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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 July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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