How To Handle Overwhelm

how-to-handle-overwhelmSome days there is nothing pressing on my to-do list or on my mind, and it feels like I’ve escaped the rat race once and for all. These days I’m free to do as much or as little as I feel like, as the whim takes me. They are good days, and yes, they do happen more often now that I’m on the road.

And then sometimes I come back from a weekend of such days and I realize there is actually a lot of things that need to get done, how could I have let it pile up like this, and I’m back in that familiar place most adult Americans find themselves in of having too much to do with too little time.

Overwhelm. It had me bouncing from super excited to super anxious as I was preparing to get on the road, yet still juggling the chores of day to day stationary living.

By now I’ve pretty much got the answer (at least for me) to overwhelm down, as long as I slow down enough to remember it. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, my first reaction is to avoid what’s making me feel that way. That’s a bad way to approach it, because the longer you wait the more things will need to get done. I could probably write a looong post about this topic, but if your days are already feeling rushed and too busy, then let’s keep this short and simple for the sake of time.

1) Stop what you’re doing, and take five minutes to calm down, ten if you need. And yes, I mean stop doing everything, including rehearsing in your head what you need to do when the five minutes is up. No matter how much you have to get done, you’re not doing yourself any favors by chasing your thoughts in circles about just how important all of this stuff is. I usually try to think about nothing, to just focus on being present right where I am at that moment, but if that doesn’t work for you, think about something pleasant and completely unrelated to your to-do list that helps you relax. A favorite movie or book, a past holiday, something like that.

2) Take a look at everything you need to get done. If you don’t have it all down in a list in one place, do that now, to make it more concrete and manageable. If you think of more things later, remember to add them to this list as soon as you can. It’s harder to forget about things when they’re all together in one spot. Once you have them down on the list, you can release from your mind, and stop letting all of the “need to’s” bog you down. No need to worry that you’re forgetting something, it’s on the list.

3) Now that you have some room to think in your own head again, look at your list, and pick the thing that needs to get done first. That’s all, you can forget about the rest. Just focus on what needs doing now. Note: All tasks have two basic values, whether you consciously assign them or not. One is how important the task is, the more important a task is, the sooner you should get it done. The other value is when is that task due. The sooner the due date, the sooner you should get it done – unless it has a low enough importance that it can be safely ignored.

A lot of people have trouble getting the things they really want to get done completed because they focus exclusively on the due dates of tasks and not how important that task really is. Often the tasks that contribute the most to quality of life are things that you decide to do (instead of say, your boss, or society in general), and there is no intrinsic due date on them. If you make yourself put due dates on tasks that don’t have one, watch and see how more of the things that are important to you start getting done.

4) As you finish a task, go back to your list and choose the next one that needs doing. Do this until you run out of time to work on things, then set aside the list until you next have time to deal with it. While you’re not working on the list, don’t worry about it, there’s no point in worrying about something you can’t work on right now. It’ll be there waiting when you’re ready.

That really about sums it up. For me the hardest part is not worrying when I’m busy with other things and can’t work on my to-do list. It works best if I can block out a piece of time to work on the list next in advance, then when my brain goes: “You need to do this!” I can tell myself “I can’t right now, but I will at 2 pm tomorrow”. Having a solid answer for when it’ll get done helps a lot.

I hope this helps those of you out there who also sometimes feel overwhelmed at the number of things on your plate. Enjoy the rest of your week!

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16 Responses to How To Handle Overwhelm

  1. TravelBug-Susan February 5, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

    Great advice all around. Thanks for the kick in the pants and reminder about what’s important.

    TravelBug-Susan recently posted..Monday Wandering – Feb. 3My Profile

    • Becky February 6, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

      You’re welcome Susan, stay warm out there!

  2. Misty February 6, 2014 at 3:57 am #

    This is true whether you’re an RVer or not! 🙂

    Lists are a life-saver for me, but I also have to remind myself to take care of me… I have a bad habit of forgetting to eat, or prioritizing work tasks over things like dishes!
    Misty recently posted..Maybe the cell phones aren’t the problemMy Profile

    • Becky February 6, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

      There seems to be an invisible line for me when it comes to the cleaning type chores. I put them off until it gets to a certain degree of bad, and then I clean everything in a frenzy because I can’t stand it anymore. 😛

      And yes, lists. My memory suffers when I’m under stress, so particularly when I have a lot to do, it’s important.

  3. Allen February 6, 2014 at 6:23 am #

    I started doing the list thing at work on a pad of paper each morning. I check off what gets done & the undone go to the top of the next days list. I just check things off when there done. I use the bottom of the page for notes about calls & conversations. Each day is a clean sheet and the previous day goes in an inbox pile. When it feels like I never get anything done it is an ego boost to look back at what has been done. I will retire May 2, 2014 but the list will continue. I hope it fills up with fun stuff to do!

    • Becky February 6, 2014 at 10:50 pm #

      Sounds like a good system Allen! And yes, congrats on your impending retirement.

  4. David Swanson February 6, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    Excellent inner work Becky! I deal with overwhelm two ways: Firstly, breathe whole. By this I mean include all of your torso, and take particular note of the tension at the base of the breast bone and upper belly. Just let everything soften; front, back, top and bottom of the torso. Don’t apply any method.
    The other thing I do when overwhelmed or I get stuck trying to figure out what to do next, is to do something for only 5 minutes. Give yourself this permission with the first thing right in front of you. No priorities or lists, just anything in your line of sight. What happens for me is that I get focused in a relaxed way in that five minutes and end up continuing until that project is finished. Remember to goof off too! Isn’t that why we went on the road in the first place? :).

    • PamelaP February 6, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

      Totally love the photo of you up a tree (literally!). While I grew up in Miami where we have white sand beaches for the most part, where you are looks more like a “real” FL beach.

      Of course, as I’m still working full time (and at Amazon to boot) I could not live without lists. One of my tricks is putting things that need to get done by a certain date on post it notes – then I put them in order on my bathroom mirror. Once done, the post it gets tossed and the next most important goes there (since sometimes one has to shift priorities). The nice thing about the mirror is that you DO look in it at least once a day, the post it notes allow you to rearrange priorities if you need to and visually I get happier the shorter my post it note list gets! ;0)

      At work, I have Outlook which has it’s own task bar & keeps me on target during the day – I can also schedule deadlines and get reminders. If you have Outlook, it’s a great tool.

      • Becky February 6, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

        Pamela, I love climbing trees (literally, less figuratively), always have. A few years ago when I decided to live a more fit lifestyle I decided to start climbing trees again like I use to when I was a kid. I don’t regret the decision, it’s fun, and good exercise.

        Right now most of my lists get made on my phone, that way they’re accessible no matter where I am, work, home, or out and about.

    • Becky February 6, 2014 at 10:53 pm #

      David, I apply that 5 minute method to jogging when I really don’t feel like exercising. I’ll tell myself, “just for 5 minutes” because getting started is the hardest part. Once I’m going, I nearly always finish it.

      And yeah, sometimes when I’m having a particularly bad day, I’ll make the decision to set my to-do list aside and get some quality me time in, stuff that serves no higher goal other than replenishing my energy and making me happy. That’s important too.

  5. Larry Jenkins February 6, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    Wow, Becky, as a Licensed Professional Counselor, I say “Well done.” You are wise beyond your years!

    • Becky February 6, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

      Thank you Larry. 🙂

  6. Roger in SoCal. February 6, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

    Hi Becky,
    WOW…That really hit home, thanks for the great ideas. After getting my MH out of being serviced and paying $3500 I have so many things to do. I want to go stay at a local RV park and try it out, I have owned it for about a month now and have never slept in it yet! I have to clean the storage bins out…and lots of other things I need to do, guess I’ll make a few lists.

    Thanks again Becky, Larry is right you are “wise beyond your years”.

    • Becky February 9, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

      I owned mine for 6 weeks before using it the first time – the day I moved into it as my full-time residence, haha. If you can get to a local RV park as a test run that would be great, even if it’s in really good shape you’ll probably find something quirky with it that needs a little work and that way if you forget something you won’t be far from home to grab it.

      Lists, lists, lists. They’ll serve you well.

  7. Reine February 7, 2014 at 1:21 am #

    One thing you didn’t mention is that once a to do list is made, it’s a good idea to look at it a day or so later and think about whether the things on the list are things you REALLY need to get done. Is everything on the list something that will improve my quality of life, my safety, my enjoyment of life or my ability to share with others. Basically, do the things on the list line up with my life goals? Sometimes stuff ends up on our “need to” list because they are things that other folks think are important.

    Sometimes we can be overwhelmed because we’re trying to live up to the expectations of others without giving consideration to whether those expectations are reasonable or in line with our personal goals. The expectations of people we love and respect often provide excellent guidance for us but they shouldn’t overwhelm or smother us.

    • Becky February 9, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

      That’s a good point. Usually what I’ll do Reine is put eeeeverything on, and then as I said I rank it by urgency and importance. In the beginning it can be hard to tell what really needs to be done and what doesn’t, especially if it’s a long list. But after a couple weeks things that aren’t moving toward the top of the list obviously aren’t that important or urgent, and I’ll cull the list to remove these things periodically.

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