Beat Back to School Overwhelm

This blog post is an expanded version of a feature in Denver Life Magazine, published August 1, 2017.

The “Back to School” ads are back. Weren’t we celebrating the 4th of July just days ago?

Back to school can be an overwhelming time: squeezing in the last of the summer activities, shopping for school, figuring out the logistics of carpools and sports schedules. Simultaneously, work responsibilities and household demands don’t change – in fact, sometimes they ramp up too. It all contributes to the Dynamic of Overwhelm I call, “It’s all too much.” There’s too much to do, too much to remember, too many things to figure out. That often combines with the Dynamic of “There’s not enough” (not enough time, energy, money, you name it).

These dynamics can make your mind spin, compounding to a crescendo where you even forget simple tasks. So, how can you break out of the cycle of overwhelm, and tackle your massive to-do list, with a sense of calm and confidence?

First, get that churning list out of your head and on to paper. Mentally circling over your list just adds to overwhelm; getting it out on paper gives it tangibility, and crossing through lines adds to the sense that things are gradually getting ‘off your plate.’ When I need to clear my head, I grab a colored piece of paper (so it catches my eye on the desk), draw a line down the middle, and just start dumping everything out, professional on the left side, personal on the right. It’s a way to organize my thinking, so I can make better decisions.

A way to make the list feel more manageable is to divide that piece of paper into “quadrants” for all of the major areas of your life. Take that same page and draw some horizontal lines, and label the quadrants. Then, as you unload all that mental clutter, you can list items in the appropriate quadrant. Instead of a single huge list that’s hard to prioritize, you have a few categories, then you prioritize the actions within each category. It’s much less overwhelming. For example, you may have a back-to-school category further divided into shopping, and medical appointments. The medical appointments may need to be scheduled at specific times. The shopping is likely more flexible, and can fit between other things. This highlights the next step: schedule “appointments” into your calendar to take action on the most important items. Our brains are trained to take calendar appointments seriously, and you’ll rely less on memory. Both of these increase the likelihood that you’ll follow through.

For many people, overwhelm causes them to procrastinate, which is an endless, cyclical trap. Stop the insanity! Make a decision to take specific actions at specific times, be sure to follow through, then celebrate (with a pat on your own back, or a mental acknowledgement of yourself for following through). That little celebration elevates your energy slightly, making it more likely that your brain will want to follow through the next time you decide to act. Each of these steps contributes to a virtuous cycle of taking action to reduce overwhelm in the future.

Remember that you’re not going to get it all done RIGHT NOW! If your mind starts going into overwhelm with back-to-school angst, make your list, group actions into manageable categories, schedule the most important actions, and remind yourself that you’ll find a way to get it all done. The more organized your thinking is, the more you’ll beat overwhelm at this busy time of year.

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