Two Simple Questions to Help You Tackle Feeling Overwhelmed
A process to both understand and overcome the feeling of having too much to do but not enough time
One day, a few years ago, I found myself at my desk at work. It was 5pm. I felt like I hadn’t gotten anything done, and I felt like I still had so much more to do. But I also knew that I needed to go home. I’d been at work since 6:30 am.
It was another nearly 12-hour day. And it’s not like I was working for a sexy startup as an entrepreneur. I was in an entry-level position at a 9 to 5 job — which had become a 6 to 5 job. And I’d usually end up doing work on the laptop after dinner as well.
The Myth of “Not Enough Time”
My naïve assessment of my situation was that I simply didn’t have enough time to get everything done. But that was a misunderstanding of the situation. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough time.
In fact, for anyone who says that they don’t have enough time, it’s simply not true. You have the time.
You may not be satisfied with the amount of time you have, but it’s the same amount we all have: 24 hours each day, 168 hours each week. So time isn’t the problem.
The feeling of being overwhelmed comes not from a lack of time, but rather from a lack of clarity. When you’re not clear on what you really need to do, and when it needs to be done, your mind flips into overdrive, and then overwhelm.
But you can do something to remedy this. You can get clarity, and get control.
Why We Feel Overwhelmed
When we feel overwhelmed, we feel like there’s just too much to do, and not enough time to do it all. But as I’ve said, the problem isn’t the time, because we all have the same amount of time each day. The problem, then, is the stuff to be done.
But let’s dig into why there’s too much be done.
When I stepped back and looked at the times when I’ve felt really overwhelmed, I realized something. The problem is not that there just is too much to do, but rather that there’s too much I feel like I need to do now. That’s different from there actually being too much to for me to do now. Perception is not reality, but your brain doesn’t know that until you’re able to see it firsthand.
What We Can Do About It
What I found I needed to do was show myself all the things I felt I had to do, and ask two basic questions.
- Do I really need to do this?
- Does this have to be done now?
Once I spend time answer those two simple questions, I can do three super-effective things to get rid of that feeling of being overwhelmed. I can eliminate, delegate, and schedule. When I’ve done that, I have felt a tremendous weight lift off of my shoulders.
Question 1: Do I Really need to do this?
The first question is this: Do I need to do all these things? If I look at all of my projects and tasks — all the things that are pulling at me — do I need to do all of them? Don’t underestimate the power of this question.
There’s two different ways to ask this question:
1. Does this thing need to be done at all?
2. Assuming this thing needs to be done, does it need to be done by me?
These questions alone should help you take at least one or two things off your plate — if not more. And if you ask those questions and find that nothing comes off your plate, try again.
Does This Need to Be Done At All?
Many things don’t need to be done at all. At the time you took the thing on, it seemed important or urgent. But you haven’t done it yet. So how urgent is it really?
Furthermore, of all the things on your plate, how many of them still need to be done at all? I have yet to find a time when I’m unable to take 1 or 2 things off of my plate entirely because they just don’t need to be done anymore.
Does This Need to Be Done By Me?
I’ve also found that I often overestimate what only I can do, as opposed to what others can do just as well. I’ve become more successful as I’ve asked other people to help me out by doing some things on my plate that they could do just as well, and more quickly. That is a huge boon to anyone’s productivity.
A pleasant side-effect of asking others to help you by doing things for you is that you get to build rapport with them. Nothing builds rapport faster than working on something with someone, and letting them help you with their expertise.
Obviously, don’t pick people to help you that just don’t like to help. But most people who are good at stuff will be glad to help you out.
Question 2: Does This Need to Be Done NOW?
Let’s assume that you’ve looked at the stuff on your plate, and that you now only have on it stuff that both needs to be done, and that you need to do. What now? Let’s get back to time.
Recall the problem statement: there’s too much I feel like I need to do now.
There are two parts to being overwhelmed: the volume of stuff to do and the scarcity of time. If I have a bunch of stuff on my plate, but no deadlines or urgency to most of it, I don’t feel overwhelmed — there’s just a bunch of stuff on my plate. So what? I’ll get to it eventually.
So just dealing with how much is on your plate only deals with half of the problem. You also need to deal with the time constraint involved. That’s the now part of the problem statement.
Once again, review what’s on your plate. Do all of these things have to be done now? I’ll save you time, the literal answer for nearly all of it is no.
A Sidebar On Urgency and Cortisol Spikes
If something actually must be done right now, you’re already doing it. You must dodge an axe that’s flying at you. You must pull your hand away from the hot stove when you feel the burning sensation. Everything else is up to you.
You don’t want to become a chronic procrastinator, but just consider something. Not doing something immediately is an important piece of evidence that it actually doesn’t need to be done now. It can wait, it is waiting; because you’re not doing it. So just put a future date on it, and do the same for everything else.
I’m not trying to be glib here. I’m just trying to expose the way that we convince ourselves of false urgency. Very few things are truly urgent, and we’re actually much better than we realize at identifying and acting on urgent things. In fact, it’s basically automatic.
Where we struggle is in assessing when we should do the stuff that’s not urgent — which is most of our stuff. But it’s a skill that can be developed.
So take comfort in the fact that almost nothing on your plate is urgent and needs to be done now. If you let that sink in for a few seconds, you should already feel less overwhelmed. You don’t have to do any of this right now.
As you realize that, your fight-or-flight response should diminish. Your amygdala should give over control to your frontal lobe. Your cortisol should stop spiking.
Give Everything a Rough Schedule
With a slightly calmer mind, you can now begin looking at what things need to be done when. The best way to do this is often by importance. Unless there’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the most important things should be done first. The more you ignore this, the more likely it is that feelings of being overwhelmed will creep back in.
As you write out the things that you really do need to do, figure out when you need to do them. The time frames can be a bit vague for now. This thing should get done by today. This thing can wait until tomorrow. This thing can wait until Friday. This thing can get done next week. This thing can get done by next month. And so on.
Once you’ve put a timeframe next to the items on your list of stuff to do, you should feel a sense of relief. You shouldn’t feel as overwhelmed. But the feeling of overwhelm will creep back in if you don’t keep the list up in some way. So just keep an eye on what’s on the list and that the timeframes are realistic.
We feel overwhelmed when we feel like there is too much that needs to be done now. But how we feel rarely matches up with reality. When you gain clarity as to what you really need to do and when, you will feel less overwhelmed.
You can gain that clarity by asking yourself a few simple questions:
- Do I really need to do all this stuff?
- Does it need to be done now?
Once you answer those questions for yourself, you can eliminate, delegate, and schedule things. If you do those three things, you’ll feel more relief than you have in a long time. And isn’t that worth giving it a shot?