A Cry for Help – How Do You Manage Overwhelm?

Puzzle BallI thought that if I got clearer and more disciplined about my goals, my life would get simpler.

But no…

That just opened another door on greater complexity. And once again, I feel like I’m drowning. Ideas get lost. Balls get dropped. And myriad little things gobble the time I should be spending on big projects.

Is it Just Me?

Or is it the times in which we live, where emails and obligations and people stream into your brain and calendar like a fire hose rather than a trickle.

Yesterday, my in-box had over 4,000 emails.

By itself, that may not be a problem. But when it makes me worry that somewhere in that stack are things I needed to attend to but forgot, that’s not good.

Combine the accelerated speed of connecting with my belief that life is more fun if you say Yes unless you have a good reason to say No, and it leads to stress and overwhelm.

Beyond My Bandwidth

Don’t get me wrong, I love the fast pace and sense of creativity. I’m excited by the way the world works now. But my brain can no longer keep it all straight. I’m dropping too many balls and not doing a good enough job of the balls I am juggling.

It’s time to find a better system than just relying on my brain. My activities and opportunities have outstripped my mental bandwidth.

I’d Like Your Help

How do you keep your life sorted out? Do you set goals for yourself every year? How do you manage your in-box? And how do you keep the stress of a busy, demanding life at bay?

What are the tricks or apps or practices that keep you functioning well?

I’ve started to read David Allen’s classic, Getting Things Done. I’m looking for the best systems that will help get me organized seamlessly, so I can work with a minimum of stress, headache and distraction.

I need a system that I can rely on that will give me a simple, focused to-do list of the priority items.

Doesn’t that sound fantastic?

I’ve had it with that sense of overwhelm. If I want to continue at this pace, it’s time get organized.

Do you know that feeling? And if so, what are you doing about it?

TryTry ThisThis

Think about how you stay organized

I know I’m not alone in the sense of overwhelm. And I’m sure that even without complicated systems, you have your ways of making your life manageable. Notice the coping skills you use to be productive. What tools do you use to keep your tasks organized and prioritized? How can your system be improved?

Please oh please do share your tricks and tips and suggestions in the comments. I so need them!

  • laramie

    Dear Andrea,

    What an apt posting for the end of January! I miss the days when there wasn’t an inundation of email, messages and just sheer data from everywhere, not to mention the piles of mail. With a busy life you have so many balls in the air, it’s nearly impossible to not drop one or two. I make lists, use apps, set reminders, and try to make quiet time a priority.

    The lists help me remember everything that is going on – managing projects for work clients, managing the rental property, managing the house stuff, managing the kid stuff. Then I prioritize my lists, because I know I can’t get everything done in one day. This way when I start my tasks I know which ones to do first or go to my email I am searching for my key important communication.

    There are so many apps that allow you to take a moment or two and keep on top of incoming data or tasks, but I like the simple ones. Messages (IM) allows me to quickly let someone know I haven’t forgotten about them, Mail let’s me scan/respond/delete email when I’m waiting in line, or having lunch by myself and Calendar has reminders of meetings and tasks.

    Email is my biggest nemesis. I read everything, but don’t respond immediately unless it is an urgent matter. I tend to “Mark as Unread” the important email I haven’t time to properly respond, or I need to do something else before I respond. This is a visual reminder for me. Another thing I do with email regularly – unsubscribe from anything you do not find critical. It’s really easy to get on lists and if you don’t manage your email subscriptions it can quickly become overwhelming. I also do mass deletes when my inbox has been neglected for a few days – that happens more often than I would like!

    Shutting down the electronics and going out for a walk or the playground clears the mind allowing the most important things to float to the top. Having solid chunks of time where I can block out the pixels and bits is my zen. Late last year we went to a local resort for the weekend. No email for the entire weekend – I came back to work with a clear mind and had one of my most productive weeks in months.

    I look forward to read what other people do to keep organized!

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thanks very much, Laramie, for describing your system. I just signed up for Sanebox.com (suggested by Melea above) and it’s amazing. Automatic triage system puts only the important things that want a response in your inbox and stores the rest for later perusing.

  • Melea Seward

    Hi Andrea,

    Two things have helped me get over the overwhelm and be far more productive.

    1. Sanebox – It pays attention to how I respond to emails (how quickly, to whom I respond and to whom I don’t, etc) and is VERY SMART at filtering the most important to my inbox immediately and keeping the rest in a SANELATER folder that I can look at at my leisure. The result: I get far fewer emails that ping me. And I am much more efficient. At everything. Try it here: https://www.sanebox.com/signup/e6afda4ac6


    2. Trello – It is a flexible system that uses cards and boards to keep everything in one place (checklists, attachments, notes, etc) so you don’t have to sort through email to find the stuff of work. And you can move those cards from to do, to doing, to done. Or a system that works for you. I use Trello for everything from running my house, to managing my big-picture goals, to organizing teams, and planning vacations. It is great. http://www.trello.com

  • DK

    Such a great topic! I wish I could offer tricks and tips, but I am seeking to learn the same thing! I look forward to hearing what works for others. One of my biggest challenges is to organize, coordinate, and manage my paper and digital bits in one cohesive system.

  • Heidi

    Try Manager Tools podcast free on iTunes. Two main ideas – read emails 3 times per day only, and emails are real work, so put required follow up as a scheduled task on your calendar.

    Also, I make a list of just 3 things that must get done today, then I stay focused on that.
    Great subject, and one we all struggle with!

  • bethraps

    I’m out as someone who does not struggle with this, but helps others who do. (I have my own struggles! They just don’t include this issue.) My key thing I do is check in with my intuition or my gut if you like to see if I need to do, read, act on, or respond to something in my inbox, but also on my voicemail. I respond to all voicemails but before I do, I breathe and center and get clear on what I am going to do when I return the call. I also return all my emails and have no backlog. (I’m sorry–I am HAPPY to share my edgy struggles!) I have a folder called “Read,” where this post ended up until I could get to it, b/c I only respond to urgent things and set aside things intuition tells me I will actually want to read until I actually have the inclination + the time. And even then, I let intuition guide my eyes–to browsing or actual reading. (A skill honed during my PhD program.) Those are two good starters. I blogged about this…is it ok to share the title of the post?

  • dwmfrancis

    Andrea – You’ve written elsewhere about the Lizard Brain. Did you know that we have (at least) three brains? The key is to try and keep them in agreement. This is a rather complex subject and may be too big for a blog reply. Briefly, it has to do with the way humans respond to complexity and ambiguity. We like it when things seem clear and simple and can become fearful and agitated when the ambiguity and complexity become overwhelming. bethraps (below) touches on this when she speaks of trusting her gut. That is because our brains respond to ambiguity and complexity first based on previous experience )”instinct” and then by reason. When we need a quick decision, we’re wired to access the patterns of past experiences first, via the midbrain, then think thru it using the Cerebral Cortex where the words and images are. The “gut” is about feelings – vague memories of how we felt when we experienced something similar before. Our optimist/pessimist bias drives us towards fight/flight/faint/fawn in an effort to keep us first, and the group, alive.

    If the fear becomes too strong – our sphere of concern starts to shrink, and we become sellfish (or shellfish), focusing on our own good and survival. Once we feel strong and safe, we can start to be concerned for the welfare of others.

    Overwhelmed happens when we can’t process the incoming data by referring to our memory pool of experiences or thinking quickly enough to respond to the situation in real time. Some call this sense-making and is a component of how teams and individuals work in high risk environment. (Amy Fraher wrote a great book about that.)

    This reply has gotten to big to fit in the window without scrolling.

    Love your stuff. Keep it up. It can be the cause of a lot of good in the world, and these days, we could use more of that.