There will always be periods of too much to do, when everything seems to happen at once and you feel hopelessly stressed out and overwhelmed. And when we’re in the middle of such a period, helpful advice often just adds to the load. I know. But we’ll keep it simple. Just a list of a few tiny steps that will give you enough breathing room to get through the mess.
It doesn’t take much. Really. Presence and rest is available wherever we are, and whatever circumstances we’re in. We might not have access to the oceans of time we dream of, but rest and peace of mind doesn’t necessarily require oceans of time. Only awareness, a slight change of perspective, and some prioritizing.
Say no to everything that’s not a priority right now (have I said this before?)
Make some tough decision, just until you’re back on track. Your friends will wait, so will your family, if you tell them what’s going on. Declare a temporary stop to all activities, social events, extra work of any kind, etc. Carve out whatever time and space you can find and channel it towards what really has to get done. Everything will be easier if you do.
Do one thing at a time
I recently read about a study that showed it took a goup of math students on average 40% longer to finish an assignment when they were working on several assignments at the same time, compared to a group that focused on one assignment at a time. And not only did it take longer, there was a marked increase in the level of stress hormones in the students who did several assignments at once.
No research necessary to know this applies to life in general as well.
Multitasking is necessary sometimes, but it is a skill that should be used sparingly, not be your default mode. Do one thing at a time, focus, dive down and don’t come up until you’re finished or it’s time to switch assignments. That kind of focus is in itself a rest.
Deeply, slowly, consciously. Let the natural pause between breaths be a moment of absolute presence. Don’t make into a big deal. Three deep breaths will make a difference.
Cry a little
Allow yourself to feel what you feel. If possible, curl up under a blanket for a while, but sharing how you feel with someone you trust, or scribbling down a few sincere lines in your journal will go a long way too. Just allowing yourself to feel and express your feelings will soften things up inside.
Ask for help
If it feels like you’re drowning and every little thing that comes up makes you want to cry: Ask for help. Can someone pick up the kids at school? Can someone cook dinner tonight? Walk the dog? A little practical help can be such a relief.
I don’t know what your network of friends and family is like, but there’s someone there who can and will help you. We’re all busy, but when someone really needs us we make time. That’s how love works. Just ask us.
Write everything down
Always have pen and paper available, or an app if that’s your thing, to get those flickering, stressful thoughts out of your head. Ideas, things to do, things you need to remember. Get it out of your head and onto paper, then you can at least stop worrying about forgetting.
Keep your working space in order
Whether it’s an office or a desk in the corner of your living room, keep it reasonably clean and tidy. Let it be a restful place to be. Store away everything you don’t need. Pin a few peaceful and/or inspiring pictures on the wall. To sit down at a desk overflowing with paper, junk and half-finished projects makes you stressed before you’ve even started working.
Lower your ambitions when it comes to housework
Other than your desk, allow for some untidiness. There will be slower times when you can wipe the windowsills or mow the lawn, but right now that might not be necessary. This is tricky advice for someone like me, who finds mess stressful, but it makes a lot of difference to lower your ambitions for a while.
If the clothes piles in your kid’s room give you palpitations, close the door. As long as they can get to their beds and back, you’re good for a little while longer.
Get some nutrition
It doesn’t have to be either or. It’s not about being good or doing it right. Eat cold pizza for breakfast if that’s all you can manage. And then make a smoothie in the evening. Or nibble some nuts and fruit. Get some good fats. Your body is under severe pressure when you’re stressed. Give it something to work with.
Cut social media
It’s so tempting, it’s quick and easy, and your dopamin levels spike from the instant gratification – which we crave even more when we’re stressed. But you know as well as I do: that flickering flow is hopeless. One minute becomes thirty and your overheated brain fires in a thousand directions at the same time. You don’t need more input, you need space to focus and then you need rest. Take a brake from it all for a while, or at least ration your use.
Take a day off from work
No phone calls, no checking the mail, no productivity. At least once a week, give yourself (and your family) a proper day off. Yes, even in the midst of your most busy times. Especially then.
It’s so tempting to try to get some stuff done, just an hour here and there, but don’t. It’s not worth it. To be in constant productivity mode is a tempting fantasy, but only a fantasy. It’s actually counterproductive; you’ll get less done if you never take time off. The quality of your work will suffer.
Let your precious free time be a complete brake. Spend time with your kids, take a walk, do nothing. Your batteries are charging as you do.
Use your senses
When we’re in a hurry, we often disconnect from our bodies. We don’t taste the food we eat, we don’t feel the sensation of wind against our skin, we don’t notice how the afternoon light falls through the window. Our perception of the world shrinks to a minimal spectrum. Stress pushes us into our heads, and no rest is to be found up there.
Become aware of your body again. Right this second, it’s the quickest path to presence I know of. Sense your feet, your belly. Inhabit it fully. It’s so much more than a transport for your overheated head.
Say what you want
Take a moment and connect with your feelings (when you’re in the bathroom, if you can’t make time for it any other way). How would you like to feel, right now? What would you need to feel good? It might not be within reach just this moment, but naming it helps you get clear, and when you’re clear you can move towards it.
Go to sleep, baby
You cannot get by without rest. Whatever you’re trying to do, it will be so much better if you’re properly rested.
And if you find yourself stuck in a constant state of overwhelm, you need long term solutions. It’s a painful state of being, and it’s a waste of life. Your life. You don’t have to live like this.
I know it feels like it’ll all collapse if you slow down. But is that true? Or is it more likely it’ll collapse if you go on?
There are other ways, and you can take one tiny step at a time in that direction. Towards a kinder life. The list above is a good start.