ByKelly Holmes, author and Certified Parent Educator
Inside: It took me years to uncover the magic formula to stop feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Next time you get that telltale eye twitch, follow these steps.
I’m getting married in just over two weeks. In my own backyard. And we’re making all the food ourselves.
The perfectionist in me would be stressing out that we haven’t decided on a menu, that the flower girl dresses we ordered on Etsy haven’t arrived yet, and that the tailor told me last weekend I should exchange my dress for a bigger size.
But I’m not feeling overwhelmed.
I’m also swamped at work with no end in sight, we’re leaving for almost a month of work and personal travel a week after the wedding and don’t have a cat sitter lined up, and we haven’t even STARTED to think about taxes due next week.
I should be communicating only in grunts and stress-eating a dozen donuts with my morning coffee.
But I’m not.
Before you jump to conclusions: No, I didn’t become a Buddhist, and no, I haven’t started chugging vodka first thing every morning.
So What’s My Secret?
I’m relying on a few simple tricks to help me hang onto my sanity during this super busy time.
It’s taken me a lifetime to ferret out these fool-proof techniques in books, magazines, and blog posts. Today, I’ve put all my best tricks in one place to save you the trouble of trial-and-error when you’re already feeling overwhelmed.
Related: How to Guarantee an Amazing Weekend: Have a Do Nothing Day
8 Ways to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed
The next time you feel that telltale eye twitch because you missed a deadline at work and the house hasn’t been vacuumed in three months and your kid won’t stop biting the pastor’s kid at Sunday School, try these tips to keep the stress at bay.
1. Get It out of Your Head
Not too long ago, to-do lists on scraps of paper infiltrated every nook and cranny of my life – in my purse, on the fridge, in every drawer of my nightstand, tucked inside books I’d started reading and forgotten about. Any piece of paper was fair game, from the backs of receipts to the instructions that come in a box of tampons.
But my kingdom of paper scraps was stressing me out. From the book Getting Things Done:
“The short-term memory part of your mind – the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized “stuff” – functions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term-memory space. And as with RAM, there’s limited capacity; there’s only so much “stuff” you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload…
This produces an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pinpointed.
Even if you’ve already decided on the next step you’ll take to resolve a problem, your mind can’t let go until and unless you write yourself a reminder in a place it knows you will, without fail, look.”
The solution? Have one place where you get all those to-dos out of your head. I’m personally smitten with Evernote.
Set a timer for 25 minutes.
Sit down with Evernote or your list-keeper of choice.
Write down everything you need to get done.
If you think of something an hour later, add it to the list. If you’re lying in bed and can’t sleep because you’re thinking about that bill that’s overdue, add it to the list so you can sleep!
(By the way, this is one of the reasons I love Evernote – I can access it from my phone or any computer, and my lists all automagically stay in sync.)
2. Say No
Photo by Patrick Heagney
Sure, you’re swamped right now. But you’ll have more time later, right? Wrong. According to a study on time perceptions, we typically “imagine that we’ll be less busy in the future.” But we are mistaken. Later is like a mirage in the desert. When you get there, you realize it was a trick of the mind, and now you’re screwed.
Stop telling yourself you’ll have more time later. It’s a lie.
For all those things you think you’ll get to “one day,” you probably won’t. And every time you push it out, you’ll be disappointed in yourself. Those undone tasks will weigh on you.
Take a hard look at your list and decide what you won’t get to. Then cross them off.
Now you can focus on what’s most important for you to get done without those other tasks hanging over your head.
If you can’t bring yourself to delete something from your list, make a new Someday/Maybe list and move it to that. If you do reach that magical “one day,” whip out your Someday/Maybe list and go nuts.
For more ideas, check out 8 Ways to Say No at Work – Without Feeling Guilty.
3. Remember Three Is a Magic Number
You made your big master to-do list (step #1). You cut it down to what you really need to get done (step #2).
But it’s still kind of long and overwhelming, isn’t it?
This is where you’ll need MITs.
MIT = Most Important Task.
Look at your list, and pick three tasks that are most important to get done today. Just three.
Pick the things that MUST happen today. If you finish these MITs, you will consider the day a success.
For example, here are my MITs from Monday:
Send invitations for work event I’m hosting in two weeks.
Pay dentist bill.
Pick up dessert. (Because no day is a success without dessert.)
Notice how I mixed work and personal items. Your 3 MITs should be for your whole day. Do not make one MIT list for work and one for home because you’ll lose focus on the most important things that must happen today.
You can always do more than your MITs, but those should happen first. Before you check email or return your mom’s phone call from last night and get roped into an hour-long conversation – do your MITs.
But even worse? Switching between tasks makes everything take LONGER. Multitasking increases the amount of time it takes to finish your primary task by an average of 25%.
Quiet the swirling to-do list in your head and focus on one thing at a time.
If you’re raking leaves but you have a gabazillion other things on your list, accept the fact that you chose to rake leaves right now. Notice the crunch of the leaves, the dappled sunlight falling through the trees, the cold grip of the rake on your hand.
Make that task your universe.
5. Take a Walk
Everyone knows exercise is good for relieving stress. But when I’m feeling overwhelmed, exercise is just another item on my list to stress me out.
The perfectionist in me pictures an hour of cardio followed by strength training. So because I can’t do the perfect workout, I do nothing.
But here are two reasons that’s wrong-headed of me:
You can get a powerful workout in 10 minutes. Or less. Here’s a 7-minute workout that’s comparable to several hours of running or biking.
Exercise isn’t just about staying healthy and pumping endorphins. When you’re stressed, you need the break.
“You have to back off and be quiet. Retreat from the task at hand, so that you can gain a new perspective on what you’re doing. If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. If your inbox and your outbox are completely full, or if people are screaming at you, then it’s difficult to back off and think about things at a different level.”
Even if you weren’t super stressed, all those tasks and decisions you make throughout the day wear on your brain. A short break gives your brain a chance to recuperate.
Every day, take at least one deliberate break. If you can afford more, even better.
A few ideas to get you off the stress train and give you a healthier perspective:
You can also try the Pomodoro Technique to make sure you get regular break times. This productivity hack solves the problem of how multitasking makes everything take longer. It forces you to focus on one thing at a time AND gives your brain consistent breaks. Here’s how it works:
Pick one task to focus on, and set a timer for 25 minutes. You can use a simple timer on your phone, or try a special Pomodoro app like Focus Booster (Windows and Mac OS) or WorkBurst (Mac OS).
Work until your time’s up. Don’t check Facebook, don’t check email – just focus on that one task. (Sensing a theme?)
Take a short break, like 5 minutes. And live it up! Play Candy Crush, call your honey, or tweet to your heart’s content.
Repeat steps 1-3, and every 4th time take a longer 10-minute break.
I use the Pomodoro Technique when I’m feeling overwhelmed at work, and I always feel so GOOD afterwards. Productive but not burnt out.
“As the Wall Street Journal reports, the researchers tracked a group of workers for 15 days, tracking their blood pressure and stress symptoms, such as fatigue and headaches. What led to lesser stress levels? Workers writing down accomplishments from the day, like nailing a presentation or scoring on a sales call.”
Why does this work so well? Having a bunch of small wins actually makes you happier than occasionally bagging an elephant.
Don’t let yourself get to the end of the day and feel like you haven’t gotten anything done.
Create a reminder on your phone at the end of the day to write down everything you accomplished, no matter how small – or keep a running list on a piece of paper in your pocket or at your desk.
And if you finish something that wasn’t originally on your list?
There is no shame in adding it to your to-do list just so you can cross it off immediately.
When you’re overwhelmed with everything on your list, it’s easy to let quality time with your partner start to dwindle. The dishes have to get done some time, right?
But letting other things get in the way of staying connected to your partner will only add to your stress.
Plus, making time to be close to your honey can actually REDUCE your stress.
In one study, couples who set aside a few minutes each day just to kiss had lower stress levels, higher satisfaction with their relationship (duh), and get this – lower cholesterol levels. In other words…
More kissing = more bacon!
Here are 7 more simple ways to connect with your partner when life is conspiring against you.
Kelly Holmes, author and Certified Parent Educator
I'm a mom of four, a Certified Parent Educator, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. I believe if you want a loving parent-child relationship that will last into the teenage years and beyond, the time for nurturing that kind of relationship is now. The good news? All you need is 10 minutes a day. Start here »