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Managing an Overwhelming Task List

I remember when I was a little girl hearing the expression “when it rains, it pours” and thinking it was the dumbest thing ever. It doesn’t always pour – I’d seen rain that was a slow drizzle and even a heavy mist. That’s nothing like pouring. Obviously as an adult, I get the point. Sometimes life comes at you from all sides and demands that you respond to 40 emergencies, situations or crises all at once, and all by yesterday if you don’t mind. I’m going through one of those situations right now, and oddly it seems like many of my friends and patients are going through something similar, so maybe it’s catching? Here’s what I’m doing to keep my head above water.

  1. Make lists. I know it sounds stupid, but I carry around a big notebook – the old fashioned paper kind – because it’s important that I can jot things down as I think of them. Frankly, if I don’t I may not think of them again until it’s too late.
  2. Put EVERYTHING on those lists. It doesn’t matter if it’s as small as ‘take out the trash’ or ‘make the guest bed for crazy Aunt Martha’ just put it on the list. Not only do you remember to do it, you get to cross it off when it’s done and there is nothing more satisfying than that.
  3. Budget in time for sleep. You’re really no good to anyone if you don’t do this and even if you have to do what I did in Undergrad, which was sleep 3 hours and then get up to do more work, then sleep 3 hours and get up again, some sleep is far better than none.
  4. Do one thing at a time. The best way to avoid overwhelm is simply to break every huge thing down into tiny chunks and then focus on one tiny chunk at a time. If you can’t face the thought of ‘update new business address with customers’ then break it down into small to-do chunks like ‘update with patients,’ ‘update with vendors,’ ‘update with professional organizations’ etc… (Can you tell I’m moving my office?) Then doggedly ignore all but the first item on your to-do list and get to it. Making everything manageable helps.
  5. Don’t forget about YOU. I know that when you’re running in 40 directions you’re probably not going to have time or even remember to take your supplements and go to the gym and meditate and do all the things you would normally do to take care of your body. That doesn’t mean you should forget yourself completely, after all, who will drive this crazy train if you’re out of commission? Find the one thing that’s ‘good for you’ but that you also love and enjoy. For me it’s a walk with my iPod. I get exercise, and more importantly I get an escape from stress and my hectic life that is 100% justified on my to-do list. Keep that one thing and let everything else go without guilt because you can only do what you can do.
  6. Keep an eye on yourself. It’s up to you to not get into burn-out mode. If you feel yourself slipping in that direction then make an appointment with your counselor, massage therapist, homeopath, personal trainer or best friend. Whoever it is that you can go to for support. Listen to your friends too – if you get too many of the ‘are you ok?’ questions then start to ask for help.
  7. Let go of the little stuff. You normally bake the brownies for the PTA meetings or mow your elderly neighbor’s lawn for them or keep your garage in pristine condition (I’m not sure if anyone actually does that last one); that doesn’t mean you’re failing or not doing enough or letting anyone down if you can’t maintain that through your own ultra-stress time. Just let people know that you’ve got too much on your plate and you’ll get back to it when you can. If they get upset with you, just blame it on Dr. Amy.
  8. Make fewer choices. Research has shown that every choice, even if it’s something as great as choosing between our two favorite desserts, is a stressor. Choosing what to wear, which to-do item to tackle first, what to have for breakfast, where to grab a coffee; all of those things add up. Minimize the number of choices you have to make – choose one easy breakfast and have it every day this week. Only put one kind of shampoo in the shower. Put together five outfits you like and rotate through them until you can’t stand them any more and then put together five new ones. Take 10 minutes to sort through your to-do list and mark the items that are most important to do first and focus on those items. Let other people choose where to go for the business lunch. It sounds small but it makes a huge difference.
  9. Have a news diet. It sounds crazy, but hearing about news that’s a) always bad and b) out of your control adds a tremendous amount of stress. That may be fine under normal circumstances but avoid it when you’re overwhelmed. Believe me, it will still be there when you get back.
  10. Delegate, delegate, delegate. Anything that takes up a chunk of your time that could easily be done by someone else – your spouse, your kids, your business partner, your assistant, or a person you can afford to hire like a maid or temporary help – do it! Just because you’re using them now doesn’t mean you’re delegating those tasks forever, it just means you need a little help for the moment.

task list paper

When life goes crazy you can’t afford to fall apart, so take extra great care of yourself and remember about the wet socks if you’re feeling under-the-weather because who has time to get sick?

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