Overwhelmed? Eight steps to help you regain control of your time

It is easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious when you have too many responsibilities, too many things on your to-do list, and/or too many emotionally-draining situations going on in your life. It’s also easy to believe that if you could just be more organized, you could stop feeling so exhausted and stressed about these things.

Improved organization may be part of the solution, but rarely is it the entire answer. Similar to when organizing a physical space, you usually have to clear clutter before you can organize what remains. You’ll need to eliminate or delegate activities before you can be more organized and regain control of your time.

  1. Start saying “no.” At least for the short term, you need to say “no” to as many new responsibilities as possible. Obviously, you can’t say “no” to every request that comes your way, but try your best to keep from adding to your already massive to-do list. For advice on how to decline incoming requests for your time, check out the article “Saying ‘no’” from 2008.
  2. Get it out of your head. The next thing you need to do is get everything out of your mind and onto a sheet of paper. If you’re like me, you’re not going to remember everything you need to do in a matter of minutes. Carry the paper with you throughout the course of an entire day, and write down things as you remember them. Leave the paper next to your bed as you sleep, and you may even find you wake up with five or ten more items to add to the list the next morning.
  3. Prioritize your list. Sort your list into four groups: 1. Must get done for risk of losing job/life/significant income; 2. Would be nice to get done and I would enjoy doing the task; 3. Would be nice to get done but I don’t really want to do it; 4. Doesn’t need to get done right now/ever and I don’t really want to do it.
  4. Eliminate and delegate. Immediately cross everything in group 4 off your list and clear these tasks from your mind. After letting those items go, get to work on all the items in group 3. You’ll want to create exit strategies for all these items, and the more heavy the responsibility the more detailed your exit strategy will need to be. For the heavier items: Wrap up any parts of the project you can easily (and willingly) do, identify someone who might benefit from taking over this responsibility or is better equipped to handle it, delegate this responsibility to that person or request their help with the responsibility, and graciously resign the responsibility to that person. For the lighter items: Simply cross them off your list like you did with items in group 4.
  5. Create, schedule, and complete action items. Look at the items in group 1 and break them into specific action items. “Clean the house” is a bad action item because it is vague. You want individual items with detailed actions that can be scheduled and completed. For example, “Call Bob the exterminator at (555) 555-5555 to set up an appointment for the afternoon of Saturday, April 21″ or “Scrub the bathtub in the guest room.” Put the action items on your schedule so you know when you will complete the tasks. Be realistic with yourself about how much you can accomplish in one day. Finally, do the action items as they appear on your schedule.
  6. Sleep and spend 30 minutes in the sun. It’s scientifically proven that it’s more difficult to handle stress when you’re exhausted. For advice on getting the sleep you need, check out the article “A good night’s sleep improves productivity.” Also, get outside for 30 minutes every day to absorb a little Vitamin D and take a mental break from your responsibilities. If the weather is dismal, sit still for 30 minutes and do absolutely nothing.
  7. Review your progress. After you get some of the group 1 items crossed off your to-do list, you can review your progress and see if you’re at a place to begin adding items from group 2 to your schedule. If you feel significantly less anxious than you did two weeks ago, you may be ready to address one or two items from group 2. If your anxiety levels are still running high, continue to only work on group 1 responsibilities.
  8. Ask for help. If a month passes, you’ve fully implemented the previous steps, and you’re still overwhelmed, it might be time to call in a professional. Only you will know what type of a professional you need — you could need the help of a time management consultant, a professional organizer, a mental health professional, or something as simple as hiring a neighborhood kid to mow your lawn. Get the help you need to regain control of your time.

20 Comments for “Overwhelmed? Eight steps to help you regain control of your time”

  1. posted by jodi on

    I adore that you included the neighbor kid to mow the lawn in the list of help! Itd so true that sometimes time management, and organization skills are not the problem, and the mental health is potentially clutter if its not the issue. Certainly there is no shame in seeking any of the help you listed, but sometimes its easy to feel like i am doing something wrong when i really just need the help. Thank you for that reminder that even though i hve to get it all done, i dont have to PERSONALLY do it all!

  2. posted by customic on

    OK, I tried to prioritise my list, but I’ve got only 1’s and 2’s there. What’s wrong with me, apart from being a university student and having an exam session coming at me? I think I have troubles coping with stress and I don’t see any way out of it, it paralyses me to the point of not being able to get anything done since I cannot get everything done at the same time. Being perfectionist makes everything even worse. What should I do?

  3. posted by Lee on

    I really like this list, especially your categories for prioritizing. People too often feel they have to do it all or they are not being responsible. But in actuality they need to focus on what they can do well and accept their own limitations whether due to time or interest. My favorite way of keeping organized is to delegate and outsource. I feel on top of things because I know it is getting done, even if not by me. Often the person or resource I utilize does a better than job me anyways. To save on the cost of paying for this I often barter services.

  4. posted by cloud on

    customic: Focus on your first exam. What have you learned in this class? What do you still need to learn? Look through your books (table of contents only) and your notes, repeat what need to be repeated, and use the study techniques that works for you but try to get an overview.

    Then, do your exam and repeat procedure for next exam. If two exams are really close focus on both, but for half a day each (every day).

  5. posted by Elizabeth on

    I would just suggest adding to point 3 – add group 5 “Waiting for”. This is for things that need to be done (or would like to get done) but there is some barrier preventing you from being able to do them right now.

    This might be that you’re waiting for a phone call of confirmation from somebody before you go ahead with something.

    In my case I am currently unemployed and have no money for anything except essentials. I use the group “Waiting For” to include things I must do once I actually have some money coming in eg pay various people, buy a new computer (which is a ‘must’ for me now rather than a ‘like to’), get various repairs fixed which I can’t afford to pay for now.

    In that way I find that the things are not buzzing round in my head – once I get a job (soon I hope) I can calmly refer to the list and work through it.

  6. posted by Eric on

    I frequently see “delegate” as a way to reduce stress. In fact, I hear the advice often. There’s one thing that this advice does not consider, though: delegating creates a management task. This is “it’s easier to do it myself” syndrome.

    How do you deal with situations in which delegating requires “babysitting” or micromanagement? What about when people are just incompetent, untrustworthy, or refuse to accept a task? These situations are difficult enough in the professional world, where we are paid to delegate. But what about in social, volunteer, or family situations?

  7. posted by Karen (Scotland) on

    Elizabeth, I think your idea of a fifth category makes perfect sense and I do this often. It’s like a Pending sticky on my Desktop. Includes things like “Waiting for paperwork from Power Company to confirm account was clear when closed.” I need to remember it but I can’t actually DO anything about it until they send the paperwork.

    Another way to list things, especially a “to purchase” list is to do it geographically, especially if you live somewhere lacking in shops and facilities. I have an ongoing IKEA list on my fridge, and a “town centre” list and a “city” list, and a “retail park” list. I always wait until there are a few things on a list before I head to that place – saves petrol and time but once I’ve noted the item down, I won’t forget it. (I hate to shop – this system keeps my shopping trips to an absolute minimum.)

    Karen (Scotland)

  8. posted by eccoyle on

    customic: If you are at a university, then you probably have counseling services and/or academic services available to you. Have you checked out either? They can be immensely helpful both in helping you develop strategies to cope with stress and in working with professors to develop doable plans. Professors can really be very accommodating about coursework if you are earnest about it.

    That said – I would look closely at #5. Do you have “study for bio exam” on your list? That is not an actionable item. Instead you should have “make flash cards for terms from chapter 10″ etc. Once you have broken it down to that level it will also be easier to move some items down the priority list and to schedule the remaining items.

    I struggled A LOT during college and my Dad is a professor so I have thought about this topic quite a bit :)

  9. posted by MJ on

    This is a great post.
    I’ve had the same problems as Customic and Eric.

    To Customic, I would say try to find someone to talk to before you get ill. Don’t feel bad about this. The trouble with academia is everyone is forced into the same way of working, which isn’t ideal for everyone. So you get people who seem to find it a breeze, then you see yourself struggling along and you think you’re stupid or something. But in your career you will probably find your own way of working and be really successful, whereas those people who found it so easy at school/college/uni are the ones needing to be micromanaged as they have no initiative.
    The trick now is to not feel like you have to conform with those people who find academia easy. It’s your right to seek assistance to make the situation work better for you. It’s about you, not them.

    Eric – I know EXACTLY what you mean, and only recently (possibly too late for me) I have learned that you have to let the processes already in place take over. For example, if you delegate something and the person does a poor job, there are things in place to deal with that. Talk to their manager or go down another disciplinary route, or get them training etc.
    While it might seem easier to do it yourself at the time, it’s better to sort out the root of the problem rather than carry on taking on too much work. It might seem a waste of time having to handhold them or get them dealt with by their manager but you’re wasting more time in the long run doing it all yourself anyway.

  10. posted by WilliamB on

    Second the recommendation about sleep. A couple of years ago I got serious about getting enough sleep. It took some tweaking to get a concrete goal – what worked for me was “7 hrs sleep” rather than a specific bedtime – but now that I have, I’m in much better shape.

    Not only have I stopped getting many small illnesses during the winter, but I’m more effective at meeting my other goals. For example, it’s much easier to run before work when my ass isn’t dragging from chronic sleep deprevation.

  11. posted by WilliamB on

    I also agree about sun. One lovely thing about modern technology is that laptops and cell phones work outside! Maybe it isn’t as glorious as doing nothing in the sum for 30 min, but being outside is better than being inside.

  12. posted by Ben on

    Making this list is a solid 2 on my list. I’ll do it as soon as I finish all these #1’s

  13. posted by jantzie on

    Two things:

    1. I’ve been using a fitbit to track my sleep. I thought I wasn’t getting very good sleep, but turns out I was getting sometimes more than 8 hours, with little movement throughout the night. This is a good tool for people who are curious about the quality of their rest.

    2. I’ve also taken to a reverse to do list of sorts, logging tasks that I complete which I might not have had on lists. This might be because of a lack of prioritization or distraction or straight-up cheating, but I like to give myself credit for accomplishing all my completed tasks, regardless. I find I get a lot more done in a day than I think I do.

  14. posted by Lee on

    Eric: I have found with delegating that I have to be willing to relinquish control over the outcome, especially if it involves a family member. Clear instructions at the beginning helps, and structured feedback at the end as well to help improve the process. I agree with MJ that in a more professional setting it may be best to turn to someone higher up to direct the person to whom you delegated the task. After a while, though, in any situation if you are delegating the same type of task repeatedly then you will know who is the right person or service to turn to. If someone refuses a task that is a disciplinary or relationship issue and the root problem must be resolved anyhow.

  15. posted by katrina on

    One thing not mentioned is how does one cope when things are delegated to you, you’re the ‘bottom of the food chain’, and ‘I’ve got too much to do’ isn’t a viable answer.

    Often the answer can be partial completion. For example, someone asks you to make 150 items for a presentation. It might be possible that the 150 items (eg display binders of papers) are for multiple presentations and you can split delivery. So, always ask the question “how much of this do you actually need by the due date”, especially if its a quantity of items

  16. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @katrina — Excellent point. Asking questions and keeping lines of communication open are valuable, valuable, valuable!!

  17. posted by MJ on

    I agree, don’t just take it on and panic silently.
    My manager instigated a system of making people provide a business case for all pieces of work, so that we could prioritise them effectively.
    It also helps if the manager will help you prioritise your workload, because if they say something is not the priority, you can refer anyone complaining back to them.
    Basically, use your superiors! That’s what they get paid the big bucks for…

  18. posted by Jaxx on

    I think this has been this has been one of the most impactful articles for me on unclutterer, personally. Because I am always running on “overwhelmed” mode, I let cleaning fall by the wayside. I definantly appreciate the tips in the comment because I am also a college student. I find that too many obligations plus personal clutter are interconnected with my mental breakdown during final exams. Good luck to everyone during this stressful time!

  19. posted by Jen on

    There is something really funny about printing this out from a website about “uncluttered” and getting 12 pages for 8 steps found on page 7 and 8.

  20. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jen — If you set your printer settings to only print the text of the page, it doesn’t do that. Work with your Page Setup before you print.

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