Overwhelmed? Three Key Steps To Get Your Life Back*

Feeling overwhelmed is the flip side being in-the-zone. If you work for twelve hours and feel purposeful and as though you’ve accomplished something meaningful, you’re in the zone. If you work for twelve hours and feel like you’ve wasted your day and wonder where the time went, you’re overwhelmed.

Not sure if you’re overwhelmed or just merely too busy right now? The first step to getting your life back is to understand and accept where you are:

• Do you snap at people – coworkers, friends, spouse, children – for interrupting you?

• Do you feel guilty about the emails and calls you haven’t returned?

• Do you feel tense, anxious or annoyed when you find out you’re invited to a meeting you’re expected to attend?

• Do your family or friends complain you’re on the phone or computer too much? (yes, texting counts!)

• Do you feel like you’re doing too many things and yet not accomplishing anything?

• Do you take a vacation only to find yourself on your laptop or mobile device for extended periods?

The second step to getting your life back and feeling less overwhelmed is to spend time doing what’s important to you. In 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, Peter Bregman discusses taking control of your life by figuring out what’s important to you and then figuring out what you need to do to support those things.

Stephen Covey described a similar concept in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He divided activities into four zones, and if you’re spending most of your day, everyday, in the “urgent, not important” zone, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed.

The third step is to avoid common time traps and to take care of yourself better when you start to feel overwhelmed.

• Stop feeling like you’re going to miss out on something online. The compulsion to be current on everything out there will drive you crazy. Set a time each day to spend on social media. Set an alarm for how long you want to spend, then move along to another task when the alarm goes off.

• Do what is important to you first in the morning. If this means getting to the office before everyone, so be it. If it means ignoring emails until later in the day, then do it. If I means getting up an hour earlier, go for it.

Ignore email and social media until you’ve accomplished at least one thing that’s important to you. I finally started doing this and am astoundingly happier. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn will not implode if you’re not there.

• Get over the idea that you need to respond instantly (or get a response instantly). Unless you’re a medical professional, there’s no need to be available 24/7.

• Don’t just have a to-do list. Have a when-to list: Make a date with yourself to do important tasks. For example, Wednesday at 2pm you’re going to make ten new-client calls. Tuesday at 10:00am you’re going to draft the proposal that’s due on Friday so it’s off your desk.

• Take a break to journal or go for a walk if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Break out of whatever rut you’re in by changing your train of thought and/or your physical environment.

• Yoga, and meditation are both good ways to get a handle on the emotional aspects of feeling in over your head. More generally, take care of yourself physically and mentally. The mind and body are connected, and the connection flows both ways. Eat properly. Sleep. Exercise.

• Learn to say “no.” You’ll be surprised at how much other people respect you, especially when it saves them time from following up with you for no reason. In fact, you might find it easier to say “no” in the first place if you frame it in terms of how it benefits the other person.

• Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day. If you start everyday with a list you can’t possible accomplish, you’re going to feel overwhelmed at the end of the day. Why set yourself up for that?

• Stay in the present moment. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re thinking about all you need to get done by the end of the day, week, or month. What do you need to be doing right now? How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

What do you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed?

* This article first appeared in the September 2013 Extra Mile leadership ezine.