Overwhelm can tank a day faster than just about anything else. When you have more email than you can handle, an out-of-control task list, and phone calls that just won’t stop, it’s almost impossible to operate effectively. Even if you manage to limp along, you may find that you’re distracted and that things are falling through the cracks. Over the years, I’ve honed in on a variety of methods to beat overwhelm, and these are the top 10, based on my own experience and client feedback:
- Move. Overwhelm tends to cause paralysis, and the fastest fix is a quick burst of activity. Walk around the block or your office floor, dance for 30 seconds (close the door!), or do 10 jumping jacks. Get your blood pumping.
- Lift your mood. Overwhelm brings a heavy energy. Use music, fresh flowers, aromas, or whatever works for you to get a lift. I keep a bottle of orange essential oil at my desk because I find that a drop of two perks me up almost instantly.
- Focus intently for a short time. After my computer and telephone, my most-used piece of office equipment is a digital timer. When I feel stuck, I’ll set the timer for 45 minutes and power through that time, knowing that I can take a break as soon as the timer beeps. I also compete against myself using the timer to see how quickly I can sort through papers or complete other dreaded tasks. The timer gets me going, and I usually keep going (thanks to momentum) after the alarm sounds.
- Clean it up. Clutter reduces productivity and creates overwhelm. If your desk is messy, set aside 15 minutes to clear it off, even if that means stacking papers and moving them to the floor. If your email in-box is so full that you feel anxious when you open it, set aside an hour to tame it. (Don’t know how to accomplish that in an hour? Help is coming soon.)
- Call in the reinforcements. Find the right help for the source of your overwhelm. Perhaps your assistant can help your clear your desk, or a colleague may be able to give you feedback to help cut through mental clutter. When you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to see outside the bubble of stress. Get some help.
- Dump it. One common source of overwhelm is the mental task list. When you’re juggling “must do” items in your head, fighting to remember all of them, you’re pulling energy away from productive activity to simple memory maintenance. Do a brain dump and get the tasks on paper and free up your mind for more useful work.
- Get out of the office and do something else. Admittedly, you can’t always implement this tip, but it can be very effective. Have you ever noticed how often brilliant ideas strike while you’re in the shower, running, walking the dog, or doing other activities unrelated to work? When the body is working and the mind is free to wander, creativity flourishes.
- Access a different part of your brain. One litigator I know uses art to focus himself before trial. Art allows him to pull back from the logical, analytical side of his brain and bring forward the emotional and creative parts. What can you do to bring another part of your skills to the table?
- Mind map. If you’re searching for an elusive link between facts or trying to form a creative argument, try using a mind map. Get a clean piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle of the page and label it with the problem or circumstance you’re contemplating. Think about related subjects, actions you could take, and people who might be helpful in addressing the issue, and draw lines and branches to represent the ideas that come up. If you’re really stuck, you may find a mind map more useful than an ordinary list. Click here for a video on this technique.
If you’ve tried several of these approaches unsuccessfully, you may be exhausted. Think of your energy as a pitcher of water. If you pour and pour and pour without replenishment, the pitcher will empty and nothing you try (except adding more water) will allow it to pour more. If a quick break or quick spurt of energy doesn’t refresh you, your pitcher may be dangerously close to empty. Identifying that spot and taking action is a critical professional competency.