My client Amy recently asked for help because whenever she got overwhelmed at work, she’d freeze as if her brain had blown a fuse. She’d find herself mindlessly clicking a retractable pen for minutes at a time, or frantically scrolling through documents without even seeing them. Her brain’s power grid was overloaded, so the result was like summer in the city when everyone’s running an air conditioner: the lights flicker, and then go out.
Sound familiar? When we’re overwhelmed, we can’t function. It may seem silly: why do we let our brains be hijacked by a to-do list? You brain doesn’t just see a to-do list; it sees a threat. It sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into twenty-four hours. Or it sees the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling incapable.
And guess what? Our bodies react to threat the same way: fight, flight, or freeze, whether the threat is a bus hurtling towards us or a to-do list that makes us feel like we can’t breathe. Usually, we land somewhere between freeze, like Amy, and flight, which manifests as procrastination.
But not all procrastination looks the same: it can take more or less productive forms, from catching up on the latest Carpool Karaoke to doing tasks that don’t really matter, like buying stuff online or checking email. Again.
So what to do if you’re overwhelmed, paralyzed, or procrastinating? After you’ve worked your way through the classic trifecta of go-for-a-walk, breathe-deeply, approach-the-mess-with-gratitude, try these 7 tips.
Tip #1: Ground yourself in the present.
We’ve talked about this technique on the podcast before, but it got such a great reception that it bears repeating. It’s officially a grounding exercise for folks experiencing a dissociative state, but you don’t need to feel detached from reality to put it to good use.
It’s called 5-4-3-2-1. Work your way through your five senses. Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are. Then listen and name four things you can hear. Next come three things you can touch, like a warm mug of coffee or the feeling of your feet in your shoes. Next comes two smells–breathe in the coffee aroma or a musty library book. Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.
This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts. It’s a mini moment of mindfulness to pull you out of the fray.
Tip #2: Clean up your immediate surroundings.
The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a tiny corner of your universe and allows you to move forward. We’re not talking anything big: restrict yourself to within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, remove dirty dishes, wipe away general disgustingness. The result feels like you’ve accomplished something and allows you to focus on the task at hand, not on clutter.
Tip #3: Ruthlessly prioritize.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stick to things that need to get done. Cut out everything that “should” be done. And beware: “Should” is a shapeshifter; it takes on many forms: “It would be good if I did X,” “I’d feel guilty if I didn’t do Y,” “It would be nice if I did Z.” All those things are true. But until you’re feeling less like your hair’s on fire, give yourself permission to cut them all out.
Tip #4: Stop accidentally multitasking.
By now, we know multitasking isn’t really a thing. Our brains aren’t designed to do two or three tasks at once. Instead, we end up toggling back and forth among our various tasks, leaving us with the mental equivalent of whiplash.
Our brains aren’t designed to do two or three tasks at once.
But unintentional multitasking still leaves us whipsawed. Trying to work from home and keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 all force us to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times.
This works about as well as texting while driving, which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend then by doing one. Thing. At. A. Time. When you’re feeling less frantic you can go back to googling baseball scores at stoplights, but until then, singletask, singletask, singletask.
Tip #5: The next tiny step.
When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of your task, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be ridiculously small–only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now click on the next folder. Now open the document.”
Bonus: close your door, stick in your earbuds, or wear your bluetooth so no one suspects, and narrate your way through your tiny tasks. Saying it out loud keeps you on track, helps motivate you, and–not to worry–is totally normal.
Tip #6: Follow your impulses (sort of).
When you’re working on something aversive, it’s easy to get distracted by the tiniest little thing. You have a song stuck in your head and have the urge to pull it up on Spotify. You remember you’re supposed to bring a salad to your kids’ school potluck and find yourself scrolling through recipes hours before a major work deadline.
But instead of following every little impulse, which can pull you into a vortex of procrastination, keep a sticky note next to you and make note your impulses as you have them–”How tall is Jimmy Fallon” “Latest Little Mix album” “chia seed = Chia Pets?” Just unloading the impulse, even if don’t follow through, can be enough to vanquish it. Feeling extra confident? Rather than writing it down, just think it. Sometimes just acknowledging the impulse is enough to make it go away.
Tip #7: Rethink your to-do list.
Keeping a to-do list (and no, a pocket crammed full of sticky notes and cocktail napkins doesn’t count) is the most important lesson from Organization 101.
But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, looking at a long list of to-dos can make you feel like a victim of a Darth Vader chokehold. Time for a to-do list makeover.
There are a thousand ways to bring more order to your long string of tasks. For one, chunk like with like: put all your phone calls together, or all your online tasks together. Chunking makes a long list more cohesive, more efficient, and by extension, less overwhelming.
Another method: write out your list in accordance with your schedule. Plan big projects for the morning when you have the most energy and focus. Schedule brainless tasks for the 3 PM slump.
If you’re feeling advanced, try the “Eisenhower Matrix,” which sounds like our 34th president in a leather duster and Ray-Bans, but is actually a method of organizing tasks based on importance and urgency. Explaining it in detail is beyond the scope of this one tip, so go ahead and Google it, though perhaps not at a stoplight.