Has this ever happened to you?
You’re having a perfectly good morning. A warm cup of coffee is in your hand, and you think you’ve got your workload under control when suddenly it hits you—
You actually have a small avalanche of prioritized work to get through within the next two weeks, and it doesn’t help that your to-do list is lengthening by the minute.
Having a lot to do and having too much to do are very different things. No matter how you define them, a lot can be motivating, but too much can make you freeze in your tracks, resulting in you doing a whole lot of nothing. No matter how well prioritized your tasks and projects might be, when you have too much to choose from, you often simply don’t know where to start.
Here are eight tricks to calm your mind and help you dive into your tasks when you feel overwhelmed.
Know Your Reaction Is Normal
Stop beating yourself up and get strategic about how to chip away at your work. Try giving your mind an allocated amount of time to wander. Set a timer for ten minutes in which you can surf the Internet, stare out the window, or even freak out a bit if it will help get the anxiety out of your system.
Take a Deep Breath
Actually, take five. The military uses tactical breathing when faced with critical situations, and this technique is proven to help people handle frightening work stress. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for four, breathe out for four, and repeat.
Write down Everything You Have to Do
Some people find comfort in handwriting their to-do list and seeing their nonthreatening penmanship on a sheet of paper. The act of writing by hand also has proven stress-relieving properties and helps you feel less overwhelmed.
Prioritize and Then Creatively Prioritize
Start with prioritizing by deadlines. For tasks with shared deadlines, order them by magnitude, putting the bigger items on top. Once your priority list is final, step back and see if this gives you a sense of order and direction on where to start. If you still have a hard time getting motivated, pick the task you most want to do. It’s better to do something than nothing.
Start with the Easy Stuff
What can you knock off in the next 15 to 30 minutes? Make phone calls, answer emails, etc. By creating a smaller list of tasks on your to-do list, it will help your anxiety and decrease the feeling of being overwhelmed. Then, attempt one of your beefier tasks.
Use Your Teammates
Working in an office with colleagues has a lot of benefits—use them! People love to help others solve problems. Share your project challenges with a coworker or see what a teammate does when she has too much on her plate. See if you can do some delegating or buy someone a coffee to give yourself a break. Talking to your manager about your workload and priorities is also a great way to gain some perspective and guidance. You’re not in it alone.
Give yourself set periods of time to work. Set a timer for 30 or 40 minutes, something you can commit to. “Working within a specific and limited timeframe is important because the race against time keeps us focused,” writes Peter Bergman in his Harvard Business Review article “A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed.” Focusing your attention will increase your motivating stress and decrease your paralyzing stress. The contained time periods will also give you a framework that will help you chip away at the important work.
Take Five—or Twenty
Sometimes you just need to get away from what you’re doing. Whether it’s a walk, a coffee break, some quiet meditation, or a moment to read an unrelated article, take some time to truly disengage your brain from the work you’re doing. You’ll be surprised at the focus and brilliance you bring to your big list of tasks when you’re feeling refreshed.
The best project managers are masters of dealing with overwhelming workloads. How do they do it? Find out in our eBook, 5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager.