As I noted in the recent article The Joy of Solving Problems, I like to view life's problems as growth challenges rather than as obstacles. Problems don't pop up in your life to beat you down. Their purpose is to help you grow stronger.
Despite the beneficial nature of problem-solving, there may come a point where you feel so overwhelmed with problems that you begin developing learned helplessness. You feel like you're drowning in difficulties, and you can't see a way out.
This means that the weights in your life are too heavy for you to lift. It's like going to the gym and trying to lift a 300-lb barbell. It just won't budge, so you feel powerless and stuck. The solution is that you must reduce the weight.
Even when most of the individual problems in your life are small, the sheer volume of them can become overwhelming. Hence the expression, death by a thousand cuts.
When you feel overwhelmed, you must find ways to lighten your load. You need to dump some of your burdens until you're facing a situation you can reasonably handle.
If you ever find yourself in such a situation, here are some practical ideas for lightening your load:
- Capture and prioritize. Make a list of all the problems, challenges, and activities that are currently on your plate. Then sort them into three sublists: (A) must do, (B) should do, and (C) nice to do. The simple act of writing things down and prioritizing them can be a real stress reliever since it helps to clarify that not everything is urgent. Give yourself permission to attend only to the items on your A-list for a while, allowing your B- and C-lists to slide until you feel caught up.
- Cancel commitments. If you're feeling over-committed, see if you can pull back from any commitments that aren't essential. I'm not suggesting that you break your promises to others, but it's reasonable to renegotiate stress-inducing over-commitments when possible. Look at your calendar, and drop or cancel the non-essential items.
- Accept no new commitments. When you're feeling overloaded, do your best not to add new items to your plate. Learn to say "no" liberally. Give yourself time to work through your existing challenges before you think about taking on new ones. A polite way of turning people down is to simply say, "I appreciate the offer. I'm currently over-committed though, so I must decline. I hope you understand." I find that people are generally very understanding when you decline their requests in this manner.
- Postpone. Pace yourself by spreading new commitments over a longer period of time. When my plate gets too full, I sometimes designate a commitment blackout period. I don't want to miss good opportunities, but I can't keep adding items to an already-full plate. When someone makes a request of me, I only say yes on the condition that we proceed after a certain date, not immediately.
- Declutter. Clearing out clutter can be a great stress reliever. Last weekend my family and I reorganized much of our home and garage, including eliminating a lot of accumulated clutter. Afterwards I felt lighter and ready to take on new projects. Every time I look at the garage, I feel relaxed instead of being reminded of all the things that I have yet to handle. At the very least, get all visual clutter out of your field of view. Better to have a messy closet that you can forget about for a while than a messy desk that distracts you multiple times per day.
- Request help. You don't have to go it alone. Ask someone to help you. When I feel overwhelmed, I often ask Erin if she can take on a few items from my to-do list. Then I might thank her with a nice massage when my schedule is lighter.
- Batch small items. If you batch up several small items together and do them all in a row, you may feel significantly lighter afterwards. Batch up all your errands and do them all at once. Process all your emails, phone calls, and other correspondence together. When you get some of the small items off your plate, you'll feel more capable of tackling the bigger ones.
- Exercise. Exercise helps to boost your metabolism, so you feel more energetic throughout the day. Even though this adds something to your plate, the benefits more than make up for the extra time. Exercise also combats stress and serves as a potent mood enhancer.
- Reduce interruptions. Tell others not to interrupt you during certain times, so you can free up blocks of time for catching up on your to-do items. As I mentioned in the article Productivity 101, I post a special sticky note on my door to warn others not to interrupt me when I'm writing and need to concentrate.
- Renew. Take time for personal renewal. Read an uplifting book. Take a hot bath. Meditate. Listen to audio programs. Go for a walk. Clear your mind and focus on restoring your energy, so you can come back to tackle life's challenges with renewed strength.
Real life can throw a lot at you sometimes. In those situations it's important to practice good time management, but it's even more important that you manage your energy and attitude to avoid burning out or feeling helpless. Even if you do feel burned out, all is not lost. If you can lighten your load a little, you'll find that the weight you must lift no longer seems so heavy and daunting. Soon your attitude will shift from "I hate this" to "I can do this."