We all know what it is like to be overwhelmed. Our parents, siblings, or friends may have events for us to attend. Our bosses, colleagues, customers, or clients demand a certain level of performance. At work, home, and in our relationships, we commit ourselves to activities and tasks that seem important. Sometimes, significant people in our lives ask us for favors, to complete a job, or for our help.
Sometimes the assignments arrive at the last minute, while at other times we have had a project looming over our heads for months. We intend to fulfill our promises, to deliver on the expecatations of our peers. And we do. . . when the conditions are favorable.
But what happens when all of it is important?
For many, a sense of panic creeps into the day, or maybe a less-intense mental fog takes over the brain. While there are a select few people who thrive in a busy environment, over-committing your time and effort to multiple objectives can cause overwhelm or burn out.
My life is fairly busy, and I tend to enjoy it. At least, I enjoy being busy to a point. I’ve learned how to create a happy work-life balance in my own corner of the world. Seven years of teaching helped me. But I’m not perfect. I’m still adjusting the formula, and I still encounter busy times.
Even when the number of your commitments is fair, it is still possible for the milestones of your projects to converge. This nexus of obligation can make even the most organized people stressed out.
Sometimes, all of the important tasks are hard to accomplish. Worse – they can prove difficult to prioritize. Everyone’s life is a complex network of obligations, commitments, and responsibilities, but moving through them does not have to be complicated.
In fact, you could move through them gracefully.
How I manage my time when my calendar feels full . . .
My life is full of complications, obligations, and commitments. It’s May and I have fifty more essays to grade, 340 mini-journal entries to read (that’s one week of journal entries from 68 students), and a novel to finish writing. I also want to spend time with my fiancé, visit my brother and parents, and occasionally relax.
On top of that, the laundry is piling up, the dishes need to be washed, and I have a wedding to help plan.
Usually, I have routines in place to take care of these activities, but this week, it seems like my ability to stick to routine has fallen apart. I know this is normal. Why? Because I talk to other human beings. This situation occasionally happens to all of us. The details are different, but the reality remains the same: we have many roles to play and only so much time to play them well.
When everything piles up, my main goal is to stay sane while trying to fulfill all of my responsibilities.
Here’s what I do.
I focus on two key habits: 1.) Prioritizing, and 2.) Reflecting.
These two habits may seem simple, or daunting, depending on who you ask. If at the end of the day, I have spent time doing both, I can rest knowing I have at least moved a step closer to fulfilling my objects.
I want to do everything, every single day, but the truth is . . . there is rarely enough time to do everything in one day and remain healthy. So, I must prioritize.
There can only be one priority at a time, but with a list of commitments, we have to decide how the items rank. Your number one priority will be a mix of what is most important and most urgent.
I read a book by two Navy SEALS a few months ago: Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win. While reading it, I came across the phrase “prioritize and execute.”
Jocko talks about prioritizing objectives and following through in their execution. Most of the time, this is just a matter of silencing your anxiety and cultivating enough discipline to activate a task. This was not a new idea for me; however, both authors emphasized one piece of the time management puzzle that I was lacking.
They spoke about the importance of perspective – knowing how your actions affect others when you are making your priorities. Without perspective, without a sense of the bigger picture, these priorities could result in neutral outcomes, or worse, negative outcomes.
When prioritizing, be sure to think about the bigger picture of why your particular project, activity, or task needs to be accomplished. For example, I am writing a novel series. I am doing this to communicate ideas that I have and stories that need to be told.
On a larger scale, writing these books is about fulfilling a larger dream of engaging with my life and work on a deeper philosophical level. It may be through the lens of fantasy fiction, but it is the lens I have chosen. If I forget why I am writing, any activity I do could have the potential of negatively impacting this process. I could accidentally over-invest my time in trivial activities, instead of putting my effort towards meaningful action.
On that note, here is an exercise you could try:
I do this at home – especially when I am too tired to tackle any task.
- Take ten minutes to write down everything that needs to get done. Write whatever comes to mind. This frees up your brain. Just let it all out. Sometimes it helps to separate what is urgent from what is important. Meaning, some tasks are supposed to be done before others, but may not seem as important.
- Rewrite the list in order of importance and urgency. If something must be done on a specific day, add a note.
With your list, you have a number of directions you could take. Personally, if you’re about long-term change, you should consider investing time in figuring out why you are doing something. All of a sudden, some of those tasks will make their way up the priority list.
At this point, I suggest doing the NUMBER ONE thing on your list for at least ten minutes. If you finish this task, move to the next, as long as time and health permits. Don’t hurt yourself.
Your goal is to finish the tasks in the order of their importance and urgency. If time allows, move on to task number two, three, four, five, etc . . . If your number one item is a large-scale project, then it may help to break that project down into manageable tasks that make sense for the day.
If you are having trouble figuring out why something is important, then maybe you shouldn’t do it, or maybe it is truly unimportant busywork. At the end of the day, you will know what is important to you.
This is just as important as prioritizing in terms of keeping yourself sane. At the end of the day, or idealy while I am finishing tasks, I keep a log of what I have done. This is a list of victories from the day, big and small. This helps overcome overwhelm.
Here are some simple questions you can ask yourself at the end of the day:
- What did I accomplish today?
- What could I do to make tomorrow awesome?
- Would I have changed anything about today?
- What small battles did you win?
You should celebrate your accomplishments daily. That way, when you think of work, you think about the small wins that total up instead of all the little mistakes. While it’s healthy to reflect on failures, it’s important not to beat yourself up.
Being intelligently critical is different. If you are able to self-criticize without losing your momentum, then you are at a great advantage in accomplishing your goals and commitments. This type of reflection is helpful. Thinking about how you can improve and how to improve is always useful.
Sometimes you need to be honest with yourself.
Most of the time, your dreaded important task takes less time than you would think. By prioritizing what is important, following through, and then reflecting at the end of the day, you will decrease the amount of overwhelm you feel.
If you are trying to do too much, try setting an upper bound, as James Clear notes in his article, “Do Things You Can Sustain.” Read it here. While I’m at it, here’s another good James Clear article on marginal gains.
I’m applying these same strategies to help balance my work and writing commitments this week. I hope this helps you as much as it helps me!