By Jade Wu Ph.D.
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.