Ever find yourself frantically scrolling through your to-do list thinking, "What next?" When you're overwhelmed, your brain blows a fuse. Savvy Psychologist offers eight simple tips to help you reset your mental circuit breaker.
At some point, many of my clients—particularly the high-achieving, nothing-can’t-be-mastered-with-hard-work ones—experience a tipping point at work. They freeze-up as if their brain has blown a fuse. They find themselves mindlessly clicking a retractable pen for minutes at a time, or frantically scrolling through documents without even seeing them. Sometimes they feel paralyzed by indecision, even as the urge to do a thousand tasks swirls in their mind. Their brain’s power grid is overloaded, so the result is like summer in the city when everyone’s running an air conditioner—the lights flicker, and then go out.
Sound familiar? When you’re overwhelmed, you can’t function.
Your brain doesn’t just see a to-do list, it sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours.
It may seem silly; why would you let a to-do list hijack your brain? Simple—your brain doesn’t just see a to-do list, it sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 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 threats the same way every time: fight, flight, or freeze. That's true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or a to-do list that makes us feel like we can’t breathe.
Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, which shows up as procrastination. But not all procrastination looks the same. It can take more or less productive forms, from binge-watching The Good Place to doing tasks that don’t really matter, like buying stuff online or checking email. Again.
So what should you 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, and approach-the-mess-with-gratitude, try these eight tips.
Tip #1: Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique
This is one of my favorite quick and dirty mindfulness techniques. The best part is that you don’t need any special spaces or tools.—all you need is your five senses. Here's how to walk your way through them for instant grounding:
- 5 - Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.
- 4 - Listen and name four things you can hear.
- 3 - Notice three things you can touch, like a warm mug of coffee or the feeling of your feet in your shoes.
- 2 - Next come two smells—breathe in the coffee aroma or the pages of a book.
- 1 - 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 little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.
We’re not talking anything big: restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, remove dirty dishes, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus on the task at hand, not the clutter.
Tip #3: Ruthlessly prioritize
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get 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.
Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing one thing at a time.
Unintentional multitasking counts, too. Trying to work from home and simultaneously 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 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.
Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them 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, single-task, single-task, single-task.
Tip #5: Take 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.”
Close your door, stick in your earbuds, or wear your Bluetooth headset so no one suspects, and then narrate your way through your tiny tasks. Saying the steps out loud keeps you on track, and helps motivate you. And not to worry—it's totally normal.
Tip #6: Follow your impulses (sort of)
When you’re working on something unpleasant, 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 send in recipes for kids’ school cookbook and find yourself scrolling through recipes hours before a major work deadline.
Just unloading the impulse, even if you don’t follow through, can be enough to vanquish it.
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?” “Best Hamilton parodies” “How long would it take to get to Mars?”
Just unloading the impulse, even if you 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 overwhelmed, looking at a long list of tasks can make you feel like the 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 p.m. slump.
Tip #8: Radically accept what you cannot do or control
You can strategize, improve, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept.
Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing your hands up in resignation. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggle or complaint, and keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can't.
When you get behind the wheel, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your well-being, you can radically accept that you'll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.
Ed. - This article was originally written by Dr. Ellen Hendriksen. It has been and significantly updated by Dr. Jade Wu.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.