When I’m overwhelmed, I have this pervasive feeling of stress that I can’t let go of. It is like there is this weight on me, and even if I’m relaxing or doing something I enjoy, the weight is still there.
When I search for the cause of my stress, I can’t pinpoint the source. Sure, I’ve got a few things I’m worried about, and I may have many things that are going great…but I’m still overwhelmed.
When I feel this way, the one thing that always helps me is a technique I learned a few years back. It doesn’t take much time or much effort, but there is a cost. And the cost is $1.67.
For $1.67 you can get a permanent marker and a pad of sticky notes. That’s the cost. Here’s the technique…
The goal is to gather all the things rattling around your head and causing you stress and get them out of your head. By doing this, you make what is assumed explicit and you make the invisible visible. And once you can see the things causing you stress, you can choose what to do about them.
Write It All Down
Sit down somewhere where you won’t be interrupted for half an hour. Ideally, this should be a space with a wall you can put sticky notes onto.
Take a few moments (it doesn’t usually take more than 10-15) write down everything you think you need to do, one item per sticky note.
These can be as small and mundane as replacing a light bulb and as big and significant as creating your department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Whatever the size, regardless of it is is personal or work related, write it all down…one item per sticky note.1
At this point you are 100% in capture mode. Capture mode should be treated just like brainstorming…the goal is to generate as many sticky notes as possible. This is not the time for judgment, analysis, explanation, or prioritization. Just write.
Why This Helps
When you do this, you will quickly identify and capture the near-term, tactical items that are weighing on you. For these items, it is likely that none of them are too challenging or too complex. It turns out, it isn’t the complexity of the task that creates the feeling of overwhelm, it is the volume of tasks and the different contexts in which they reside that cause the issues.
If you have 10 things to buy at one store, you have 10 tasks all within the same context. If you have 10 things you need to buy at 10 separate stores, then those 10 tasks each have a different context and higher effort (as you have to travel between stores). Tasks that require context switching will add to your stress and overwhelm faster than tasks that are all within the same context.
Go Looking For More
Once you’ve identified the obvious to-dos that may be stressing you, go looking for the items that are less obvious. These might be things you think about doing someday2, but they aren’t on your list right now.
These could be things like ‘write a book’, ‘take painting lessons’, ‘consider replacing my car’, ‘plan for retirement’, etc.
Write those things down too.
Make It All Visible
After that is done and you have your collection of sticky notes, spread them out so that you can see them all. You could spread them out on a table or stick them on the wall.
First, look for things that must be done in the next week. Group those items together. Those are your near-term to-dos.
Then, look for items that must be done in the next month. Group them together. These are your medium-term to-dos.
For the remaining items, divide them into two lists. The first list are things that are important for you to do in the next 12 months.
The second list is things that are important to you, but that you choose not to focus on in the next 12 months.
That last list is key. Many times we have have big ‘someday’ items that sit in the back of our heads and consume a little bit of mental energy. Maybe we don’t think about them much. Maybe they only come out when we’re daydreaming, but they are still there, taking up cycles.
By creating an ‘Important, but not this year’ list, you give each item the respect and consideration it deserves and then you put it somewhere where it won’t take any of your time and energy during the upcoming year.
And this point of being able to divide your to-dos into ‘important right now’ and ‘important, but not right now’ is the key benefit of this technique.
Here is what I’ve learned by doing this exercise.
My level of stress goes down the moment I can see everything written out.
100% of the time, the items feel smaller when they’re on sticky notes than when they’re in my head.
There may be a very large number of items. It will probably be more than you expected. And yet, you will likely feel a bit lighter when you see them.
Once they are written down, you brain can let go of tracking all of them (at least for a little while). And once you can see all the items, you can begin to organize them.
And once you can organize the items, it allows you to focus. What truly reduces the overwhelm is the ability to say to yourself, “I’ve got a lot of things going on, but these few things are the only ones I need to worry about right now. Let me focus on my urgent and top priorities and trust that when I’m ready to work on the rest of my list, all my to-dos will be there waiting for me.”
When you’re done with this exercise you will feel less overwhelmed. You will know what you need to do right now, and you will free your mind to focus on those things without having to worry about everything else…at least for a little while.
- Some readers might note the similarity to the ‘Mind Sweep’ from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, also known as ‘GTD’. I likely adopted this process after attempting to implement GTD. Over the years I’ve tried to implement GTD with varying degrees of success and diligent maintenance. But this is the one process I keep returning to because it is so simple, fast and effective. I’m sure it would be excellent if you took this first step then implemented GTD, but this technique is beneficial on its own. ↩︎
- This would be called “Someday/Maybe” items in GTD ↩︎