Overwhelm: The Survival Guide

Woman feeling free in a beautiful natural setting.

Feeling overwhelmed with work and personal tasks is one of the biggest problems that the people I work with are facing. It turns out, our lives can be pretty overwhelming. There’s so much to do, never enough time to do it, and who knows what we should be focusing on? We’re always behind, barely treading water. That’s our usual experience of life, it seems. That’s the feeling of overwhelm.

Image depicts feeling tired and stressed, workload, burnout and fatigue and overwhelm.

What can we do? It turns out, there are some powerful things we can practice with overwhelm, and there are some practical things we can do as well. What follows is meant to be a kind of survival guide—not only how to survive your overwhelming life, but how to turn it into a life of joy and impact.

There are a lot of things below, which, ironically, can be overwhelming. Pick one, and try it.

How to Overcome Overwhelm

How to Start:

The first thing to do when we’re facing overwhelm is first aid. It’s not meant to be a final solution, just what we need to do to start out.

Woman meditating in front of big window, rear view.

Here are the steps I recommend:

  1. Triage: Start making a list of all the things you need to do soon, and pick a few to do first and put them on a Today list. This isn’t a long-term solution, just something to help with right now.
  2. Buy some time: For some of the tasks on your “do soon” list, can you buy yourself some extra time by asking for an extended deadline, rescheduling, postponing?
  3. Let go: Can you cross some items off your list immediately? Can you let people know you need to not do certain things? Can you delegate or ask others to help with something? This lightens your load.
  4. Focus: Pick one thing from your Today list and focus fully on that. More on focusing below, but the idea is to do one thing at a time, and forget about the rest for now.

At the end of the day, take 20 minutes and do the following:

  1. Create a long list: Make a list of everything you need to do. You can separate them into categories—work, personal, financial, or whatever makes sense for you. Basically, you want to get everything down in one place. Add tasks from your email inbox, messaging systems, open browser tabs, etc. This is likely to be an overwhelming list, but suck it up and do it!
  2. Create tomorrow’s Today list: From the long list, pick a handful (3 to 5) of the tasks to do tomorrow. Don’t make it too long, if you finish them you can always pick a couple more from your long list. Repeat this at the end of every day. Make tomorrow’s Today list, so you can start the next day already knowing what to focus on.
  3. If you have some extra time, let go of some tasks on the long list, and buy some time for other tasks. Basically create some space for yourself.

Those are the practical steps to get started. Let’s talk about longer-term practical tips, then mindset tips.

Longer-Term Practical Steps

Calm woman office worker sits at desk near laptop folded fingers mudra gesture taking break and resting at workplace.

These are some of the longer-term ways I’ve found to simplify my work life:

  1. Invest in simplifying your time: Could you block off 30 minutes or an hour to work on things that will simplify things or reduce your workload? For example, if you own a business, you might spend time hiring someone or training them to take things off your plate. You might train someone or create a system so you don’t have to worry about this. Automate something or use simpler software. Basically, you could work on the machine running more smoothly so you don’t have to do so much manual labor. The time you spend here is an investment that will pay off many times over.
  2. Block off time for important things: If you have big projects or important tasks that have been sitting on your task list for a while, block off an hour or two to work on those, at least a couple times a week. Ideally most days. Create a work session with someone else to do this kind of focus work. It will move things along beautifully.
  3. Create structure: If you have a thousand little things to take care of, and it all feels random, could you create blocks of time to work on those things? For example, a couple blocks of 30 minutes a day to clear out your email inbox and messages, or a couple of hours every Friday to do your administrative or financial tasks. This kind of structure ensures that these little things will get taken care of, so you can focus the rest of the time on the big important things.
  4. Create impact: If things feel random and chaotic and meaningless like every task is just a puff of smoke going into the wind, then the way to start to create a meaningful impact is to line up your tasks. Commit yourself to something impactful a year from now, for example. Then line up your tasks all year with that goal—a daily task that will lead to a weekly target that leads to a monthly target that will help you to hit the goal for the year. Small things then will have a big impact if they’re lined up with impactful goals.

You obviously don’t have to work on all of these today. But implementing one of these each week will lead to a longer-term reduction of overwhelm.

Create Total Focus in Chaos

Meditation & reflection concept - close up of yogi woman meditating at yoga studio

The feeling of overwhelm can lead to a lack of focus. How can you focus on one thing when you feel pulled in a thousand directions?

The practice here is to find focus in the middle of chaos. And it’s a beautiful practice.

It goes something like this:

  1. Pick one task. It really doesn’t matter what task you choose, just find something on your Today list and decide to work on it for 20 to 30 minutes.
  2. Clear away distractions.
  3. Fully focus on this one task, as if there were nothing else in the universe.
  4. Take a break, and repeat.

I like to think of it as the same as focusing on one breath at a time in meditation. You have a lot of breaths to take in your lifetime, but you can’t take them all right now. So just take one breath, and fully take that breath. That’s the only breath happening right now, and the rest will come in time.

Shift Your Mindset to Transform Overwhelm

Black woman meditating on the beach- taking breaks in nature concept.

Finally, what if we could transform overwhelm into something powerful?

This is a mindset shift that you can take on as a practice, so that overwhelm doesn’t have to be a big deal, but instead becomes an opportunity to find play, focus, commitment, joy, or curiosity.

The shift is in how you relate to your tasks.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s because we relate to tasks as a burden or a chance to let others down or fail or look foolish (or something similar). If we relate to our tasks this way, then the more tasks we have, the more stressful and burdensome things will be. If we have two tasks, that’s not too bad, but having a hundred chances to fail is super stressful!

Instead, what if we viewed the tasks as an opportunity to practice focus and be present? An opportunity to serve and add value? An opportunity to play and be curious? A place to find joy and transcendent experience?

If we viewed our tasks this way, then more tasks will only light us up even more!

How to Practice Changing Your MindsetCalm couple in pajamas meditating, listening spiritual practices lessons on laptop.

  1. Notice when you’re feeling overwhelmed or wanting to procrastinate. Ask yourself what view you might have of the tasks that are causing this kind of feeling.
  2. Choose a new view of the tasks, like one of the ideas I suggested above. What would it feel like if you viewed your tasks this way instead?
  3. Try viewing the tasks this way, and see how things feel. Practice this as often as you can, so that you slowly start to shift your relationship to the tasks, and your default view of the tasks.
  4. If you feel overwhelmed again, no problem. Just remind yourself of your new view and practice this way.

If you relate your tasks as an opportunity for play, joy, and adventure, you’ll have a fun day! If you relate to them as a way to serve, with love and focus, what a beautiful day that would be.

How would you like to relate to the tasks that will bring you alive?

Reprinted with permission from Leo Babauta/Zen Habits.
Leo Babauta

Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness. It has over a million readers.

My name is Leo Babauta. I live in Northern California with my wife and our two teenage kids (we have 4 adult kids, for a total of six!), where I eat vegan food, write, run, and read.

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