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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.