What to do when your inbox reaches architectural proportions? Likely, you’ve been told to breathe, to go for a short walk, or to embrace the mess. And those tips are right on. But what if that’s not what you’re looking for? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 in-the-moment tips to deal with a tidal wave of tasks.
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.