Sometimes we have so many things to do and we are forced to juggle them in a way that means we get little satisfaction from our accomplishments. Being able to spend time over something, enjoy it, and ensure that we are happy with it makes a task so much more fulfilling. The reality is that we take on (and are expected to take on) more than we can possibly manage. We are expected to be super-efficient at all times, pushing through task after task. Our lives become reduced to a “to do” list. There is no joy, no time to reflect on a job well done because there are always more things on the list to be done. We are rushed, tired, and never done. We become like machines and expect out minds and bodies to accept and deliver in this most un-natural state. Many people find that mind or body (or both) break down. If we can’t keep up, we are relegated and valued less than those who can tolerate self-abuse. Where is the balance and how to we stop this tsunami of stress?
The first and most important way to stop feeling overwhelmed is just to be able to recognise when you are overwhelmed. Sometimes our symptoms are very subtle but the sooner we are able to notice that we are starting to fray at the edges and do something about it, the less likely we are to descend into a full meltdown. So many people just try to carry on even though they don’t feel well physically or psychologically. Feeling unwell psychologically can be feeling testy, grumpy, sad, despondent, apathetic, etc. There are definitely times when we have to carry on if we are in a position of responsibility, however, being aware that we are not functioning at 100% is a valuable first step in coping, even if we can’t rectify the situation immediately. Begin to notice when you are struggling and take note of your symptoms. Just like having a runny nose, sneezes, and a headache might give you a clue to what’s about to happen to your body. The symptoms are there but you need to be aware of them and aware of how you are feeling.
Sometimes we don’t notice our symptoms until we hit the wall and then later we think “oh yeah, the signs were there”. If hitting the wall is imminent then you have to take emergency level action to stop yourself from spinning out of control. You have to step aside, ask for help and take a break (even a short one) to get yourself sorted out. If you are too tired, then you must cancel plans and get some sleep. It may be difficult and you don’t want to let people down, but you are worth the effort to unravel things so that you can be healthy. It may require being creative if you have children to look after and no one available to help. It is not necessarily easy to stop and take a break but if you are really struggling, you must prioritise yourself. This is not a selfish thing to do and if you do have children, showing them how to take care of themselves is a valuable life skill. Ask for help and be creative – a quiet day in watching a family movie where you can put your feet up, ordering your food shop online and getting it delivered, or even going to a shopping centre with a crèche where the kids can play while you have a bit of quiet time are all small things that can give you that little bit of space to have a break.
Ideally we want to try and catch ourselves before we get totally stressed because then the small fixes will work even better for us. Tension in the neck, a headache, feeling annoyed, snapping at people, not being able to laugh, crying for no particular reason, wanting to give up or escape – these (and many others not listed) are all symptoms that could indicate we are pushing ourselves too hard. And certainly, we should try to challenge ourselves to accomplish our goals but each person has to say what is too much for them. What might be perfectly ok for one person might create extreme stress for another. If you are one who is easily stressed, this does not make you weaker or less valuable, it just makes you different. We must respect the differences between people. Some people are better adapted for the modern world than others. For example, I figured out that I personally start to get unhappy when I don’t have a chance to walk on real ground on a regular basis. This sounds very weird but if I spend weeks walking on hard floors and concrete, I eventually get really down. I find just spending a few minutes in the garden in the morning walking on real dirt and grass helps me to feel more human and less stressed. I feel the same about fresh air – I just need it. So don’t feel silly, figure out what your stress symptoms are, find what you need, and then make sure you get it.
So how do we make any progress in our lives if we are constantly pandering to our own needs? Well, the truth is that we do all have things we need to get done. There is no magic formula for getting things done and staying healthy and happy. The key to getting things done is being realistic about what you can get done and then being organised about prioritising and scheduling your tasks to get things done. There are probably thousands of different ways to organise yourself but I will share how I try to find that magic balance between healthy and productive. It is incredibly simple and simple is probably good. The stress of keeping up with a fancy organisation scheme would be too stressful for me. So I have a simple list system – I have one list for my personal life and I have one list for my work life. I deal with my work list during working hours only and I deal with my personal life list in the hours outside of work. The list is structured into 3-4 sections – at the top is “what I need to do today” and I organise my life on this list right down to shower, exercise, take out garbage, etc. and I set this up for every day. The next section is a list of things that need to be done in the short-term like pay a bill, go buy a new pillow, get some flowers for a birthday next week, etc. The next section is slightly bigger things that I definitely want or need to do in next few months like arrange new garage door, research options for new garden shed, plan summer holiday, etc. And then the final section are the really long-term dreamy things or notes for the future that are not immediately planned but want to do like kitchen renovation, new garden design, want to visit Canada, etc. This list lives in the notepad on my phone so I always have it with me.
One of the key features of this simple list is how things move from the bottom to the top. As things move from the dreamy category into the more action oriented categories they become more detailed so eventually my kitchen renovation will go from just an idea, to “research kitchen options” and then to “order kitchen units”, “arrange kitchen contractor”, and finally right up to on my daily list of “call contractor today” or “take delivery of units today”, etc. What I like about this is that everything I mostly worry about is in a single list. I sometimes create side lists (sometimes in a paper notebook) for very complex projects but mostly I try to stick to this simple list for as much as I can. I am also ruthless about moving stuff around particularly on the daily list of what I need to do today. The order of the daily list indicates my personal running order but I put things that are most important to get done first on the list. I re-order the daily list through the day as I respond to events so that I never lose an hour just sitting trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. I am very indecisive and I like extreme flexibility to change my mind about what I am going to do and in what order but without losing sight of all the things I need/want to get done.
This rearranging of tasks is the primary fail-safe in my stress reduction strategy. If I don’t feel well, then I get whatever is extremely urgent done and then I move the daily tasks into a new section to try and deal with tomorrow. In the space created by acknowledging that 1. I don’t feel well and 2. I can deal with some things later, I either rest or do what I need to do to feel better. Feeling ok is always my number one priority. I don’t always do this perfectly and sometimes I have to progress to well on the way to stressed out before I realise what is happening. But I know that if I don’t prioritise how I am feeling (both physically and psychologically) on a regular basis, then I will get sick and I will end up having to take a really long break to get back to some kind of normal rather than just a few hours or a couple of days. I have occasionally gotten this very wrong and I have paid the price but over time I have gotten better at finding this balance between productivity and health. I know that there are people out there who can do better than me but that doesn’t actually matter. I have been put upon this earth and my existence is just as valid as everyone else’s. I have to be the best version of myself that I can be and my success stands alone – if I feel good then I can do good things for myself and those around me.
If you are in a difficult situation, take a few moments to take stock of what is happening. Choosing silence is a great way to try to stop your mind spinning and find a place of peace from which you can launch back into your day refreshed and focused. Take care of yourself in this simple way and you will be able to figure out what you need to do to feel better and enable yourself to accomplish more towards your goals and dreams.
If you want to read more about how to be organised about your tasks, I took an excellent certified course through my work on the “Getting Things Done” method by David Allen. I found this course incredibly useful in reducing my stress at work primarily by realising that actually everyone has too much to do but also that there are some great ideas and strategies that can help us to cope more effectively with this chronic overloading of our time.