At some point, many of my clients—especially the high-achieving, hard-work-can-make-it-happen ones—experience a tipping point at work. As if their brain has blown a fuse, they find themselves mindlessly clicking a retractable pen for minutes at a time, or frantically scrolling through documents without even really reading them. Even if their minds tell them they need to check off everything on their to-do list, they’re paralyzed by indecision. Their brain’s power grid is overloaded, so the result is like summer in the city when everyone’s running an air conditioner—the lights flicker, and then go out.
Sound familiar? Functioning isn’t so simple when you’re overwhelmed.
It may seem silly: Why would you let a to-do list hijack your brain? But it’s actually pretty simple—your brain doesn’t just see a to-do list, it sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it sees the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough.
And we react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats: fight, flight, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or a to-do list that makes us feel like we can’t catch our breath.
Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, which shows up as procrastination. But not all procrastination looks the same. It can take more or less productive forms, from binge-watching Friends to doing tasks that don’t really matter, like buying yet another novelty mug online or scrolling through Twitter. Again.
So what should you do if you’re overwhelmed, paralyzed, or procrastinating? After you’ve worked your way through the classic trifecta of go-for-a-walk, take-deep-breaths, and approach-the-mess-with-gratitude, try these eight tips.
1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
This is one of my favorite mindfulness techniques. It doesn’t require any special spaces or tools—all you need is your five senses. Here’s how to walk your way through them for instant grounding:
5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.
4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.
3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.
2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.
1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.
This does not one, but two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts. It’s a mini moment of mindfulness to pull you out of the fray.
2. Clean up your immediate surroundings.
The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.
I’m not telling you to go all Marie Kondo on your office. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus on the task at hand, not the clutter.
3. Ruthlessly prioritize.
Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now.
4. Stop accidentally multitasking
We know multitasking isn’t really a thing and that it doesn’t work: Our brains aren’t designed to do two or three tasks at once. Instead, we end up moving back and forth among our various tasks, leaving us with the mental equivalent of whiplash, and getting little done in reality.
Unintentional multitasking counts, too. Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.
Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling the results of The Bachelor while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task.
5. Take the next tiny step.
When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of your task, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be ridiculously small—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.”
6. Follow your impulses (sort of).
When you’re working on something less-than-fun, it’s easy to get distracted by every little thing. You have a song stuck in your head and have the urge to pull it up on Spotify. You remember you promised you’d make pizza tonight and find yourself scrolling through recipes hours before a major work deadline.
But instead of following every little impulse, which can pull you into a vortex of procrastination, keep a sticky note next to you and jot down your impulses as you have them: “How tall is Jimmy Fallon?” “Best Wicked parodies” “How long would it take to get to Mars?”
Just unloading the thought, even if you don’t follow through on the impulse to find the answer, can be enough to vanquish it. Feeling extra confident? Rather than writing it down, just think it. Sometimes just acknowledging the impulse is enough to make it go away.
7. Rethink your to-do list.
Keeping a to-do list (and a I don’t mean a drawer full of crumpled sticky notes and haphazardly dashed off notes on cocktail napkins) is the most important lesson from Organization 101. But if you’re overwhelmed, looking at a long list of tasks can be daunting. Time for a to-do list makeover!
There are a thousand ways to bring more order to your long string of tasks. For one, chunk like with like: put all your phone calls together, or all your writing tasks together. Chunking makes a long list more cohesive, more efficient, and by extension, less overwhelming.
Another method: Write out your list in accordance with your schedule. Plan big projects for the morning when you have the most energy and focus. Schedule brainless tasks for the 3 p.m. slump.
8. Radically accept what you cannot do or control.
You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept.
Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggle or complaint, and keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t.
When you get behind the wheel, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept that you’ll have to be late and that you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.
A pandemic is a traumatic experience on a global scale. The trauma that billions are experiencing from COVID-19 may come from many sources, including their health situation or that of their loved ones, present or anticipated economic struggles, uncertainty and anxiety, or sustained loneliness and depression. In recent weeks that crisis, unprecedented in our era, has been compounded by a national uproar in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
The question that many of us are asking, whether as mental health professionals or concerned individuals, is what will happen after the health crisis is over and the protests subside? How will all this trauma affect us in the long term?
The short answer is that even in the best scenario—one in which a vaccine is discovered and systemic discrimination is abolished—the collective trauma can put us down or raise us up, leave us weaker or make us stronger.
When I ask students in my class on Happiness whether they’ve heard of PTSD, most if not all hands go right up. When I then ask them whether they’ve heard of PTG, rarely is a hand raised. PTSD is, of course, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a detrimental and enduring response to a harsh experience. PTG stands for Post-Traumatic Growth, a beneficial and enduring response to a harsh experience. A myriad of situations can generate the trauma—from exposure to war and terrorism to being a victim of a crime or a natural disaster—and every traumatic experience can lead towards a disorder or towards growth.
The fact that so few people know about PTG, about the science of emerging stronger from trauma, is troubling. Knowing that PTG is a real option, and understanding some of the science behind it, can produce a ray of hope in an otherwise dark reality. And hope matters, for the difference between sadness and depression is that depression is sadness without hope.
Furthermore, rather than being passive victims at the mercy of trauma, we can play an active role in how the experience plays out. Research by UNC psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Lawrence Calhoun, and others provides insight into the conditions that enhance the likelihood of PTG over PTSD. And while nothing that we know of can guarantee that people fall on the “upside” of trauma, we can do a lot better, as individuals and as a society, in our response to distressing situations like the coronavirus crisis.
Here are a few brief insights from the research on PTG:
First, we ought to embrace the pain rather than reject it, giving ourselves the permission to be human rather than demanding machine-like indifference.
Second, it is important to reach out to and engage with those who can support us; a mental health professional is great, but turning to friends, family, and colleagues whom we trust and who care about us can be equally helpful.
Third, creating a narrative that makes some sense of the situation and gives meaning to it can go a long way in helping us emerge stronger.
My one-time student Paula Doroff, who lives in the Minneapolis area but grew up in extreme poverty in Brazil, embodies the promise of Post-Traumatic Growth.
She was abandoned as an infant by her birth mother, never knew her father, and was raised by an illiterate grandmother who never expressed affection towards her. Suffering physical and sexual abuse throughout her childhood, Paula ran away at 14, ending up in Sao Paulo where she married as a teenager, one of four marriages.
Following a series of trials and tribulations, her life then took a wonderful turn for the better: She lived in Rome for a few years and then moved to the United States, where she found herself in a healthy relationship with her husband and two children, holding high-paying positions as a vice president in several world-class financial institutions.
Yet despite achieving what she thought was her dream, happiness eluded her. She signed up as a student in the Happiness Studies Academy, and with the same determination that got her to where she was in life, she has since applied much of what she learned. Among the evidence-based interventions that she implemented in her life were those essential for PTG. She opened up, and rather than bury her emotions she gave herself the permission to be human; as strong as she was, she bravely drew on the support offered to her from her loved ones; and by creating a new narrative of her past and present she created a better future for herself. She shared her understanding and experience with her colleagues, and today continues to do so as an Empowerment Speaker at conferences and a certified life coach. Working with some fortunate clients, she helps them accentuate the positive as well as grow from hardship.
Paula uses the very narrative that helped her grow to help others do the same: “I leverage my story to help people achieve their highest potential,” she says. “If they achieve happiness along the way I have done my part.”
One common way to infuse difficult experiences with meaning is to suggest that things happen for the best. While this may work for some people in some situations, it does not work for all people in all situations. Those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or experienced major economic setbacks are unlikely to subscribe to the “it’s for the best” narrative. However, while things don’t always happen for the best, we can still choose to make the best of things that happen. Paula chose to make the best of things that happened to her, and so can we, as individuals and as a society.
In response to a previous JOT — Find Stillness — a wise therapist, Betsy Sansby, reminded me that sometimes a person just can’t find any stillness anywhere. Maybe you have epilepsy or chronic pain, are wildly worried about a child or other loved one, or have been rejected in love or had the bottom fall out financially. In other words, as Betsy put it, it’s like there’s a nest of bees in your chest.
Sometimes the inner practices fail you — or at least aren’t matched to the pickle you’re in. You’ve let be, let go, and let in. You sat to meditate and it was like sitting on the stove. You tried to be here now and find the lessons — and wanted to whack the person who told you to do this. You still feel awful, overwhelmed, angry, afraid, inadequate, or depressed. Now what?
Sometimes it helps to change the channel, to take some kind of action. Watch TV, eat an apple, ask for a hug, get out of the house, something (not harmful) to shake things up, distract yourself, tune out, burn off steam, etc.
At some point, you still have to engage the mind directly and do what you can with your situation. But there is certainly a place for respite or pleasure in its own right; plus this helps refuel you for challenges.
Plus, changing channels has the built-in benefit of taking initiative on your own behalf. This helps counter the natural but harmful sense of helplessness that comes from tough times, and it supports the feeling that you and your needs truly matter.
For starters, give yourself permission to change the channel. Sometimes people get stuck in a situation, relationship, or feeling and think it’s more noble, awake, open, mindful, accepting, or therapeutic to stay with it, even if it hurts like crazy and isn’t getting any better. Sure, let’s not err on the side of suppressing feelings or running from the first hint of discomfort. But let’s also not err on the side of running laps around a track in hell.
Then do something. It doesn’t need to be ambitious. Usually the simpler, the better.
Try physical pleasure — which helps calm down the stress machinery of your brain. Run water over your hands. Roll your head around your neck. Smell an orange. Look at a flower.
Treat your body well. Eat some protein. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Do vigorous exercise if you can. Remember your vitamins.
Broaden your perspective. Look out the window. Consider your situation from a bird’s-eye view, a more impersonal angle. Consider how someone (real or imagined) who deeply loves you would look at it. Think about it amidst 7 billion other humans, or in the sweep of history. (Of course, not to diminish, dismiss, or shame your own pain.)
Entertain yourself. See a movie, listen to music, go watch a show. Look at Red Bull stunts, concert videos, amazing pong shots, or rock climbing on YouTube (alright, some of my faves) or whatever you like.
Set something in order; exercise control somewhere. When I feel depressed, I make my bed. Keep it simple: Fold one pair of dish towels, separate the big forks from the little ones, straighten one shelf of books.
Connect with others (as long as you don’t feel overwhelmed by it). Call a friend. Pet your pet. Sit in a coffee shop full of strangers and enjoy the bustle.
Go somewhere that feeds your heart. Maybe sit under a tree, or by a stream, lake, or sea. Perhaps a church or temple. Or a park with children playing, a museum, or a garden.
Every life is hard sometimes, and some lives are terribly hard all of the time. Do what you need to do. It’s OK to change what you are doing.
Richard Layard is a British labor economist, currently working as program director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. His early career focused on how to reduce unemployment and inequality. Richard was Senior Research Officer for the famous Robbins Committee on Higher Education. This committee’s report led to the massive expansion of UK university education in the 1960s and 1970s.
Following research on happiness begun in the 1970s by economists such as Richard Easterlin at the University of Southern California, he has written about the economics of happiness, with one theme being the importance of non-income variables on aggregate happiness, including mental health. Richard is co-editor of the World Happiness Report and Global Policy Report, and co-founder of Action for Happiness.
Monday, Sep 14 - 12:00 PM ET Richard Layard is a British labor economist, currently working as program director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. His early career focused on how to reduce unemployment and inequality. Richard was Senior Research Officer for the
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In her Master Class, Elina Teboul, former Big-Law attorney, executive coach and adjunct professor at Fordham Law School, will focus on the application of positive psychology tools and strategies in industries that do not traditionally focus on employee happiness as an important part of their business strategy, such as law, finance, and medicine. Elina will be discussing some of the specific issues plaguing these professions, such as negativity bias, flexible optimism, finding meaning & purpose in work, and unpacking limiting beliefs.
Elina Teboul is an executive coach, speaker, and the founder of The LightUp Lab, through which Elina seeks to inspire and empower people and organizations through positive psychology, mindfulness and coaching training. Elina firmly believes that finding meaning and purpose in work is integral to happiness and works with individuals, teams, and organizations to ensure that purpose is at the center of the conversation.
Elina holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from New York University, an M.A. in Psychology from Columbia University, Teacher’s College, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School.
In her Master Class, Elina Teboul, former Big-Law attorney, executive coach and adjunct professor at Fordham Law School, will focus on the application of positive psychology tools and strategies in industries that do not traditionally focus on employee happiness as an important part of their busines