This morning I had a ton of work to do, and I felt the anxiety building, the moment I woke up and started thinking about all that work.
Instead of getting moving, I watched my anxiety. It’s an interesting feeling of rising panic, of adrenaline shooting from my chest outward. My mind was racing, my heart was beating fast.
This happens to me from time to time — I feel like I have so much to do, and I start to worry. I’ve learned to deal with it, so that while it still comes up, I now have trust that I’ll be fine. And that, in turn, helps it to go away sooner.
So what do you do when you’re overwhelmed and have a crapload of work to do?
Here are the practices that work for me. I offer them to you in hopes that they’ll help you.
1. Trust in the moment. Anxiety is usually a fear (or a bunch of fears) about the future, which is pretty normal. But what this really is … is a lack of trust in the future. We don’t trust that things will work out. And what I’ve found, in my experimenting, is that this is really a lack of trust in the present. If the present isn’t good enough, if we aren’t good enough here in the present, then things will fail in the future. But I’ve learned that actually, nothing really bad will happen to me in the future if I act consistent with my principles here in the present. So I trust the present moment, and trust that things will work out. Try this: look at the moment you’re in. Look around you, look inward at yourself. Basically, this moment is fine. If it weren’t, you’d probably be in an ambulance instead of reading a Zen Habits post. If this moment is fine, the next one will probably be too. And the one after. We tend to imagine horrible future moments when it doesn’t really happen.
2. Meditate for a few minutes. Ironically, when we have a lot of work to do, the best thing isn’t necessarily to rush off and start working. I’ve found that taking a few minutes to meditate really helps bring me back to the moment, which turns out to be a great moment. Instead of keeping my eyes on the future all the time, I can check in with this moment, check in with myself and my breath, and this centers me to be calm in my tasks. Just sit still for 3 minutes, and pay attention to the breath, to your body, to the sounds around you. Keep coming back to these things in the present when your mind wanders.
3. Make a short list. With a lot of work to do, it can be overwhelming. But honestly I’ve found that I can’t do everything at once. I can’t even do two things at once. I can only focus on one thing at a time (though I can ineffectively switch back and forth between 2 or more things). So I should focus on the most important. The best way to do this is to make a short list of the most important things I have to do. What will make the most difference today? Not just the semi-urgent emails, but the tasks that mean the most to my life and career. This tends to be about 3 things per day, though go ahead and write down 5 things if you can’t limit it to 3. This list is what I focus on first. I can get to the small things later.
4. Single-task. I work most effectively when I pick one important task and really focus on it. When I switch constantly between a bunch of tasks, I tend not to make a lot of progress. And the important tasks get pushed back, because they need more focus than the constant switching allows for. And the constant switching feels productive, even if it means you’re only doing little things and not the big things. So instead, I focus on one big task, and I give it my full attention. Sometimes other things will interrupt my attention, and that’s OK if it can’t be avoided. You can’t control every moment (or any moment perhaps). But to the best of my ability, I stay with the present task instead of allowing myself to constantly switch.
5. Set intentions. When I’m starting a new task, before I start single-tasking with this item, I pause. I ask myself, “Is this the most important task I can be doing right now?” Then I ask, “What is my intention with this task?” This just means, why am I doing it? What do I hope to accomplish? What’s my motivation? This helps me to understand the Why of the task, and keeps me motivated when things get hard. Often the Why is something like, “To help my readers with a problem” and this feels good when I’m doing the task. That’s a much better reason than, “Because it’s on my list” or “Because I got an email asking me to do it”. I might do the task either way, but with a solid intention, I’m more focused, more motivated.
6. Realize you’re already there. Often we’re rushing to get somewhere, trying to make progress towards a goal, moving, moving. But where are we going? Will we be happier when we get there? Is that place better than where we already are? I’ve found that no, it’s not any better. Where we already are is just as great. This moment is just as good as wherever we’re rushing off to. We’ve already arrived. So I smile, and appreciate the moment, and this makes the current task not a stepping stone to something better, but something great in and of itself.
7. Keep a stateless mindset. When we rush through a lot of tasks, they tend to accumulate in our heads as we work through our task list. These things running around in our heads cost us a lot in stress and thought administration. So by letting go of past and future tasks, and just focusing on the current task, we can be less stressed and burdened throughout the day. Read more.
8. Let go of finishing your list or inbox. This is something that stresses me out all the time. Trying to finish my to-do list. Trying to empty my inbox. These are meaningless goals. There’s an arbitrary number of emails in your inbox, an arbitrary number of tasks on your list. What does it matter if you finish the day with zero or three left? It doesn’t change your life. Letting go of these arbitrary goals, that don’t really help you, means letting go of the stress. So I practice letting go, and allow some emails to remain in my inbox, and some tasks to remain for tomorrow.
These are the things I try to practice. I don’t always get them right, and I mess up constantly. But when I remember to do these practices, my day is much better, I’m more focused, and my stress levels drop dramatically.