‘Busy’ is a word many of us employ to describe our state of affairs. Some people complain about being busy, for others it is a source of pride. Between our obligations as either a worker or a student, which in themselves demand copious amounts of attention, we have to balance some form of social life, exercise, errands, the occasional bit of ‘me-time’ to prevent burnout. Life in the modern world is increasingly characterised by never-ending to do lists and a search for how to master productivity while leaving room to unwind and actually enjoy the human experience.
Granted, I am someone who likes being busy. I like a clear goal, a multidimensional schedule that raises the significance of quieter moments. I think many of us can relate to the restlessness which goes hand in hand with unforeseen boredom. However, ‘overwhelm’ is also a phenomenon most of us are familiar with. It signifies the fine line between a healthy level of bustle, and our life coming apart into infinitesimal pieces, making us wish for the power to be in two places at once. You find yourself working 24/7, fuelled by four hours of sleep and oceans of coffee. You question: ‘why does nothing get done despite all of this effort?‘ Perhaps, you have a few projects scattered about, each half way to completion, and you spiral into the trap of trying to do them all at once. In the meantime, empty boxes desperate for a tick loom next to each item on your to-do list and your workload keeps piling up and up and up. Nothing you do delivers a sense of accomplishment or enjoyment. You lie awake at night, cursing the constraints of a 24-hour day and weeks that seem to conclude before they’ve even started.
At such moments, the risk of you burning out or voluntarily giving up is at its highest. Overwhelm is a common trigger of anxiety, insomnia, scenarios of failure and unmet deadlines rushing through your mind. Thus, I would recommend laying down a clear strategy of not only recognising spikes in your daily activity, but also preventing a normal level of stress transforming into something malicious and damaging. As I discuss later in the post, we must also acknowledge that we are susceptible to unnecessary pressure both from ourselves and society at large, learning to distinguish what genuinely requires a sense of urgency within a puddle of things the futility of which you may only recognise with the power of hindsight.
So, yours truly is here to share some of her wisdom, and a few honest tips that may help you plough through a period of overwhelm. Stress, while impossible to eliminate in its entirety (and, trying to do so is counterproductive), does not have to reach unprecedented proportions.
1. Avoid multitasking
Many see multitasking as the answer to all of life’s problems, the key to tackling several items on your schedule all at once. Think thirty tabs open on your computer as you try to complete a school assignment while responding to emails, writing a blog post and checking your social media. This way of work is blatantly glamourised despite the fact that it’s been shown to stifle productivity. Those five incomplete projects you have floating around? It is much better to tackle them one by one, with full intensity, giving them your undiluted attention.
Some forms of multitasking are harmless: for example, listening to podcasts at the same time as making breakfast or editing photos on your computer. However, when your tasks require different mindsets but a similar level of mental capacity, you will be much better off in terms of both efficiency and stress levels by focusing on them one at a time.
2. Learn how to prioritise
I think the reason as to why I survived my IB exams and uni application process is because while the goal of completing these to the best of my ability loomed overhead, I consciously made them my number one priority. Sure, I worked hard, but I postponed thinking about anything else and learnt that worrying about just one thing is far less taxing. We have finite capabilities and without prioritisation, both our performance and mental health will suffer. If you have exams or deadlines coming up, do not feel guilty for saying ‘no’ to social occasions or spending less time in the gym.
To make a broader point I may discuss further in a future blog post, sometimes we must not fear letting go of certain things in their entirety. Sure, a multitude of passions can coalesce into a fulfilling existence, but societal pressures to be an entrepreneur, a mathematician, a writer, a pilot, a social media influencer all at once can also be the underlying cause of one’s grievances. Minimise activities irrelevant to your vision of an ideal future, your wellbeing and your ‘central’ passion which sidelines all the others.
3. Talk to someone
And no, this does not have to be a therapist. Speak to a trustworthy friend or relative, pouring our your innermost emotions. If you don’t understand where you’ve gone wrong and why you struggle to get things done despite sitting down at your desk for countless hours, a fresh perspective may come in handy. Some people have an aptitude in offering practical advise, highlighting which useless activities are soaking up valuable time, and where your priorities have become skewed. Others will simply listen. Or, if talking to a physical human being isn’t an option, start a journal! Invest 10-15 in writing to clear you head, which could be enough to give you a fresh start and a healthier attitude.
4. Declutter and organise your workspace
Physical decluttering creates a focused and tranquil mental space. Something as ‘trivial’ as clearing your desk of unwanted obstructions before each study session can have an enormous impact on the emotions with which you approach your work. Know where everything is, throwing away objects, notebooks and stationary that no longer carry a purpose. This will go hand in hand with the internal decluttering outlined in point 2.
Extra tip: given the preeminence of technology in our work, treat your digital desktop as you would you ordinary table. Delete any useless files and reshuffle everything into folders. Little changes like this can go a long way.
5. Reduce procrastination / ‘just go for it’
I have written a much more extensive post about procrastination (linked above), but to summarise: feeling dismayed by the length of your to-do list and postponing its most monumental tasks will not make them disappear. The more you postpone something, the more urgent and hence overwhelming it is destined to become. If procrastination is something you struggle with, give my post a read (totally shameless self promo, I know) and just do your best to tackle your tasks one at a time, pushing past the fear of getting started. Trial and error is far superior to avoidance.
6. Do not neglect sleep
I know how tempting it may be to mess with your sleeping pattern and accept the magical 8 hours as a foregone luxury. However, stressful times should see sleep go up your list of priorities. A few restless nights here and there may be inevitable (in other words, don’t make sleep another thing to worry about), but avoid turning all-nighters into a habit because exhaustion will make you sluggish and damage your ability to perform under pressure. Go to bed at a reasonable time – ideally before 10:30 – and awaken feeling refreshed, more resilient to stress.
7. Do not neglect exercise and the power of good nutrition
This may seem contradictory to a point I made earlier in this post, but hear me out. If you’re an avid gym goer, the hours you spend on the treadmill or in the weight room may need to be scaled back, or replaced with a less time consuming form of exercise such as HIIT. However, eliminating exercise from your routine is counterproductive: there is never a good time in life for an ‘all or nothing attitude’. A short walk every few hours is a great way to not only get more oxygen into your system, but also keep yourself grounded and in tune with your emotions.
Similarly, do not fall back on copious amount of junk food (although, we can all agree that chocolate is the ideal vehicle to carry us through difficult times) or even worse, skipping meals. Unless you want to deal with mental fogginess and crashes on a daily basis. I am always in awe when people say they ‘don’t have time to eat’ because well, food is a biological requirement we need to survive, let alone function on an everyday basis. Try prepping your meals in bulk on a Sunday evening. Keep a Pinterest board of quick and nutritious recipes. You, dear reader, deserve much better than a growling stomach when you’re trying to finish an essay worth 25% of your grade.
8. Change your mindset
While thoughts alone cannot influence our levels of success, they have a tangible impact on our actions and the energy with which we approach our daily pursuits. Moreover, people who are prone to overthinking are much more prone to feeling overwhelmed because the latter is a product of how we view our daily commitments. Replace ‘I will never get this done on time’ with ‘as long as I prioritise and manage my time wisely, this task rests within the real of possibility’. ‘I am stressed and miserable’ sounds much better as ‘this is temporary and I am fully in control of my life’. Instead of ‘I am a good-for-nothing failure’, think ‘are my goals and expectations realistic? Am I giving them my best efforts, eliminating distractions, retaining a good work-life balance?’
9. Tighten up your time management
Do excuse the accidental alliteration. But anyway, feeling overwhelmed may be, as the heading suggests, a signal to up the rigour of your time management. Micromanagement is a technique I exercise whenever demanded by my schedule. While revising for the aforementioned IB exams, I broke my day into thirty minute chunks and decided exactly when each task on my to-do list was going to be accomplished. On a regular basis, I would encourage much more flexibility, and understand that some people prefer to take lenient approach to organisation. But, overwhelming times call for that extra morsel of discipline. Write out your day in time blocks of your choice, think realistically about how long each task will take to complete and assign said task to the blocks in order of priority. This will reduce your propensity to multitask while the time limits will push you to work with greater urgency. To put it shortly, instead of wishing for a sixty hour day, realise the true abundance of 24 hours by putting each minute to good use.
10. Take a break, and a step back
This is far less threatening than it sounds, I promise. After a certain point of slaving away, we begin to lose focus and any further efforts become counterproductive. Give yourself permission to let go, even for a brief period. Do something enjoyable, unrelated to your obligations, and you’ll see why the power of a sensibly-implemented break should never be underestimated.
(From now on, each blog post shall feature at least one photo of my cat – I hope you don’t mind;))
Tailor your break strategy to your character and preferred work style. Some people like short bursts of productivity combined with frequent, 5-10 minute periods of rest. I prefer longer intervals. Through trial and error, find a rhythm that works for you and stick to it religiously under a demanding timetable.
I think overwhelm can feel disastrous because finding ourselves in the middle of self-perpetuating cycle of stress interferes with our vision and purpose, kinda like television static. However, all of us are capable of evening out such a problem. Take a deep breath, and as I said a second ago, find your grand strategy. And of course, if you’ve found it already, be sure to let me know in the comments – how do you deal with feeling overwhelmed? Are you someone who enjoys, or dislikes being busy?
Lots of love, Maria ♡