• The problem: Sometimes, life overwhelms us.
  • Why it matters: Being overwhelmed decreases productivity and increases stress.
  • The solution: These tips can help you solve the problem.

Many years ago, in the days before Slack and ghost kitchens, my aunt told me about an occasion when she was preparing dinner for guests — her husband’s business associates. Although an excellent hostess and a skilled chef, she had a lot going on, and this was the task that broke the camel’s back. Her husband found her sobbing in the kitchen. 

“OK, let’s figure out what needs to be done,” he said. These simple words cut through her panic, slowed her down, and allowed her to identify the remaining tasks, which turned out to be 1) whip the cream and 2) set the table – two jobs that would take no more than five minutes. 

With practice, you will develop strategies to control your time, energy, and attention, and your resilience will improve.

The reason she couldn’t even manage to discern those tasks initially was that she had exceeded the limits of her personal resources and slipped into overwhelm, a state and feeling where executive functioning is compromised. She had lost the ability to think clearly and act decisively. This can happen to all of us, especially in today’s world of constant change, where information flies at us fast and needs to be triaged and processed in real-time. 

The fast track to avoiding feeling overwhelmed

When you feel yourself nearing that feeling of being overwhelmed, stop! Find a piece of paper and start writing. Dump out everything running around in your head onto the page. In other words, “Let’s figure out what needs to be done.” 

My first opportunity to try this technique was when my sister called to say she was planning a visit. Things were hectic at work, and I couldn’t see how I could take a day off. At that moment, I recognised my schedule was running me instead of me running it. Red alert! Next stop: overwhelm. So I started writing. I wrote and wrote until I couldn’t think of anything else. I completely emptied my head of all the things – big and small, work and personal, urgent and non-urgent, important and not important. Everything. A calm descended as the contents of my brain were poured onto four pages, front and back. 

Like magic, the jumbled mess in my head was tamed into a to-do list. Back on familiar ground, I was able to scan and prioritise, take care of any two-minute items and make a schedule to deal with immediate priorities. I was on top of things and more than able to enjoy my sister’s visit.

The following week I deliberately worked through the rest of the to-dos in order of priority. I pushed back project deadlines, postponed others, rattled through smaller tasks, and enjoyed the feeling of my feet being firmly under me again. Processing consistently over a few days, I was back on track much sooner than expected.

You are the boss of you

So here it is – my five-step surefire method out of (and staying out of) overwhelm:

  1. Stop! As soon as you recognise that you are overwhelmed, stop and get present.
  2. Brain dump: Get everything out of your head and onto paper. Keep writing until you can’t think of anything else. You will sleep well the night after this exercise, I promise!
  3. Organise: Process your list into tasks (one-step items) and projects (multi-step), and then prioritize. If you have a workflow system in place, you can process straight into that (I highly recommend STEP* from LearnDoBecome.com.)
  4. Activate: Starting with immediate priorities, work through your action items, confident in the knowledge that if anything else pops up, you will be able to manage.
  5. Review: Review your workload regularly. I suggest once a week. With practice, you will develop strategies to control your time, energy, and attention, and your resilience will improve.

Pandemic life has placed extra demands on us at an exhausting pace. This five-step tool is a great way to reset if you start to feel like it’s all too much. If you still feel like you have too much on your plate, please ask for help. There are only so many hours in a day, and you are only one person. 

Personal resources have been universally eroded for the past 18 months, so more than ever, we all need to relax and replenish. If you find yourself in need of a break right now, here’s a seven-minute dose of public sector magic: 1st May 1969 Mr. Rogers Petition for Public Funding at Senate Subcommittee on Communications Hearing. — Fiona McLaughlin 

*To learn more about implementing the last personal operating system you will ever need, check out STEP by my amazing friends April and Eric at www.learndobecome.com

This post is part of a series of articles written for Apolitical called The Last Mile, which focuses on helping people get organised to be productive and happy. The Last Mile is the distance between all the demands on your time, energy, and attention and you. Please be on the lookout for subsequent articles.

This piece originally appeared on Apolitical, the global network for public servants. You can find the original here. For more like this, see Apolitical’s government innovation newsfeed.