4 steps to ending overwhelm, getting back in control, and getting stuff done

Updated to Habits, Productivity on January 22, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

Unless you live under a rock, you get overwhelmed. Too many choices, interruptions, competing demands on your time, and trying to get stuff done – with so little time.

Maybe it’s part of the territory or a phase you or your business are going through, but being overwhelmed, out of control, and scrambling to get stuff done shouldn’t be your normal routine.

In this post, I’m going to show you a simple strategy that’s guaranteed (I’ll refund the full cost of this blog) to get you past your “buts” and get your butt moving.

But first…a story.

The Victoria Marathon is a classic. As you wind your way around the periphery of British Columbia’s capital, it’s hard to ignore the ocean views, horse-drawn buggies clopping along Wharf Street, loaded with camera-toting tourists, sailboats navigating out of Inner Harbour, or the classic estate architecture. And then there’s the run.

At some point, everyone experiences the “Marathon Effect” (Blake Handley photo)

If you’ve ever attempted a marathon run (or even watched one) you know well enough about the “marathon effect.” All runners go through it – it’s not pretty.

The “marathon effect” is what happens when you still have 30-60 minutes of sloughing to go but have lost the plot. Your doubts are running the show and the need to stop, sit down, and quit (which was only a niggling thought an hour ago) is now screaming in your brain like a spoiled child deprived of their new iPad.

It’s no different when you find yourself staring at a long list of un-prioritized, competing tasks and feeling overwhelmed. You know you need to get started, but self-doubt, confusion – even exhaustion – have stalled you out.

Roy Baumeister calls this ego depletion (with a nod to Freud for his use of ego to mean self). Essentially, ego depletion is our diminished capacity to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

We can sometimes overcome mental fatigue (like when you work late to finish that proposal or presentation), but when you’ve used up energy by exerting willpower (like pushing on in a marathon, despite the pain) you are likely to succumb.

The trick is to have a trick – you need a plan before ego depletion rears its ugly head and says “Let’s make some nachos!”

Here’s a super simple, 5-step process to overcome overwhelm, push past ego depletion, and get started on getting done what really matters (you’ll thank me later):

1. Step away

The first step when overwhelmed is to stop, step away and get perspective. All problems look bigger up close. Many times a simple change in scenery is all it takes to see the space around my problems and new approaches.

Here are some go-to remedies that can help break you out of the funk and start thinking creatively again:

  • go for a 10-minute brisk walk
  • grab a notepad and sit in a different location
  • talk with a friend – they don’t have to know the answers, just be good listeners
  • use a quiet corner in a coffee shop to listen to music or doodle for 10 minutes
  • switch to easier, more creative work, like writing thank-you notes

2. Take stock

Time management guru, David Allen of Get-Things-Done (GTD) fame says overwhelm is not so much about the volume of work we have to do, but the open-loops. An open-loop is, “anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is” – like unfinished work nagging at you.

I see this with entrepreneurs, building their speaking business, they have all sorts of ideas and half-baked plans, all with the same “now!” priority. And most are new ventures, so it’s even harder to get traction – they become paralyzed and nothing happens.

That’s when you need to get to basics with a simple 2-column list.

Left: urgent work on my To-Do list, Right: for each item in the left-hand column, write down one simple step you can take to move that job forward. Even if it’s as small as choosing a date for the next committee meeting, that’s progress. (I show you how in this post).

3.Prioritize your list

Now for the tough work – you have to say “No” to things on your list. The math is simple: you can’t cram more work on your plate if it’s already full (just think what happens in the buffet line when you do that – not pretty).

I use my Flight Plan to float what I need to do this week out of my list for the month. That’s still more than I can handle in a day, so I need to prioritize.

Obviously, sometimes we’re waiting for people, but just as often I have a long list of things and I could start them all and they all look important.

I stall out just thinking about it.

So I have to prioritize – that means saying “No”.

Here’s a simple test I give myself. And (this works like a damn) if the answer is “Yes” to any one of these 3 questions, I either do the work that day or block it on my calendar like a meeting (meetings are a good trigger to take action, right?).

> Is this strategic? Clearly ordering Thank You cards is “nice”, but not strategic as compared to, say following up with 2 possible clients. Cards can wait.

> Does this help someone else? If someone on my team is waiting for text from me so they can complete an edit on our site, that’s a priority. If I don’t do the work it’s holding them up and it’s still on my list. Get ‘er done.

> Will I feel better if I get it done? Okay, I know it sounds trivial to be talking about feelings, but my gut usually knows what’s important and if I intuitively know what will make me feel more successful, more on top of my game, less stressed – that’s what I need to do.

4. Work on No. 1 until complete

This is the punch line—you must learn the simple practice of working on one thing until complete. By “complete” I mean you’ve reached a logical point where you can scratch it off your list, assign it to someone else, or schedule the next step on your calendar.

But, the trick here is you have “closed the loop” and now don’t have to think about that work.

There is a real cost to task-switching in terms of productivity, time and stress. Tony Swartz, author of some great work, like Be Excellent at Anything says, “When you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.”

Back to the marathon – there’s a point (certainly I experienced it every time I competed in the Vic Marathon), you’re heading North on Montreal, approaching the Inn at Laurel Point, and are about to make your final turn onto Belleville, with the finish line, the music and the Legislature buildings in view. That’s when everything changes.

In an instant, your head comes up, your back straightens (as a spectator, it approaches comedy as you watch runner after runner go through this transformation), and damn if you don’t look like a runner again!

Suddenly you have energy and a heroic sprint to the finish (after all, who wouldn’t want to be #5,684 across the finish instead of #5,685?) seems not only possible but supremely appropriate.

You have it in you to get done what needs to get done – finishing that proposal, making the call to say “No, thanks”, outsourcing that design job, or following up with a client.

The actual physical work is minuscule – once you follow your game plan. One foot in front of the next and before you know it you’ve rounded the corner, the finish line is in sight and it’s time to cross another one off the list.