Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Overcoming Overwhelm

Tip of the Week, November 7, 2010

In recent weeks, a phrase I learned in high school French has been popping into my head over and over: "Jamais deux sans trois," or "Never two without three." In other words, when it rains, it pours--and wow, has it been pouring at The Organized Life HQ lately, with multiple large projects, day-to-day busy-ness, planning for the upcoming holidays, and working on a new business venture all clamoring for attention at the same time. It's all been a bit overwhelming, to say the least!

It's tempting to deal with overwhelm by retiring to the sofa with a glass of wine to watch back-to-back episodes of The Office on Hulu (which is exactly what I do on occasion), but ultimately, it's much more effective to work through the storm of whatever's demanding your attention to get back into the clear. Here are 5 ways to do that.

#1: Take Care of the Task-Related "Noise"
One of the big contributors to overwhelm I see in my clients and myself is a whole lot of "noise," in the form of small tasks that likely aren't the main thing you're facing but that are annoyingly hard to ignore--and, of course, the more you try to ignore them, the louder the noise they generate becomes. Sometimes taking care of these small tasks first (paying bills, making appointments, running errands) can help clear your head and make it easier to focus on bigger stuff.

#2: Lower Your Standards
Another common cause of overwhelm is trying to do a task or project not just well, but almost perfectly. Striving for greatness when you can barely keep up with all that's happening in your life is a recipe for stress and burnout, which will make it even harder to much done at all. When you find yourself overwhelmed (and this is doubly true during the holiday season), give yourself permission to cut a few corners and focus on getting things finished, not necessarily doing them better than--or even as well as--they've ever been done before

#3: Change Your Surroundings
It's easy to wallow in overwhelm when you're stuck in one place. Trying to force yourself to remain at your desk until you finish a huge client report that's driving you crazy, for example, is about as effective as requiring a kid to remain at the dinner table until he finishes his squash--which is to say, not very. Instead of spinning your wheels in one location, give yourself a temporary break and go somewhere else: to a cafe, for a quick walk, or even to another room in your home or office. The change in surroundings can help give you perspective, and can also help re-energize you to tackle the tasks at hand.

#4: Clear Away the Clutter
When I'm overwhelmed, few things make that feeling worse than being surrounded by disorganization. I don't need everything to be in picture-perfect organizing systems to feel back in control, but I do need to be able to see more than a third of my desktop, and not encounter a sink full of dishes each time I go into the kitchen. My solution: I set a timer for 10 minutes or so and do a bit of triage, getting the dishes done, bringing at least a hint of order to my desk piles, and doing a few other super-quick tasks to feel more in control of my space and my stuff again.

#5: Chip Away
Those of you reading this Tip by e-mail will realize that I sent it on a Tuesday night, when normally it reaches you on Sunday. Why? Because in the midst of an utterly overwhelming week, I couldn't find a solid chunk of time to put fingers to keyboard and write this entire article at once. Instead, I've been chipping away at it for the past few days: a paragraph or two between phone calls, client meetings, errands, and sleep. In my experience, overwhelm only gets worse when you attempt to finish a task or project--one that's contributing to the sense of overwhelm in the first place!--in one go. Instead, work on it in small chunks. Yup, your progress will be slower, but you will eventually get it done, and you'll preserve a bit more of your sanity in the meantime. You'll also be much less likely to feel so bowled over that you throw up your hands and abandon the project entirely.

The next time you feel overwhelm creeping up on you (or running straight at you like a wild animal on fire), put these five techniques to work to keep your stress level in check and get yourself back in control ASAP.

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