Working Effectively When You’re Overwhelmed

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By Leo Babauta

I’ve noticed that so many people are feeling overwhelmed, scattered, and stressed – so much so that focus and effective work become incredibly difficult.

So what can we do to be more effective in the midst of this scattered, overwhelmed state?

Today I’m going to share the top three things I do to help myself find focus and effectiveness even when I’m at my most scattered.

The Interstitial Pause

The first thing I recommend is a pause between anything you do — I call it the Interstitial Pause.

Basically, instead of switching from one task to the next, I recommend a pause.

  • If you answer an email, take a pause — do you want to keep answering emails, or is there something more important you’d like to do?
  • If you finish working on a task, take a pause — would you like to take a break, or choose the next task from your list to focus on.If you notice yourself automatically opening an app or website that’s a distraction, take a pause — is there something more important you’d like to focus on?
  • If you’ve just been given a bunch of messages and tasks, take a pause — add them to your list, and prioritize, choosing one thing to focus on (more on that below).
  • If you’ve been working for awhile, take a pause — would you like to stretch your legs, get some water, clear your head?

This pause helps us navigate chaotic waters, and helps us to be more intentional about our day.

The Flexible Focus Method

This is a simple, time-tested method for finding effectiveness when things are chaotic:

  • Make a Short List: This is a list of 3-5 things you’d like to focus on for the day. Choose 3 things if they’re big ones, or if you have a day that’s full of meetings. Choose 5 things if they’re medium tasks. If you’re feeling optimistic, choose 6 things. Important: put them in order of importance.
  • Make a Long List: This is the list of everything else you’d like to do. Put things that are more urgent near the top. This long list is a “would be nice to do” list but you aren’t going to focus on it. Focus instead of the Short List.
  • Focus on the top task: Each day, focus on the top task on your Short List. Only on that. Nothing else. When you’re done with that, focus on the next item.
  • Dealing with interruptions & incoming tasks/messages: The beauty of this method is that it is flexible. If you are interrupted, you can simply return to the important task you were working on when you were interrupted, or pause and find something more important to focus on. If you having incoming tasks and messages, you can simply add them to your Long List … or if they’re important enough, put them on the Short List and knock something else onto the long list. Be flexible and allow yourself to adjust to a changing landscape.
  • At the end of each day: Take a moment to check things off and celebrate your accomplishments — then simply take the unfinished items on the Short List and add them to tomorrow’s Short List. Make your new list for tomorrow, so you know what to focus on when you get started.

Refilling Your Capacity

One of the biggest challenges when we’re feeling overwhelmed is that we are often drained and our ability to focus is lowered. We can’t take on hard tasks because we just don’t have the mental energy.

The practice to take on here is committing yourself to making self-care a priority. What do you need to do to get your mental energy where you want it to be in order to be effective and focus? If we can’t get this fundamental thing down, then we can’t create what we want to create in the world.

For me, this means prioritizing:

  • Rest and recovery
  • Spaciousness
  • Exercise
  • Eating well
  • Something comforting like a hot shower, hot tea, or hugs from a loved one
  • Loving myself compassionately

If I can do those things, then I can be effective and focus on what matters. What would you need to do to get your capacity to the level you need it to be?

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