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A common topic for my clients is how to deal with thoughts that overwhelm. A person may be paralyzed by their overwhelming commitments and that prevents them from starting the things they need to do.

You can be overwhelmed by your to-do list, your job, home life, and more. When you feel stressed, you avoid a task. But not completing it will only land you in a position that puts more on your plate than before. Defeating the feeling of being overwhelmed varies from person to person. You have to know what helps you get started. I’ve come up with six steps that will set you off in the right direction. These steps should be followed in the order they’re listed.

1. Write your goals down

The first — and most important — step to getting anything done is writing it down. I’m not talking about a six-page detailed synopsis of every task or project you have on your mind. I’m talking about a simple, bullet list of your to-dos.

Sit down and for 10-15 minutes write down every task that comes to mind. It can be as small as emptying the dishwasher to something big like planning next year’s vacation. If it’s been on your mind, write it down. Don’t worry about due dates yet. We’ll get to that.

Your focus here is to clear your mind of any task that’s been nagging at you for weeks or months. No matter how mundane the task, write it down.

 It’s worth repeating that when we write things down, our brains retain the information better. You might think, “But I’m already thinking about it so why write it down?” How many thoughts run through your head at any given time? A lot. And that one simple little task will get run over by the larger, more important thoughts. Next thing you know, you still haven’t done it.

2. Prioritize your to-do list

Once you’ve listed all the tasks you could think of, it’s time to prioritize them. On a separate piece of paper, make four columns. At the top of each one write:

  • Ugent

  • Important

  • Sooner Than Later

  • When There’s Time

Looking over your list of tasks, move them to each corresponding column. The only things that should go in the “Urgent” column are tasks with due dates. “Important” can be anything from home repairs to goals you’re working towards. “Sooner Than Later” are tasks you’ve been putting off, but should really get done. And “When There’s Time” is anything that isn’t time-sensitive but you’d like to work on when you make time.

If there are any tasks you’re not sure where to put, make a box at the bottom of the page and label it “To Be Sorted.” Don’t over think this step. You can tell pretty quickly the level of urgency per task.

Once you’re done moving all the tasks into their columns, focus on the “Urgent” column. Next to each task, write the due date of each one. This is going to be important as we move into the third step of this process.

3. Practice reverse engineering

One of the biggest reasons people get overwhelmed is that they do not know how long a certain task will take. They decide to embark on something before planning out how they’re going to get it done. Next thing they know, it's due tomorrow and they haven't even started.

This is where reverse engineering comes into play. Choose one task from your “Urgent” column. Let’s say you pick something that’s due on June 1 and it’s the first week of April. List all the things you need to do for this specific task. Now look at how many days/weeks you have before the due date. Note what you would like to finish each week.

The key to getting any large task done is breaking it down into smaller pieces. Reverse engineering allows you to see how much time you have before a project is due. Each week or each day you should complete one step that’ll bring you closer to finishing the one big task.

Reverse engineering can actually make you finish a task early. If that happens, great! If you can, turn it in early, and cross it off your to-do list.

4. Block out time in your day

Once you’ve broken larger tasks up into smaller goals, it’s time to figure out when you’re going to work on it. Time blocking - or calendar blocking - is a popular time management method. Productivity coaches and many successful people swear by this technique.

You can choose to use the calendar on your phone, Google Calendar, or download an app specifically built for time blocking. Whatever you use, the premise remains the same.

Look at your to-do list and schedule time throughout your day to work on some tasks.

You can work on a project goal from 10:00 am to 11:00 am. You can answer emails between 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm. whatever you want to do that day, time block it. See if you can do one task from each column a day.

Do your best to stick with the schedule you created. Yes, last-minute things will happen and you’ll need to reschedule, but try not to let that happen all the time. Pro tip: Don’t time block your entire week. Because you don’t know what might happen two days from now, I recommend time blocking only two days at a time.

5. Set your space up for success

We all have our ideal workspace. Some of us can’t work without music. Others need complete silence. Others need bright, natural light. Whatever your ideal workspace is, do your best to create it.

When we’re comfortable and at ease in our surroundings, we’re bound to be more focused. Of course, not everything you need will be available. If you have an office mate who can’t listen to music, use headphones. If you need to smell lavender to work well, put a drop or two on your wrist. Be mindful of other people if you work near them.

If you can’t work without coffee, have it made before you start working. If your phone is almost out of charge, make sure the plug is near. Get everything you think you’ll need within reach. This will eliminate the need to get up and take you away from the task.

6. Use the Pomodoro Technique

You've prioritized your to-do list, you scheduled time in your day, and you've set up your space. Now what? You start the task.

One of the best time management tools around is the Pomodoro Technique. CEOs, authors, and project managers use this method because it works.

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Once you start the timer, focus on one task for the full 25 minutes. Don’t let anything pull you away.

When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break. Get up, stretch and drink some water. Don’t do anything. Let your brain reset. When that break is over, start another 25-minute session. You can either work on the same task as before or move to a new one. After you complete four sessions, you get a longer rest, usually 30 minutes.

This method encourages you to focus on nothing except a particular task for 25 minutes. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but if you remain focused on it, trust me, you’re going to see amazing results.

Following these steps breaks your overwhelming long to-do list into manageable lists. My advice would be to try and check one thing off each column each week. The larger, time-sensitive tasks might have a lot of smaller steps and that’s fine. Still, try and complete one of those steps each week.

Prioritizing your to-do list and time blocking your day means you’re dedicating time to the stuff you have to do. You’re not trying to find the time. You have made the time. And any progress is better than no progress. Before you know it, you’ll be crossing items off and you’ll feel less overwhelmed.

Defeating an overwhelming to-do list isn’t something you have to conquer alone. I offer a range of services from home organizing to records management and even assisting with a move. To find out more, check out my services page and schedule a complimentary consultation call today.


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