It seems like every day is a struggle between an endless to-do list and a limited amount of time. This struggle can make us feel extremely overwhelmed, triggering us into habits that are less than productive and that keep us from getting things done. When the day ends, we then feel a crushing sense of guilt and anger for not having accomplished what we set out to do.
Sounds familiar? Don’t despair! There is a way to get rid of that nasty sense of being overwhelmed by our list of tasks, to feel better towards our goals and to handle and our to-do lists like a pro! Here’s how:
Pick one thing
Feeling overwhelmed often happens when you feel you have too much to do. But here’s the thing: Regardless of how much you have to do, you can only do one thing at a time, period. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is not doing more than one thing at a time, but rather stopping one thing and doing another, repeatedly. No matter what, you can only do ONE thing at a time. So pick that one thing and focus on that.
The idea of only doing one thing at a time may seem stressful because it will feel like you’re ignoring important projects that need to get done. But give it a try! Pick one thing out of your to-do list and tell yourself: I will only focus on this right now until I finish (or until I reach a certain point). Act as if finishing this one thing, and not your entire to-do list at once, is your immediate priority. You will find this raises your productivity because you’ll be able to focus without feeling overwhelmed about everything else you need to do.
If you feel overwhelmed about a certain task, chances are you dread doing it. And even if you were to clear out your entire schedule just to focus on this one task, you may still find yourself procrastinating because you dread it so much.
So here’s what you do. Pump up the happiest, brightest music. Change your physical state to a positive one by sitting up high, pumping your arms, smiling, dancing, singing, whatever. Then imagine yourself doing this task while getting excited about it. Fake the excitement if necessary, but do it. Go through the steps of the task in your mind (quickly, don’t get too crazy with the details) while being excited! Imagine you are Rocky Balboa running up those steps waving your arms around in victory. Picture finishing this task and doing a happy dance, and rewarding yourself somehow. Get pumped up and excited, even if it feels artificial. The more you do it, the more you’ll believe it and the more you’ll want to get it done.
Break it down
Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed not because you have too much to do or because you are not excited enough, but because your project just feels too monumental. People who have to accomplish major goals like, say, writing a book, will often experience this.
The trick to make the pressure off a major project is to break it down into actionable steps in order to make it more manageable. So take out a sheet of paper (or an excel spreadsheet or something of the sort) and break down the steps for your project. If it’s a book, for example, the steps could be: Overview, ideas for chapters, outline, detailed outline, etc. Just make sure it’s not so many steps that the process feels bigger than it should be.
This is a great exercise not only because it helps to curb the dread that comes with being overwhelmed, but also because it helps you see the steps to a project, and aids in planning and execution. You’ll find you’ll do a better job at anything if you break it down into smaller, digestible steps.
This productivity hack is a favorite of most self-help junkies and there are plenty of different timeboxing methods and even apps to get you going. But the main premise is this: Carve out a reasonable amount of time to focus on a task, just one task. Then set an alarm. Once that alarm goes off, you’re done. Either go take a break or move onto another task.
It is unbelievable how much easier it is to get something done when you tell yourself: I’ll work on this for only 20 minutes and no more. I promise you’ll find that you work harder in those 20 minutes than you would if you had given yourself all day to do this thing. And it takes off so much pressure if you’re going to devote a limited amount of time to a chore! It makes the task feel easier, lighter and even funner. This will be a hack you’ll use for years to come!
Make it smaller in your head (Focus on the next step)
Oftentimes we feel overwhelmed in completing a task because we make that task so monumental, important, huge in our head. Take writing a book for example. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed not at writing a book, but because you’re imagining that this book will have to be big, it will have to break records, it will have to be revolutionary. So you’re creating this invisible unattainable goal that goes beyond just writing the book. We do this all the time without noticing it – we create these unspoken and unrealistic goals. And of course we should always aim to do our very best. But when we have what feels like an epic goal to achieve, it is much more likely we’ll quit before we even begin.
The only fix is to make the task a bit smaller in your head. You do this by focusing on the next step. Instead of thinking: I’m going to write the next Harry Potter series, just focus on brainstorming the best ideas for a fiction book. And then focus on writing the best outline possible, and then focus on achieving excellence in completing another step, etc. If you focus on giving your all on just the next step, you won’t have to give up any lofty goals but will feel like each task you do is reachable instead of impossible.
Think of why
Lastly, a quick way to feel less overwhelmed with what you have to do is to think of why. When we look at the bigger picture, we often find the strength needed to get through a particularly difficult to-do list. When we know why we do what we do, it makes it easier to actually do. When a job feels bigger than us, we put more effort into it, with greater pleasure.
Whether the reason ‘why’ is for your children, or the success of your company, or to impact lives, think of that. Focus on that. Remember that. And you’ll find the last couple of drops of motivation that you needed to get through.
Featured photo credit: flick user Dima Bushkov via flic.kr