Are you feeling overwhelmed by too much to do? Are you tired of feeling that “today’s the day” you conquer your to-do list, only to end the day no further ahead (or worse, further behind) than when you began? You’re not alone.
Sixty-three percent of employees say they have high levels of stress at work with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control, according to The Conference Board’s 2012 Job Satisfaction Survey which gathered input from 5,000 U.S. households. According to the same survey, 39 percent of employees cite workload as the top cause of stress.
Believe me, I know the feeling. We all face different circumstances, but what we have in common is the fact that life and work demand more of us than ever before.
Here are three steps you can take to reduce the feeling of overwhelm today:
1. Accept that you can’t get it all done.
Have you ever had a day where you finished every single thing on your to-do list? You know, where you went to bed wondering, “What am I going to do tomorrow? I finished everything!” Yeah, me neither. So let’s accept the reality — and it is reality — that there will always be more to do than we can possibly get done.
Depressing? No, it’s freeing! When you accept this reality, you can stop trying to get it all done. As I often remind myself, you can only do what you can do.
There’s more to life than getting things done, anyway. The things that are truly important — for instance, taking care of yourself and spending time with loved ones — never make it on the to do list, do they? So if we’re always chasing the end of our to do list, then those things will always get edged out.
2. Aim to get the right things done.
You’ve accepted that you can’t get it all done, but obviously some things have to be done. Focus your attention on those things — rather than everything — and the feeling of overwhelm is likely to be replaced with energy, clarity and even joy as you go through your day.
Here’s an exercise to help you identify your “must-do’s” in about five minutes:
- Write down everything that’s on your mind to do today — just “dump” your thoughts onto a piece of paper for up to three minutes.
- Now review that list and put a star (*) by the items that absolutely have to be done today — and by that I mean, if this isn’t done today, something bad will happen (like you’ll lose your job, you’ll lose a client, your spouse will leave you, someone will die, etc.). Those tasks obviously rise to the top of your to do list.
- Now go back through the list and put a plus sign (+) next to the items that are very important to you (or to someone you’re accountable to), but it’s not critical that they are done today. If they have a firm deadline, write the deadline next to them — so then you know on that date, they become “star” tasks.
We’ll disregard the remaining items on your list for now. (You’ll likely find that a lot of the remaining items are “should-do’s” rather than “must-do’s,” anyway, and my advice is that you “Get That Sh**** Outta Here!” — another tactic to reduce overwhelm!)
Until they’re complete, the “star” tasks get your priority attention today. Then you can move on to the “plus” items. But there’s no need to let future tasks consume any of your mental energy right now — that’s why we got them out of your head and onto paper (or your favorite task list app).
Rather than judge ourselves by whether or not we get it all done day after day, let’s make it our aim to get the right things done.
3. Answer new requests with a “No” before you allow yourself to say “Yes” (when you have the choice).
If our to-do list didn’t grow, then of course we could get it all done at some point. But the challenge is that someone always has something else for us to do — and we even add to the list on our own, with things we want to do!
I know you’re a high achiever because if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be trying to do so much (and you wouldn’t be feeling overwhelmed).
I’m also betting that you’re the type who will go out of your way to help others, and you want to help everyone you can (which leads to overcommitment and ultimately overwhelm).
That’s what makes it hard to say no to new requests or new opportunities, and that’s why our to-do lists keep ballooning out of control. And that’s exactly why I’m suggesting that you make “no” your default answer.
Now, you may not actually say no as soon as someone asks for something — and you may not verbally say no at all. But because saying yes is the easiest thing, we need to make ourselves say no first — even if it’s thinking to yourself, “No, let me think about this for a moment.”
(NOTE: Let me re-emphasize the phrase, “when you have a choice.” There are plenty of times when you just have to say “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Use common sense here!)
This is more about taking the time to really examine the requests and opportunities that come our way than it is about shutting the door on everything.
Derek Sivers once wrote, “When deciding whether to commit to something, if I feel anything less than, ‘Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ – then my answer is no.”
We want to be open to life, and open to humanity. But that doesn’t mean you torture yourself by saying yes to things you think you should do.
To experience just how liberating it is to say no, practice it before the day is done — I promise you’ll have the opportunity!
For starters, maybe you need to say no to something that’s already on your to-do list: “No, I don’t need to do that.” Then cross it off.
It’s a little more difficult to say no to people, though — maybe it’s because you feel guilty, or maybe it’s because you’re afraid to hurt someone’s feelings — so here are “7 Simple Ways to Say No.”
Let’s sum it all up:
- Accept that you’re not going to get it all done today.
- Just aim to get the right things done.
- Let “no” be your default answer for new requests or new opportunities — until further examination.
You don’t have to be overwhelmed.
Just do what you can do.
And whatever that is, celebrate it.
Has this helped you — or do you have some advice of your own on how to beat overwhelm? We’d love for you to join the conversation by leaving a comment below.
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