How to Take Control of Your Day When You're Overwhelmed

Every one of us has a day when the demands on our time are high, when we feel the anxiety and pressure of all that we have to do, when we are so rushed that we can’t get any bearing on our day, when the phone is ringing off the hook, or meetings are back-to-back-to-back, or the IM won’t stop bothering us, or our email is constantly flooded … in short, when we are overwhelmed.

For some people, that’s almost every day.

So how to you get back under control, drop your stress levels, and get back to sanity? How can you simplify an overwhelming day? I won’t say that it’ll be easy, but it can be done.

Here’s how.

1. Stop. And then think. When we’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off, we cannot get our day back under control by continuing to run around. We have to stop the running, stop the madness. Just stop. Take a few deep breaths. If you have to, take a walk around the office or outside if possible. Calm yourself down.

Yes, this might seem impossible when you have a million things to do, and they all have to be done today. But it’s necessary. Just do it, despite the ringing phone and the desk covered in papers.

Then take a step back and think about the craziness. Can it be healthy to work like this? Bouncing from one task to another without break? I submit that it cannot. Time taken: 10 minutes.

2. Clear your desk and make a list. If you’ve got papers all over your desk (or tabs open in Firefox, each representing something you need to do), you need to clear it all away. If you don’t already have everything on a to-do list, start one now. Collect all papers into a pile, and write down the task associated with each on your list. Then put them in an “Action folder” so that your desk is clear.

For stuff on the computer, such as urgent emails and other tasks that are open on your computer, add those to the list too. Put the urgent emails in an “Action” folder in your email program (making sure each item is on your to-do list), and then create a “Temp” folder and put all non-urgent emails in there. You can sort through those two folders later, but you don’t have time now. Your email inbox and your desk should be cleared now, and you should have all tasks on your to-do list. Add any other tasks you have to do today to this list that you can think of. Try to do this quickly. Time taken: 20-3o minutes total, if possible.

3. Pick only 3 things. Look at your list and ask yourself, “If I could only get three of these things done today, which ones would I choose?” Pick only three. Not five, not seven. This will force you to prioritize.

This is your to-do list for today. Write it on a new sheet of paper, or a new index card. Just those three things. Time taken: 10 minutes.

4. Renegotiate the rest. As you can only do those three things today, but you may have other things that are also due (or urgent), you have to renegotiate those other tasks or meetings. Call or email each person to whom these items are due, and let them know that you need extra time on the project or task. Get at least a couple days on each, but spread out the new due dates so that you only have one or two things due on each day (use a calendar while renegotiating).

This may be a difficult step for many people, but it’s necessary. You can’t do everything in one day. You need to be able to face that reality, and you have to stand up to others. Your time is important. Time taken: 20 minutes.

5. Say “no” to incoming requests. If you get new requests for meetings or tasks or projects, make it a policy to say no. You just don’t have the time. Or ask them to get back to you in a week or two when you may be less busy. But don’t accept anything new right now, until you’ve gotten things more under control, unless it’s something that is absolutely more important than one of the three things on your to-do list. If it is, you need to knock one of those things off the to-do list and accept the new task.

6. Schedule time for batch processing. Most of your day should be spent working only on those three items. But you’ll probably have a bunch of smaller tasks on your longer list that need to be done. Try to schedule 30-60 minutes (preferably at the end of the day) for these tasks: knock out the email, make some calls, process some paperwork, follow up on things, etc. Time taken: 30-60 minutes.