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After many rounds of burnout, I’ve learned a couple of things. Mostly, I’ve gotten really familiar with the symptoms leading up to it. Today we’re going to talk about one in particular: overwhelm.
Overwhelm isn’t pretty, and we experience it so often in the early stages of our businesses that we become somewhat numb to it. By the time we’re nearing burnout, it goes to crazy lengths to get noticed.
Maybe this sounds familiar to you: It’s Thursday morning and you know you have a ton of deadlines on Friday, no clue where the rest of the week went, and you feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. Your to-do list (that’s mostly in your head still) feels like a Hydra, with a couple more tasks being tacked on each time you check one off. Figuring out what to work on feels almost as impossible as getting it all done. And as your chest starts to feel tight with anxiety, every form of distraction is suddenly vying for your attention.
You, my friend, are deep in overwhelm. I’m more than familiar with it myself. And after going round after round with it, I’ve landed on one thing that helps give immediate relief.
A simple notebook.
A little anti-climatic, right? But that’s kind of the point. When you’re so deep in the weeds that you feel like you’re never getting out, a complicated system is certainly not going to help. You need something simple and effective to get you moving in the right direction again. So, friend, I give you the simple notebook.
Whatever you have on hand will work. Don’t feel like you need a new Leutchurn or Moleskine. In fact, a fancy notebook will hurt the process if you’re any type of perfectionist like me. Just a small notebook you can easily carry around.
Open it up to the first page and just start spilling all of the tasks you need to do. Don’t filter, categorize, or prioritize—just write.
[Don’t worry, I’ll wait patiently for you right here while you do this.]
Got it all out? Great. Don’t worry if you missed something. The moment you remember it, jot it down. That’s one reason I said a small notebook that you can carry with you. Keep it in your pocket, purse, whatever and add things as soon as you can after thinking of them.
Don’t you feel better already? No? Still feel that soul-crushing overwhelm and wondering why on earth you managed to fill three pages front and back with shit you need to do?
Either way, we’re going to move on. Scan that list and see if there’s anything you wrote down that you really just don’t need to devote your energy to. Found something? Good, cross that off and don’t bother thinking about it again.
See some things on there you can delegate to someone else? Good, write them an email, shoot them a text, whatever you need to do and then write DLG next to those tasks. Don’t take too long giving any more instruction than necessary on these. Just delegate it right off of your plate and call it good. Don’t worry, we’ll come back and follow up on these if necessary.
Now, look down the list again and find some quick wins. Need to make or cancel an appointment? Do it now. Need to order dog food? Get that done real quick. We’re looking for things that can be done in under 2 minutes, preferably without moving from where you’re sitting. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and get as many of these knocked out as possible. And for the love of everything, don’t let yourself get distracted by your inbox, Facebook, or anything else like that.
[Don’t worry, I’ll wait patiently again. Task, check, task, check, task, check.]
I bet that was a third of your list, wasn’t it? Feeling any better yet?
Next up, we’re looking for things that you need to be in a specific place to do, which means you obviously aren’t going to do them right now. If it’s something that has a specific date/time, go ahead and put it on your digital calendar, remember to set a reminder or two for it. For anything else, flip about halfway back through your book, and mark the page somehow. Fold the corner, add a sticky flag, or stick a paperclip there. Write “Errands” across the top of the page. Copy over any tasks from your main list that are appropriate here. Take the bike to the shop for a new tire. Grab face wash at Target.
Flip to the next page and label it @HOME and one more page and label it @WORK. Copy appropriate tasks over from the main list. And yes, this applies even if you work from home. Household tasks in one place and work-related in another. Again, don’t filter, don’t prioritize. Just copy them over.
Okay, I hope that by this point, you’re feeling at least a little bit better. Your brain should be calming down some since you aren’t relying on it to remember every little thing. You got some quick wins in and crossed a lot of little tasks off already. And now the bulk of the tasks are getting sorted into smaller lists, which should feel more manageable.
If there’s anything else left on your main list right now, consider where it should go. Some people might benefit from a fourth list called @PERSONAL. One of my most used is @JOSH – this is where I put things I want to talk to my husband about. It helps with the “I know was going to tell you about something, but I can’t remember what it was!” moments. I have those often. I also have one called @IDEAS where I store things that I would like to do, but simply aren’t priorities right now. Book recommendations, business ideas, etc go here so they aren’t taking up daily mental space or clogging up the actual priorities.
Just don’t overcomplicate your lists. I don’t feel like I can overstate the importance of keeping this simple. You want as few lists as possible and they should be defined enough that you never wonder which list something belongs on.
Now that we’re through the initial setup phase, let’s talk about actually using this system to keep overwhelm at bay.
1. Add things to it daily.
Multiple times a day, even. Seriously, don’t rely on your brain. If it has a date/time, it goes on your digital calendar, everything else goes straight to your list. If you’re in a hurry, tack it on to your list at the front (I call it @INBOX). If you have a second, add it to the appropriate segmented list.
2. Review it daily.
As part of your morning routine, go through the @INBOX list the same way we did earlier. Mark off things that should never have made the list, delegate what you can, take care of the quick wins, and move anything else to its appropriate list. This is a good time to follow up on anything previously delegated, too. Mark it off if it doesn’t need any further follow-up.
3. Do the things.
Each day, pick 2-3 things off your segments and get them done. If it’s something that’s a bigger project and you need to break it down, start a new list on the next page called @PROJECTNAME and break it down. My formula for what to pick is deadlines first, other priorities second, emergent tasks last.
4. Check back in.
If you practice these habits every day, it will help keep away the overwhelm. If you feel it creeping back in, start back at the beginning with brain dumping everything and sorting it again.
And that’s it, that’s my simple solution for combatting overwhelm. It’s as simple as a notebook and some daily habits. Even without the daily habits, brain-dumping and sorting can bring immediate relief from overwhelm. But the daily habits will help you break the vicious cycle you may be finding yourself in.
Note: This method can be created using a digital tool like Evernote or Trello, but it’s often more effective in the analog form. Calendars are the only thing I strongly recommend be done digitally because setting automated reminders takes an immediate weight off of your brain.