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Three Steps to Overcoming Overwhelm

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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 October 21, 2021

How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

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How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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Program Your Own Algorithms

Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

How to Form a Ritual

I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

  1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
  2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
  3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
  4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

Ways to Use a Ritual

Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

1. Waking Up

Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

2. Web Usage

How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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3. Reading

How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

4. Friendliness

Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

5. Working

One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

6. Going to the gym

If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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7. Exercise

Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

8. Sleeping

Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

8. Weekly Reviews

The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

Final Thoughts

We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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