How to get out of severe overwhelm

Every entrepreneur is familiar with overwhelm. Sometimes in a big way, sometimes small, but the million things that you have to take care of never seem to get smaller. The very reason you started a business in the first place - to have more control over your time - sometimes seems like a dream receding into the distance.

Sometimes the overwhelm is so bad you start slowing down. Work piles up, you can’t get stuff done, you’re running late on other stuff and people are waiting for you. You’re the bottleneck and you don’t know how to get out of it.

I’ve been there and done that, and every now and then I still find myself in deep overwhelm. But I do have a method for getting out of it, and that’s what I would like to show you today. There are five steps involved, and the first is getting out of your own head.


Step 1: Get out of your own head

Overwhelm is not really about all the stuff you have to do. 

Overwhelm is about your mind spinning around in circles trying to make order out of the chaos around you. You’re trying to problem-solve an inherently unsolvable problem (getting everything done at once). This is the very definition of worry.

The more time we spend just spinning inside our heads, the less time we have to actually focus on stuff. As long as your mind is trying to problem-solve all the stuff you have to do, you will find it difficult to focus on one thing and get it done.

So the very first step in getting out of severe overwhelm is to get all that stuff out of your own head so you can declutter your mind and make space for calm - which in turn will allow you to focus.

My favorite way of getting out of my own head is with a mind map. To show you how to do this, I’m going to use Mindmup which has a free version. (Note that in the free versions your mind maps are public and anyone can see them. The paid versions allow you to save private maps and are very affordable.)

Here’s how I go about this:

  • Create a new mind map in Mindmup.

  • Double-click on the root node and call it something like “All my stuff”.

  • Start throwing everything that’s spinning in your head into the mind map. Don’t worry about organizing things yet - just get it out of your head.

Here’s where I started:

 
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OK, so this is not a lot of stuff, but as you can see some of them can become extra-large. The point is that you want to get all that that stuff out of your head so you can start making sense out of everything you have to do.

Keep going - just get everything you can think of out of your head and somewhere in the mind map. Again, don’t worry about organizing stuff too much yet - we’ll get to that in the next step.

You don’t have to get everything in your head into the mind map at this stage. New things are going to pop up anyway, so just get everything you can think of now into the map.


Step 2: Organize all your stuff

When you have the immediate things out of your head and in the mind map, you can start organizing them. This is the process of putting related stuff together. 

For example, there are three things in my mind map that all fall into my personal life (rather than my business) - walking the dog, sorting out my taxes and calling Mom. So I’m going to create a new node called “Personal” and drag and drop those three nodes onto Personal so they now become “children” of the Personal node. Here’s what it looks like now:

 
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All the other stuff belongs to my business, so I’m not going to create a node for that. You don’t have to use my categories - use whatever you feel works for you, mind maps are easy enough to change if you need to.

Your mind map can start looking messy pretty soon:

 
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But the magic of mind maps is that you can “fold” a node so that the children are hidden. In Mindmup, the “/“ key folds and unfolds a node:

 
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There, that looks and feels better already. Time to prioritize.


Step 3: Prioritize

Now that you have most of your stuff out in the mind map, and you’ve organized related stuff together, you need to prioritize your work. There are two things that are going to make your life a lot easier when thinking about prioritizing:

  • First, you can only really work on one thing at a time. So even if you pick just one thing as your priority, that’s fine. I usually pick 3 because I would go nuts if I had to work on just one thing in a day.

  • Second, I review and adjust my priorities every day. So what you choose now can change tomorrow. (More about that in a bit).

The way I prioritize my work is to move nodes up and down (on my Mac I can do this with Cmd-Up Arrow or Cmd-Down Arrow, on Windows it will be Ctrl- or Alt- versions of the arrow keys).

I’ve decided that looking after my current clients needs to take priority, after that fixing my website and then my marketing. So I move the nodes around until it looks like this:

 
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I’ve left my personal stuff on the left because I want to deal with those separately. I’ve also added a node called “Stuff to sort out” - whenever I remember something, I add it to this node so I won’t forget about it.

At this point, you’ve made a giant step forward. You’ve not only gotten most of the stuff rattling around in your head out into the mind map, you’ve also made a decision on what needs to get done first.

You could stop here. You know what needs to be done now, and if you can discipline yourself to focus just on your top priority and get it done, you will make huge steps forward.

But we all know that it’s easy to get distracted, so we need a way to manage those distractions.


Step 4: Become aware of where you’re spending your time

I easily get distracted by shiny things. In my case, shiny things are new technologies, apps and things that will make my life oh so much easier. For example, I’m currently implementing a system called RightMessage on my website to help me learn more about what people really want. The learning curve is steep but the promise of this app is substantial, so it’s easy for me to get lost “playing” with the app learning all its capabilities.

And before I know it I’ve lost half an hour here and an hour there. Problem is, I don’t realize when I’m doing this.

I know that I can only get better at focusing on the important stuff if I also know where I’m actually spending my time. 

To do that, I’m going to use a timesheet.

My timesheet is very simple. I created it in a spreadsheet, days of the week across the top and the day divided into 30-minute blocks down the left. The single page is always right next to my computer, and throughout the day I keep track of what I’m doing. 

I’m writing this on a Friday, and here’s what my timesheet for the week looks like so far:

 
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Yep, that’s the actual timesheet for this week. You’ll notice that I’ve highlighted a couple of items with a yellow line down the side - these are times that I lost my focus and got sidetracked into stuff I shouldn’t have been doing.

Now let’s see how the mind map and the timesheet come together to help me get out of overwhelm.


Step 5: The daily ritual

I’ve written about the power of daily shutdown routines before - the idea that you end each day with a routine (or ritual) to end your day and switch off from work.

But daily startup routines are just as powerful - they prepare you for the day ahead. To deal with severe overwhelm, I add two steps to my daily startup routine:

  1. Review the mind map to make sure I’m going to work on the most important stuff right now.

  2. Make a list of the top 3 things I want to get done today.

When you’re dealing with severe overwhelm, things can change fast. To make sure I’m still focusing on the most important stuff, I start my day with a review of the mind map. I literally open up all the nodes, focusing on the high-priority ones, and check to see if what’s at the top should still be at the top. If necessary, I move things around so the most important things right now are at the top.

I then make a list of the highest-priority things I want to get done today (this goes on a Post-It Note on the wall). Sometimes, there’s only one thing on that list. Sometimes there are three. Now comes the two things that actually makes a difference:

Don’t do anything else until the first item on today’s list is done.Keep track of where you actually spend your time.

This seems almost too simplistic - and it’s surprisingly hard to do. You may already have other commitments in your calendar, you need to check email and you know the phone is going to ring. I know I need to deal with those things anyway, so I discipline myself to only check email when I should

But experience has shown me:

Sticking to your top priority and keeping track of your time is the fastest way to develop the focus you need to get stuff done.


How this helps you get out of severe overwhelm

The principles underlying this technique are simple but highly effective:

  • You can’t deal with overwhelm if your head is spinning around trying to make sense of it all. Get it out of your head so you can look at your workload objectively.

  • Make sense of the chaos by grouping things together. 

  • Find the most important thing you have to focus on now. There may be a hundred things that are important, but right now there’s only one thing that is more important than anything else.

  • Focus on getting just that one thing done. Keep track of your time so you can remind yourself where you should be focusing.

  • Review your list every day to make sure you’re always focusing on the most important stuff right now.

If you can learn to stick to this technique, you will look back after a couple of weeks and be pleasantly surprised at just how much you got done. Overwhelm will no longer be ruling your life.


Summary

In summary, there are two tools and a five-step process for getting out of severe overwhelm. The tools are:

  • a mind map to get stuff out of your head; and

  • a timesheet to remind you of where you should be focusing.

The five-step process is:

  1. Get everything out of your head and into the mind map.

  2. Make sense of the chaos by grouping related stuff together.

  3. Prioritize - move the most important stuff to the top.

  4. Keep track of your time to remind yourself where you should be focusing.

  5. Start each day with a review of your mind map and picking one or two things you absolutely have to get done today.

Then focus on getting just that one thing done, and keep track of your time to remind yourself where you should be focusing and learn what takes you off track.

I hope this helps.