Tackling To-Do Lists When You’re Overwhelmed

Is it just me, or was January a year long, February a week long, and now March just feels like a blur of wanting it to be spring already?

So far, 2019 has felt like a growing to-do list that never has items checked off. If I’m being really honest, though, of course things are getting done. But have you had the experience of in the morning, on the way to work, you think through the list of things you’re going to do and how it’s going to be a productive day and then—BAM!—life happens? “Fires” pop up, priorities shift, and somehow you leave work that evening feeling like you have more to do, not less? Nothing really got finished but a ton got started?

Me, too. It can leave me feeling anxious and panicky about my to-do list of things for the next day.

Now, we all know that shifting priorities comes with working; it’s an inescapable part of the job. But I have found that the anxiety and the worry I get can take up so much space in my brain that I actually become LESS productive. We all know that saying: Two things can’t take up the same space at the same time. Our brains can go back and forth between actually being productive and the worry, and that’s what inevitably takes up more time than just working on what needs to get done—and finishing it.

So, there’s the problem. What’s the solution? That’s the first thing I do. I don’t focus on the problem. Recognizing a problem or hurdle and then moving swiftly to find a solution has helped my mental state immensely. Instead of wasting time dwelling on how busy I am and how I’m going to get it all done, I focus on what I can do. That’s what we have control over: our own actions. You hear all the “just be positive,” “be in the moment,” “this will pass,” and “take a few deep breathes” when things get overwhelming. I wish I could say that those things work for me, but half the time I don’t even know what “be in the moment” or “recenter yourself” means.

Here’s my take and what I have found works for me. Most of the time, the worry and panic of how long something will take can be overwhelming when I am looking at the big picture. I have to remind myself to go task by task. It’s tangible. It’s doable. Writing out the bullet-point, need-to-do items is where I start. It’s a physical thing I can do. It’s an action. It starts to build the momentum. From there I work through the list, checking off items as I go. That gets me closer to my “fix” and helps me remember my goal—that I am accomplishing what I need to do. It also helps when a distraction pops up or a small fire must be put out and I get pulled away. I can return to the list and pick up right where I left off. It’s a clear and concise action, and mood follows action. As soon as I start checking off items, I start to feel accomplished; the problem that I was thinking about in my head doesn’t seem as overwhelming and consuming. Taking a few deep breaths will absolutely help me come back down from “living” in the problem in my head. And finding the positive can help me to mentally prepare to tackle the problem.

Distractions: That’s the other hurdle. They will always happen, whether it’s a check that needs to go, an urgent phone call, or some other priority popping up. Prioritizing and setting expectations is the best solution: Is it something that can wait until later, tomorrow, or when I’m done my action items? If it is, a reminder goes into my calendar, and I set the expectation with anyone involved that it’s something that I will get to when I finish a priority project. Communication is key for mitigating distractions. Most everyone understands when you say, “Hey, I’m swamped and I have to get [X] done today. Is there any way I can circle back with you on this tomorrow?” If it’s mission critical, they’ll tell you! And you have your action-item list you can come back to when you’re done. If it’s not mission critical, great! A reminder is in my calendar for the next day to follow up, and I am quickly back to my actions items. In this day and age—when phones are practically glued to our hands—I have to flip mine over when I’m in the grind. That way, I don’t see the random texts that end up taking me away from my project completion. If there is an emergency, they’ll call. When you’re in the rhythm of working through projects and being overwhelmed, when your mind is taken out of the moment, it can be hard to get back into your rhythm. That’s why minimizing unimportant distractions is HUGE.

Being overwhelmed is part of life. Having more work than hours in the day is more common than we like. Work–life balance is also important. Set yourself up for success, especially when you know there’s a lot going on. Take that to-do list that is looming over you and break it down into actions. Like I said before, mood follows action. If you keep moving forward, you’ll be able to look back sooner than you think and see everything you were able to accomplish.

Written by Sara Craig, Executive Assistant, at Vector Talent Resources. For more information about how Vector can help you, contact Sara at sara@vectortalent.com or 703.639.2160.