Many of us tend to think these kinds of thoughts daily: “I’m sooo busy. Life has been really overwhelming. I feel like I’m being torn apart. I wish I could clone myself, so I could keep up. I’ll relax after I’m done with all the tasks on my list — though I have no idea when that’ll actually happen.”
We may feel like we’re in a constant state of stressed out and overwhelmed.
Brigid Schulte can relate. She’s an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post — a fast-paced and highly demanding job — and a mom to two kids — which no doubt has the same description. She’s regularly sleep-deprived and constantly running around, trying to catch up on all the tasks that were supposed to be done hours ago or yesterday.
In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, she likens her life to a dream she keeps having “about trying to run a race wearing ski boots.” In it she presents a slew of studies, interviews and anecdotes on the increasing pressures we face, the effects of overwhelm and what we can do about it.
To help with her own overwhelm, Schulte explored all kinds of tools and tips from different experts, worked with a coach and personally sampled various techniques. Below is what she found to be helpful, which you might, too:
- Writing in a worry journal. Terry Monaghan, Schulte’s coach, stressed the importance of freeing up energy that is consumed by constant worry. Schulte was instructed to set a timer for five minutes and write furiously about everything that was bothering her. This exercise is helpful because it gives our brains a much-needed break.
- Creating a brain dump. Previously Schulte carried her massive to-do list in her head “like a mark of shame.” Today, every Monday, she does a brain dump, where she lists everything that’s on her mind. As she writes, “The working memory can keep only about seven things in it at one time. And if the to-do list is much longer than that, the brain, worried it may forget something, will get stuck in an endless circular loop of mulling, much like a running toilet.”
- Learning to pulse. Schulte says that “pulsing” has been the one skill that’s transformed her experience of time. This concept comes from Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We Work Isn’t Working. Schulte explains it in this way: All of us are designed to pulse or “to alternate between spending and recovering energy. The heart beats. The lungs breathe in and out. The brain makes waves. We wake and sleep. Even digestion is rhythmic.” That is, our bodies are built to switch from full focus to full rest. And this kind of rhythm helps us pay attention much better than trying to work (or focus) for hours on end.Rather than multitasking, Schulte batches her tasks: When she’s working, she turns off email and phone. When she’s with her family, she does the same. She blocks off a specific time for home tasks. As she writes, “It was easier to stay focused on work knowing I’d given myself a grace period to get to the pressing home stuff later.” Schulte researched and wrote most of Overwhelmed in 90-minute pulses during the day.
- Focusing on what’s important. Inspired by Peter Bregman’s method, Schulte picked three important areas to focus her days on: “Write this book, Have Quality Time with Family, and Be Healthy. All the other tasks went into “The Other 5 Percent,” the tasks that shouldn’t take more than five percent of our time or energy. Today, her daily to-do list fits on a Post-it. Everything else she writes on her master to-do list. “I may never get to everything on it, but having it on paper gets the noise out of my head.”
- Jotting down concerns throughout the day. Schulte does this in a small notebook and the Notes app on her iPhone. As she writes, “Just knowing I have a place to put [the stray thoughts, ideas or anxieties that hit when you least expect them], like the master to-do list, has helped break the polluting mental tape loop of contaminated time.”
How busy we think we are also amplifies our overwhelm. That is, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can spike — or shrink — our stress level. So, in addition to tools and techniques for getting organized, reframing also can help.
I like what Heather Peske, a mom to two daughters who travels often for work, told Schulte about how she navigates her life:
I don’t describe my life as overwhelming. I see it as deeply rich and complex. I feel energized by the challenges I have to confront. I’m not being Pollyannaish and I’m definitely tired. There are compromises and tensions, but I like living that way. Balance is a simplistic formulation because my life is often not balanced. It tips in various directions at different times between my work, my kids, my partner, or myself. But I’ve found that rather than seek perfect balance, it’s better for me to ask myself: Am I trying my best? Am I doing things for the right reasons? Do I make those I love feel loved? Am I happy? And then adjust as I go.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you have a long list of responsibilities, tasks and commitments. The key is to narrow down your priorities and find strategies that work best for you. Plus, maybe your life, like Peske’s, isn’t necessarily overwhelming but instead rich and multilayered.