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Three Steps to Overcoming Overwhelm

Three Steps to Overcoming Overwhelm

Everyone hates overwhelm–it leaves you feeling stressed out and often paralyzed (which just makes the overwhelm worse). But once you’re stuck in it, how do you get out and get to a point where you can start taking action again?

First off, grab a piece of paper or open a new document in a simple text editor (even a spreadsheet will work, since you can just type things & hit enter to be taken to a new cell in the same column).

Get it out of your head

The first thing you’re going to do is write down everything that you’re overwhelmed about in one column. Generally, one of two things will happen here:

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  1. As you write down what’s freaking you out, it’ll start to defuse the fears, and you’ll see that there’s really not that much to be overwhelmed about
  2. Writing all of it down will make you feel worse because you’ll remember things that you had forgot about, or that you were shoving to the back of your mind

Either way, hang in there, because we’re going to fix it! But to fix it we need to get everything out of your head and onto paper (or in a readable format, at least) first. So do that, and then take a break for a few minutes–take 15 minutes or so to walk your dog, do some yoga, or just relax and play a few rounds of Words With Friends on your iPhone. Getting a little bit of perspective is important for the next part and doing one of those activities will help give you some space.

Look at things objectively

This is where a buddy system comes in hand, if you have an accountability buddy or someone else around who can provide perspective. But even if you don’t, you can still make some serious progress.

Go over each item that you listed in the first step and ask yourself:

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  • Is this true?

    As in–is it quantifiably, objectively, provably true? For example, if you wrote down “I have too much to work on this week,” then figure out how much work you really have to do this week. Look at your workload and see what really needs to get done this week (prioritize ruthlessly!), and if you’re still feeling overwhelmed, figure out exactly how much work it is: how many assignments are due? How many hours is it going to take you?

  • Is this any different from last week or last month?

    Take a hard look to see if the circumstances are actually different, or if it’s just your perception of the circumstances that’s different. More often than not, it’s the second one, which is when you ask yourself…

  • Is there any other experience or circumstance affecting my viewpoint on this?

    For example, if you’re stressed out about work, is it because you’re feeling pressure to perform well because one of your friends or your significant other was criticizing your job last week? Since we’re not robots, we can’t compartmentalize our lives, and there’s going to be “bleed over” from other areas. Oftentimes, people get overwhelmed not because the reality is too much for them to handle, but because there are emotional situations going on that are stressing them out. However, they can’t deal with the emotional situation effectively or directly for some reason, so instead their brain turns that stress into overwhelm about entirely unrelated subjects.

After you’ve done this, you’ll likely have a much clearer grip on what the reality of the situation is, but there’s still one more step…

Take action

For everything on your list, you want to take one of three courses of action:

What can you do?

For example, if you realized that you actually do have more work to do this week than last week, what are you going to do to make sure that work gets done? Work an hour later in the evenings? Get up an hour earlier and work in the morning? Once you construct an action plan for dealing with the problem, you’ll feel infinitely better (and you’ll be able to solve the problem, of course).

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What are you going to delete or push back?

Once you objectively go over your list of things that are overwhelming you, you’re likely to see that not all of them actually need to be done right this instant. There are some things that you might realize don’t really need to be done at all, and that are more busywork than anything else. Just delete those off your task list so that they aren’t taking up your mental space and energy any more. There are some tasks that fall into the “important but not urgent” category, and those can be pushed back to a week when you’re not feeling quite so crazy. Choose a new time for them, thinking about the other things you’ll have going on that week (hint: don’t push them back to a week where your mother in law is coming to visit), and rearrange accordingly.

What can you delegate?

There are some things that need to be done but that just aren’t important for you to do. But you’re in luck, because technology has made it much easier and more affordable to delegate the random-yet-must-get-done tasks off your to do list to someone else. Check out TaskRabbit for local tasks, or FancyHands for non-location-dependent tasks. And of course, there’s always Fiverr, Upwork, and oDesk, as well. For more on delegating and how it can make you more productive, check out the delights of delegation and 8 ways your assistant can make you more effective.

Now that you have a course of action and a cleaned up task list, you’re all ready to get set and get out of your overwhelm so that you can have a happier, more productive week. Go forth and work! 

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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

3. Move Your Body

A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

4. Connect With Another Person

Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

5. Use Your Imagination

When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

More on the Importance of Taking a Break

Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

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