How to Recover When Things Get Overwhelming
There comes a time when your tasks and responsibilities will get out of hand. Despite your best efforts and disciplined approach, you suddenly find yourself with overflowing inboxes, tasks and notes scribbled out on paper, and a sense that you're not in control. Something will be missed or forgotten. This happens to all of us.
And this is when people feel their “system” is broken and they jump ship. This can come in the form of reverting to old habits and ways of doing things. Or you start looking for a new tool, system, or framework for managing your life.
But before you take either of those steps, there are a few things I’ve done that help me regain a sense of clarity on the current state of things … and where I want to go. And with clarity comes calm.
When I find myself falling behind, it’s not because I’m lazy or undisciplined. It’s because I’ve suddenly taken on something new or a specific project or area of my life has taken priority and other things have had to be ignored for a while. Which is fine —that’s how life works. But it can start to be stressful when my inbox is in the double digits for a week at a time.
When that happens, the following are ways I recover.
Let Yourself Off the Hook
First, I recognize that the guilt or stress I’m feeling is usually artificial and self-imposed. Yes, those recurring or scheduled tasks that are piling up are important to me. But very few of them have true hard deadlines and most scheduled tasks are there because of intention, not an expectation of someone else.
So when things get crazy, the first thing I do is recognize that whatever I’m spending my time is important enough to take priority over the other tasks I had thought I might get to.
There’s a tricky balance to be found here. Systems, habits, and routines are wonderful tools, but terrible masters. I’m in control — and every so often the system needs a reboot, not me.
And so I remove the expectation. In Things, I use the Today view the most. And when that count gets too high for too many days in a row, I select all the tasks there and clear the When field.
Make a Date With Yourself
Next, I review my calendar and find a time when I can take the time to sit down and take stock of things fully. This would often happen in my weekly review on Sunday evening. But there are times when I will do this mid-week if required.
I add a spot to my calendar, usually in the early morning or after the family is all in bed. I prefer this type of planning to be done when there’s minimal activity in Slack, email, and Basecamp.
Clear the Decks
Once I’m enjoying a moment of peace and quiet and have nothing else scheduled, I like to clear the decks. Just get everything out of my head, out of my inboxes, and any notecards or scribbles in my notebook. It’s a little like the process David Allen describes in the early stages of setting up GTD.
There’s been a building sense of stress and pending disaster and we want to shake out our pockets, so to speak.
For me, this process works best with paper. I start by listing out my areas of responsibility (this also works well with the different roles in your life), then listing out all the things that come to mind that I need to address. Not necessarily do, but be aware of, planned, or scheduled. Give yourself time for this process because it takes a bit for the mind to warm up and recall all the things that have been adding to that sense of stress.
Sometimes it’s good to walk around your home as a part of this process. Likely, many of the things that cause stress are little things that you notice as you go about your busy days. That bathroom faucet that is starting to leak. The recycling that is piling up in the carport. Filling out that form for your kid’s school trip. Little things — but it’s the little things that are always pre-pended with “I should get to that” in our inner dialogue that cause the stress. And when you’re barely getting enough time to stay on top of the highest priority items, it’s the little things that pile up and drive you crazy.
So clear the decks and get it all out. When finished, you can then process the results. Cancel projects or plans where you can. Document where necessary (not everything needs to be scheduled and some things just need to be documented so you can get it out of your head). And plan or schedule the rest.
Focus Again on the Routines
Once that is all complete, the last thing to do is once again focus on routines. Your regular activities (aka habits) are what make your system work. So if you frequently find yourself feeling that your system is failing you, maybe it is. This is also a good time to review the rhythms of your days and weeks.
I think about this stuff enough (too much?) that going through the above exercises gets me to a place where I feel calm and in control once more. I don’t usually need to make large changes. It’s enough to remind myself of the importance of developing habits and make any small tweaks that may be needed.
Sometimes the right answer is to look for new tools and techniques. But most of the time, the answer is to get out of the trenches and see things from the big view. If you bring old habits to new tools, you’ll just end up in the same place.&