Overpower Your Overwhelm

February 28, 2024

We’ve noticed a recurring type of question when working with clients recently: “Is it okay if I put this aside for later?” And usually the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” There are always tasks that need to be handled after we leave. Toys to give to grandkids the next time they visit, unopened mail to go through, clothes to take to the dry cleaner. It makes perfect sense to shelve these things, but it also presents a problem for those who struggle with follow-through and time management. When you have too many tasks, how do you get started? How do you overpower your overwhelm?

There’s no one silver bullet that can fix the problem, but there are some strategies you can use to get yourself on the right path. First you need to understand what causes your overwhelm in the first place.

 

Zooming Out vs. Zooming In

Extra tasks are a continuous struggle for anyone tackling an organizing project. Sometimes, ruminating on them or constantly switching between them can halt progress altogether.

When sorting clothes: “This is a pile I need to iron. Is it okay if I set it aside? How can I make sure that I actually do it later? I know we’re supposed to finish the closet right now, but maybe I should just get them ironed real quick…” 

When processing paperwork: “I know I need to keep working on my files once you all leave. But when paper builds up, I get overwhelmed and never know where to start, so nothing gets done! Maybe I shouldn’t even bother sorting this. It’ll just get messy again anyway…”

Overwhelm can look different for different people. Largely, the struggle comes from one of two thought processes:

 

        1. Switching Response. 

You tend to jump to tasks as they arise, putting all your focus on what’s right in front of you and easily losing sight of the context. Tasks you do leave for later tend to drop off your radar completely. Overwhelm comes when you look back on your long line of incomplete projects or a handful of forgotten tasks catch up to you.

This is “micro” thinking. You tend to “zoom in” and naturally focus on one thing at a time. You might struggle with controlling your focus, keeping track of tasks or wrapping your mind around larger, multi-step projects.

        2. Freeze Response.

You’re fully aware of everything on your to-do list, and that is why you have a hard time getting anything done. You tend to think of entire projects instead of single tasks or think about all your tasks at once. Overwhelm comes when you can’t narrow your focus and the task load becomes too intimidating to handle.

This is “macro” thinking. You tend to “zoom out” and naturally comprehend the big picture. You might have a hard time starting tasks when overwhelmed or completing tasks when distracted/discouraged.

 

Neither way of thinking is inherently wrong. In fact, most people experience both, and being able to switch between them strategically is the real key to getting organized! Knowing which perspective you lean toward–or knowing which situations bring out which way of thinking for you–is a huge step towards boosting your productivity. It’s all part of learning how to push through overwhelm.

So which thought pattern has you stuck right now? In order to get yourself moving again, the trick is to switch perspectives: when you’re too “zoomed in,” use tools to “zoom out,” and vice versa.

 

Coping by Zooming Out: Building Safety Nets

If you have a hard time keeping track of what needs to be done amidst the chaos, it’s very easy to feel helpless and frustrated. You may even get caught in reactionary loops where you only have enough time to deal with tasks as they pop up. The best way to get yourself out of that structureless, directionless cycle is to give yourself structure.

  • Capture your thoughts. 

When a task occurs to you that you need to deal with later, write it down! Whether it’s in your phone or a notebook, make sure your Capture File is always available to you. It’s important that all your thoughts and reminders end up in the same place.

  • Block out time for forward planning. 

It can be as small as five minutes over breakfast every day or a thirty-minute block before you wrap up for the week. Whatever kind of planning time you choose, make sure you actually put it in your calendar like any other appointment. During your planning block, look back through your Capture File. Think about where and how you can best work the tasks into your schedule. This is your chance to plan ahead and set up for success, so use it! Have your calendar with you so that you can find openings and write down your plans as you make them.

The more you do this, you may find that you have the chance to apply a wider structure to your life in general. If forward planning is helping you find the time to get random tasks done but you don’t tend to keep a written schedule for anything else, give it a try! Visualizing your time and keeping it all recorded in one place (as well as making the time to review it all regularly) helps you stay on top of things and adapt to unexpected bumps in the road.

  • Set reminders. 

Once you have everything planned out, give yourself the support systems you need to stay on track. Set reminders in your phone (make sure your notifications are turned on!), place strategic sticky notes, get an accountability partner, whatever you find works best for you. It may take some trial and error, so don’t be afraid to experiment! 

  • Adjust as you go.

Each time you sit down for another planning block, look back on how your systems are working. Instead of beating yourself up or becoming discouraged when plans fall through, think about how or why things went wrong and brainstorm ways to adapt. Do you chronically snooze alarms without realizing it? Put your phone on the other side of the room before going to bed. Do you not notice written reminders when they’re left in visually chaotic spaces? Take some time to declutter or put the sticky note in an even more difficult-to-miss spot. Remember, getting it right the first time isn’t the goal. The goal is to keep trying until you learn what works.

 

Coping by Zooming In: Using Tools to Focus

When you’re constantly derailed by overwhelm or the urge to jump to other tasks, it can be hard to see a way forward. Just know that you aren’t weak-willed or lazy–your brain is tired from constantly processing everything at the same time! Preventing and overcoming cognitive overload can be difficult, but not it’s not impossible. As obvious or simple as some of our methods may seem, just give them a try! Sometimes the smallest things get us back on track.

  • Make a to-do list and work one item at a time. 

It’s important to keep the size of your to-do list small and manageable. If you find yourself listing too many things, turn that to-do list into a long-term brainstorm. After you have everything written down, restart with a new list that keeps the scope small: just a few tasks you know you can finish that day. 

Once you get started, your list acts as your enforcer and your safety net all at once. Don’t switch to a new task until you can check off the current one, and when you get stressed that something may fall through the cracks or go unaddressed, remember that it’s all written down! Making that plan ahead of time and sticking to it allows you to give your full attention to a single task without getting anxious about others.

  • Enlist a body double.

Sometimes an extra person is all it takes to power through intimidating workloads! Make time with a loved one and have them with you as you go through your intended tasks. You can do this in person or even over the phone or video chat. Your body double can help out, do a chore of their own or just chat–honestly, it doesn’t matter what they do! The psychological effect of having someone else around is what makes the real impact.

This method is simple and time-tested. Having someone else present lifts the mood, clarifies your focus and holds you to your word. They can even help you problem-solve if you get stuck or help you refocus when you get off-track. Problems that derail you completely when you’re alone become tiny bumps in the road when you have a partner.

  • Use the “spyglass” method.

This is a niche solution that only applies situationally, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need! When priorities aren’t an issue and you simply have a task load that needs to be completed, find a paper towel roll. If you don’t have one lying around, just make a circle with your hand. Walk into a room where there are unfinished chores, put the “spyglass” up to your eye and look through it. Whatever comes into your vision first, whether it’s a sink full of dishes or a bag waiting to go to the recycling center, deal with it! Once that task is done, repeat the process.

If your tasks are less physical or more nebulous (checking your email, planning dinner, etc.), you can still use this method. Gather some scraps of paper or notecards and jot down your tasks. Then, spread them out in front of you and look through the “spyglass.” Even if it sounds silly, we encourage you to give it a try! It’s surprisingly helpful (even relieving) to literally, visually narrow down your perspective so that you can only see one task at a time.

Are you a macro- or micro-thinker? Do you have any hacks that help you power through overwhelm? Let us know over at our Abundance Declutter Group on Facebook!