What to do when you’re overwhelmed and have too much to do
Ever felt like this?
You go to bed at night, full of lists in your head.
You wake up in the morning, and all you want to do is sleep in a bit longer. To not face the day ahead, with all it’s impending responsibilities.
I know how it feels… too much to do, too little time.
But have you noticed? You’re not even doing a good job with the tasks you are working on.
You aren’t focused. You’re being inefficient. You are distracted. Constantly.
You are stuck in the middle of overwhelm. And it will take over your days, until you get in control of your time.
“Catching up” is not the answer.
Insisting on “catching up” is holding onto the false idea that somehow you can chase down all those tasks and get ahead of them. But guess what, there are always more.
I know firsthand about the desire to somehow catch up. When I first started my design freelance business, I was so overwhelmed with trying to keep up with all my commitments to clients. I would cling onto this hope, for months on end, that if I could simply catch up, I’d finally feel ok about my workload. But a freelancer always needs new work in the pipeline for the future. So, as soon as one job is put to bed, there’s always another job waiting there.
And just freelancing is a walk in the park compared to what many of us are trying to juggle.
Many of us also have family commitments, social obligations, volunteer duties, children’s activities and scheduling.
So if you can’t catch up, how do you deal with having too much to do?
- Recognize that less is more.
- Get perspective
- Always schedule “me” time
- Be intentional
- Be flexible
- Use focus/productivity tricks
- Re-allocate time for the next 2 weeks
- Get organized
- Give yourself permission to drop the ball
- Admit what you hate to do, and let it go
- Commit to a schedule
1. Recognize that less is more
First off, you are lying to yourself if you think the best use of your time is to dedicate hours on end to sitting at your desk without breaks. I know you feel behind, and you just want to catch up. (I’m presuming catching up for you requires you to be on your computer). But we aren’t efficient sitting for hours on end in one place. And we certainly can’t focus well if we don’t feel in control.
Did you know that the majority of people can do the same amount of work in half the time if they are feeling positive, in control and refreshed?
Research has shown us we solve problems better when we have been exposed to the outdoors. We also know that exercise releases endorphins, which make us happier. And allowing our brain to shut off, switch gears, or be exposed to new things gives us fresh perspective.
If you are like most people, you can get more done with 6 hours at your desk, and 2 hours of time away, than you can in 8 hours.
Try it out. Tomorrow, decide what you’d rather be doing than working – ideally something not on the computer. You can use the productivity method of 20 minutes on / 10 minutes off, or schedule an entire hour or two sometime in your day – at the beginning or middle (don’t do it at the end, you may talk yourself out of it). Determine what work you’d like to complete that day as well. Now, commit to both completing the work *and* taking your breaks. You’ll be amazed at how much more willing you are to work hard in your 6 hours, knowing you are also rewarding yourself.
You’ll also get fresh perspective in your work, have a more positive state of mind, and feel more refreshed knowing you are taking care of yourself.
2. Get perspective
Perspective comes from talking to other people, reading about other people, getting outside your regular environment, or witnessing or being part of something that makes you feel a deep emotion. It can come from taking a walk outside, listening to a favorite song turned way up, or from having coffee with a friend. It can come from meditating, playing with your dog, helping out at your children’s school, or reading the newspaper. It can come from taking a yoga class, having lunch with your mother, or reading a good book.
The point is, our minds are busy, active, and overworked. If you choose to repeatedly allow your mind to obsess about the same things, it’s not being exercised to it’s fullest. Perspective is key in coming up with new creative solutions and feeling a sense of ease – that our little problems are just that. Little problems. When we get perspective, we feel lighter about each task we take on, because we remove ourselves from feeling that the only thing that matters is this one deadline or one task we are working on. We take ourselves less seriously. We more appropriately weight our attachment to our work. And, we create better because of it.
3. Always schedule “me” time
Even if you can’t take breaks within your work day, you should always allow some time to yourself, to allow you to feel like you are in control of your own time. For introspection. For peace. I recommend a morning routine, even if it’s as little as 10-20 minutes, to start your day. Can’t find the time? Go to bed earlier, get up earlier. You will positively reap the benefits of starting your day with time for you.
4. Be intentional
Start your day asking yourself, “What work will make me feel most accomplished or successful to get completed today?”
Then, create a simple list of no more than 3 intentions to help you stay focused through the day. Writing them down somewhere you will see them throughout the day is a good reminder of what you intend on completing. Whenever your mind strays or you get bogged down by email or disrupting requests, you can reference the list of 3 intentions. At the end of the day, you can cross them off or make notes for the next day.
5. Be flexible
Often times, getting the dreaded project or the project that is consuming the most mental space, is more important than anything else because it helps clear your mind to focus on more creative work thereafter. Give yourself permission to complete a low priority project if it is causing mental clutter.
You should have a few backup time slots available to move work to, within a week, when things run over. If you notice you are using these time slots repeatedly, you’ll want to reconsider your weekly outline. But if they are being used truly as backups, they are perfect for allowing flexibility for extra time off or commitments, and for when tasks take longer than expected.
6. Use focus/productivity tricks
It is so easy to waste away time spent on the computer. Use one or more productivity hacks to keep yourself on track.
7. Re-allocate time for the next 2 weeks
You may never get rid of the overwhelmed feeling if you keep allowing yourself to feel like you are behind. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take stock of your situation and re-plan your activities. This may mean moving out some deadlines. This may mean reducing some components of a project that you have control of. The old saying “perfect or done” offers a good perspective on your workload. We often try and work on a project to no end, so it can be perfect – when what we really need is for that project to be done. You can choose, with every task you do, which ideal you want to hold yourself to… but a word of warning, if you know you are a perfectionist, that very few things we do should be held to that ideal – or we will NEVER do all the amazing things we want to do in life. If you are feeling off balance, not taking care of yourself, your family, your health, or more – you probably need to let more things be “done” than “perfect.”
Re-plan your next two weeks. Decide what deadlines can slide, allow yourself to think outside the box about who may be willing to show you some leniency with your commitments. Sometimes you have deadlines you’ve made to yourself that need to slide. That’s ok too. It’s great to be committed to ourselves, but not if we are making ourselves miserable in the process. It’s all about the journey, remember? Happiness is not a destination and never will be. If you’re a new entrepreneur, one of the lessons you’ll need to learn is that it does no good to be goal-oriented if you can’t also be happy. There is a balance there, commit to finding it. (I am not saying that you can’t allow short-term spurts of productivity in lieu of balance; just don’t let it turn into long term imbalance – that’s when it gets unhealthy and surely will lead to a crash). Once you change your deadlines, when it makes sense, you will feel so much relief, you’ll be much happier and gain control over your schedule again.
Now, you’ll want to work backwards from your deadlines (whether you’ve been able to shift them or not) and take real stock of what you can get done each day moving forward. Don’t dwell on what hasn’t happened yet, or what you are behind on.
Look at the next two weeks. In a 14 day period, set aside 4 days for personal time (usually weekends), and then looking at the remaining 10 days. If you can accomplish 2 major tasks a day, draw 20 squares on a sheet of paper. If you know you already have commitments that can’t shift during your work time (for example, a doctor’s appointment or during your normal work hours, volunteer time at school, etc.), cross out the number of half days that will take up. If you needed 2 half days for existing commitments, you’d have 18 squares left. From the remaining squares, plan on only filling about 2/3 of the squares. In this example, that’s 12 squares. Now, figure out how you can break down the tasks you need to complete in the next 2 weeks into those remaining squares. The other 1/3 (6 squares in our example) will be left for spillover work, unexpected delays and the natural things that derail us – good or bad – that we often call “life.” Plan on using every half day for the next 2 days on one of those 12 tasks. If needed, re-run this exercise at any time you “get behind.”
You may feel like this is a lot of work to re-organize your time – and you’d rather use your time to catch up. But, trust me, that you will feel so much more in control and relieved to see how you can accomplish the most important tasks at hand in the next two weeks, and you will get more done than if you let yourself continue spiraling out of control.
8. Get organized
There is a switch that turns on when we get ourselves organized, even in a little way. Taking even 5 minutes to reorganize a drawer or shelf helps us celebrate a little win, that makes us feel confident and capable. When we struggle to meet a big commitment, sometimes this success in a small task can help drive us forward. If you choose to do some organization around your work (such as organizing computer files, email, desk space, etc.) you get the added benefit of the organization within the context of your work. But know that you will benefit even from simply reorganizing the junk drawer in your kitchen, if that’s what you choose to do.
9. Give yourself permission to drop the ball
I wish more women would do this more often. Give yourself permission to say no, drop the ball, flake on something you don’t care about, or underperform. It sounds horrible, terrifying, unlike you, right? But so what? Maybe the new you needs to be more forgiving that we all are overcommitted, and maybe every once in a while, it’s ok not to be supermom. Or perfect. Or the most reliable one of your friends. Whatever standard you’ve been holding yourself to. If the result is you feeling miserable, is it really worth it? Everyone can operate without us, we are not so over-important.
We can back off, back down, change plans, do less – if there’s some resistance in your mind when you read this, spend some time thinking about who or where that’s coming from. Is there a person you don’t want to let down? If so, are they worth the angst you are feeling? If they are a friend, and truly love you, they will understand. If it’s a child, know that they will love you most when you are happy. They will feel the most energy from you when you take care of yourself first.
Drop the ball, when you need to. But do it politely and respectfully. Communicate about it, help find a substitute solution when possible. Make sure that whomever is affected understands your reasons, deep down, so they can honor your decision. Be proud of the priorities you chose, instead of the ones you were unhappily obligated to, and know that the people you truly care about will love you all the same.
And I know you… if you are like me… and you will never, ever, repeatedly choose to drop the ball. You will do it sparingly and when it’s right. You will slowly make adjustments in your commitments to better align with your priorities, so that you won’t be overcommitted in the future. So that you’ll balance time for yourself, your work and who and what you love better than you have been, if you’ve been out of balance.
10. Admit what you hate to do, and let it go
We procrastinate when we are uncertain or unmotivated. If you don’t like to do something, you have two choices. Do it anyway, or don’t do it. Recognize the things you dislike may take up an immeasurable amount of time and mental energy that we could be using to do the things we are really good at. If you decide to do it anyway – accept and be okay with the fact you don’t like it – don’t make it bigger than it is by worrying about why you don’t like it or thinking that you should like it. Just do it, get it over with, and move on. When possible (and it’s more possible than you probably want to admit), delegate tasks. Accept that when a task is delegated, the person doing it will unlikely do it as good as you would. Recognize that in trade, you will be able to spend more time doing the things you are extremely good at. Wouldn’t you rather be known for doing the things you love well, than the things you hate? The people you delegate to will get better at doing those tasks if you give them ownership and practice. You aren’t doing yourself any service by holding on to them.
11. Commit to a schedule
Schedule certain days for certain types of tasks – marketing, meetings, blogging, focused work – whatever your themes may be. Schedule time within your day for responding to emails and doing small tasks, so that the little things don’t get in the way of your ability to accomplish the big things – which are inherently more important.
If you’re really, truly, overwhelmed, and if you’ve been so for a while, you’re going to find so much relief in taking control, and changing up your habits. There is no one definition of what’s too much – we are all different. But, we each have a point where we know it’s too much. I hope that, when you get to that point, that sooner than later you acknowledge it and take control. Above all else, listen to your heart, and do what you know you need to do.