You've got so much to do that you don't know where to begin. That sickly feeling of anxiety is rising. Yet you're frozen.
Just when life demands that you be charging ahead, firing on all cylinders, actioning to-do lists and kicking goals, your old frenemy Overwhelm decides to pay you a visit. Don't feel alone. It happens to the best of us. And there is hope.
Here are 10 effective ways to cope with stress and overwhelm from having too much to do.
1. Meditate or take a moment to be still
It sounds counterintuitive -- deadlines are looming, how can you stop?
When the Dalai Lama is busy, he meditates for twice as long. This is because meditation calms the body and stills the mind. It's been proven to reduce your anxiety and stress levels, sharpen your memory, and increase your focus.
If you've never meditated before, just spend a few minutes sitting in silence. A good relaxing mantra to repeat is, "I've got nowhere to go, nothing to do. Nowhere to go, nothing to do."
2. Action a few quick and easy items first
It goes against the traditional wisdom of prioritizing the most significant things, but getting a few of the simplest tasks completed will shorten your terrifying to-do list, make you feel like you're making progress, and get you back in the flow of taking action.
3. Cull or postpone anything that doesn't really need doing
Most of us are prone to over-engineering solutions to problems. What really needs to be done? What tasks overcomplicate the matter or don't add value? What can you postpone for a few weeks? You should be able to cross out a good chunk of your to-do list by answering these questions.
4. Set realistic goals
It's great to aim high, but if you always aim too high when settling your to-do list for the day and inevitably fall short of completing it, you're repeatedly left feeling like a failure. There are on 24 hours in a day. Roughly estimate how long tasks will take and set ambitious -- but realistic -- goals.
5. Lean on people and delegate
Don't underestimate your friends, family, colleague, neighbour or even an acquaintance (a 'friend in waiting'). It feels good to give, to help people out.
If you ask in a considerate way and give them the option to turn you down if they can't take it on, there's no need to feel guilty about asking. You're contributing to building the warm, open-hearted, collaborative community that we all want to live in.
6. Be kind to yourself
Be gentle. This is not the time to beat yourself over the head. Overwhelm can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure, so it's extra important to pay attention to your mental radio and turn down the volume on your inner critic station.
7. Prioritize your competing values and interests
You can do anything, but not everything.
When you have multiple passions, it's hard to accept that you can't always juggle work, personal and creative projects, extra education, housework, friendships, errands, meeting with the accountant and electrician, "me" time, dance class, book club and write that novel all at once.
You don't have to give up the things you love. Just realize that you can't do everything at once. And you're not 'losing out' by putting dream #4 on hold to work on dreams #1, #2 and #3 - you're making yourself more likely to succeed at them all.
8. Don't multitask
Studies have shown that multitasking is a myth. You may think you're writing an email while chatting on the phone and occasionally checking on dinner all at once, but in reality your brain is constantly switching from task to task and back again. Doesn't that sound exhausting? It is, and you're depleting your precious mental energy.
Focus on one task at a time, and give it your full love and attention. You will be amazed how quickly (and well) you get things done when you work in this single-focused way.
9. Change your energy
If you can't change your mind, try changing your environment and body. If you're feeling twitchy and over-anxious, go for a quick run or do 10 minutes of yoga. If you're feeling stressed and teary, call a friend and have a laugh.
Again, it may sound like precious time wasted, but how many minutes (hours? days?) have you wasted trapped in a state of overwhelm? The time it takes is worth it -- just do it with a specific purpose and set a timer so you are not inadvertently using it to procrastinate.
10. Remember the bigger picture
It's so easy to get completely stressed out about a deadline at work, an unfinished personal project, the laundry pile, and the fact you might have to grab take-out instead of cooking.
Remember that life is long and beautiful, and this is just one busy period and it will pass.
You presumably have a place to call home, access to food to nourish your weary body and mind, a few friends to lean on, maybe someone to love if you're lucky, future dreams, the pending loveliness of the summertime each year, your morning coffee to look forward to, holiday plans, a favourite book. If you don't get through your to-do list, it's okay.
Sigh with relief and smile with gratitude. Remember what really matters.