everything falls apart? When disaster strikes and it takes everything you have to deal with it?

I don’t want to get too much into my personal and family life here — suffice it to say that we’re facing some situations that promise to emotionally scar my step-children for life, and minimizing the damage is obviously the first priority. Dealing with it means often reacting to immediate situations, and where kids are involved you can’t schedule dealing with interruptions for later or plan around them. There’s an emotional toll, as well, that makes the trivialities of everyday life and work rather harder to face.

And yet, I can’t drop out of anything either. My work and my partner’s work is what pays the bills and keeps our family fed. Miraculously, I’m managing to keep on top of most things and to get the important stuff done. Here’s a few of the things I’ve learned about staying afloat when the world is collapsing around you:

  • Have strong routines. Because I’ve spent the last couple of years building strong routines, scheduling everything from work and travel time to shopping and even goofing off, I don’t have to think about that now when my intellectual and emotional energies are needed elsewhere. Everything I need to work on is written down, so I don’t have to obsess over what I need to do next or what I am not doing that I should be — nothing’s getting forgotten, even if it takes longer to get to it than it normally would. Developing good practices when things are going your way helps dramatically when things aren’t going your way.
  • Prioritize. I’ll admit, I’m not very systematic in the way I handle prioritization. I don’t use Covey’s quadrants or assign priorities in my todo lists. I had started a few months ago using the idea of MITs (Most Important Tasks), where each night (or first thing in the morning) you write down the 3-5 tasks that are most important to get done in the following day. The idea is, if you get just those things done, you’ve had a good day. Taking a few minutes to figure out what you have to do tomorrow or today is essential to weathering a disaster — or rather, taking a moment to decide what you can manage without doing. I can’t miss class — the consequences for my students are too extreme and take too much work to deal with — but I can miss watching a video I’m evaluating to show my students, or a trip to the library to do research for a paper due in 6 months.
  • Procrastinate. That’s right, I said “procrastinate”. We spend a lot of time here at lifehack.org and other personal productivity sites looking for ways to combat procrastination, but sometimes it can be adaptive to put off work you just can’t focus on right now. Knowing your priorities is important, of course — don’t put off the essential stuff. But for the little things, promise yourself a weekend day, or the next quiet evening (whenever that comes), to catch up. Accept that you’re procrastinating, embrace it even, so your mind can let go of the anxiety and you can focus on what’s truly important right now.
  • Batch tasks. When you don’t know what new trauma tomorrow will bring, you have to take advantage of the quiet moments when they happen. Catch up on all the things you’ve put off over the last few days. Minimize your shopping list and do it all at once. Carry work with you in case a free moment arrives (waiting on line at the court house is a good time to get some reading done, for example).
  • Rely on others. This means two things. First, delegate stuff you wouldn’t normally delegate. Say “no” more often than you normally would, even when that means someone else has to take up the slack. Explain yourself if you have to, but don’t feel pressured to take time away from where it’s most needed. Second, lean on the people closest to you for support. Tell your family and friends what’s going on, and be open with people about how you’re feeling. Dealing with traumatic situations takes a lot more out of us than we think, and the people who care about us are more important in these times than ever. A lot of times, we don’t want to “burden” them with our problems, but that’s just asking for a breakdown — give them an opportunity to take some of that burden off your shoulders so you can deal with whatever problems you’re facing. (Men, this counts doubly for you — everything in our society says we’re not allowed to need help, but there are things bigger than we can manage, and where others like children are involved, denying help can put them at risk.)

The idea is to keep as much of your energy and attention focused on dealing with the problems at hand while still meeting the obligations you can’t afford to let slide. It’s still hard — that’s just the nature of big problems — but it’s harder still when a disaster in one area of your life sets off a domino effect that ripples through every other area of your life. If you can keep things moving along, even if you can’t afford to keep your normal pace, you’ll be better able to face the disaster in front of you and to pick up the pieces afterward. Since I’m in the middle of this, I’d love to hear any other general advice people have for making your way in the face of disaster. Let us know your tips in the comments!

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