A Guide to Cutting Back When You Feel Overwhelmed

There is more to life than increasing its speed. – Gandhi

There are days in everyone’s life when they feel overwhelmed by the stresses and tasks and projects and phone calls and emails that weigh upon them. Yes, even the minimalists like me get overwhelmed from time to time.

How do you deal with it? There are many ways, of course, from eating and smoking and drinking to exercise and meditation and more.

My recommendation: Cut back. Simplify. De-load.

Why We Get Overwhelmed
I think the tendency for most of us is to say “yes” to most of the things coming into our lives. Maybe it’s that we’re too nice to say no. Maybe it’s that we are overly optimistic about how much we can get done. Maybe we don’t want to look bad by saying we can’t do something. Or maybe we’re afraid to miss out on opportunities by saying no.

Saying “no” to any commitments we can’t handle would be ideal, of course, but like I said, we usually have a tendency to say “yes” to more than we can actually handle. And we become overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted.

As you know, simplicity is the key to my philosophy. If things get complicated, I say you should simplify. Don’t try to do more. Reduce.

The Effects of Stress and Overload
We all know that too much stress is bad for us. Sure, you can’t avoid stress completely, and without some stress we would never grow. But too much stress? It leads to problems.

Stress leads to many health problems, for example: headaches, muscle aches in your shoulders, neck, back … it ages you prematurely, leads to ulcers, heartburn, high blood pressure, heart disease, overeating and more. Not a pretty picture.

But there’s more. Overloading yourself also leads to decreased effectiveness. Taking on too much means we don’t do as good a job with the work we attempt. We often switch between tasks, jumping from one to another, so that we actually take longer to do things and often don’t complete tasks. Or we’re so rushed with the tasks we do complete that quality suffers.

I submit that doing less makes you more effective, and thus more productive. It’s worked for me, at least. I have a tendency to slash things off my to-do list, to cut back on my projects when I feel overwhelmed. The result? I’m less stressed, and I actually complete projects — from my ebook to this blog to projects at my day job to new projects I’m finishing up … I’ve been getting very good at knocking out the 2-3 projects I have on my plate at any given time.

Coping with Stress
There are many ways to cope with stress, as I mentioned above. Not all of these methods are created equally:

Negative coping: Some of the more common methods of coping with stress and overload include eating, smoking, drinking, and shopping. We’ve all done it, so I’m not judging, but I view these things as negative coping. Again, I’ve done all four (as well as others), so I know that they can feel like you’re really de-stressing … but in fact, they can actually lead to more stress. Eating, smoking and drinking, if overdone, are unhealthy … and when you do something unhealthy, that’s stressful to your body. Shopping is bad for you financially (again, if overdone) and that leads to financial stress. While these things can give you temporary relief, they are not good in the long run.

Positive coping: These are things I always recommend — exercise, relaxation techniques, Yoga and meditation, taking a hot bath. These lead to less stress, and you should do them every time you get stressed. I replaced smoking with running, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

Reducing the stress: Even better than the positive coping methods, of course, is reducing stress at the source. What is stressing you out? See if you can reduce that source of stress. For this article, we’re going to assume that it’s your workload, whether that’s personal or business work. And the way to reduce that source of stress is to cut back on your workload. Let’s look at how to do that.

How to Cut Back
The problem is, most people who are overwhelmed feel like they just can’t cut back. They feel like they need to work harder to get everything done that needs to get done. They think that taking a break, or cutting back on their workload, is out of the question.

If that’s you, you’re probably the person who needs to cut back the most. Of course, I’m not in a position to judge you, but it’s something to consider.

So how do you cut back when you feel like you can’t? Based on stuff that’s worked for me, here are my recommendations:

1. Step back. In order to make the decisions necessary for cutting back, you need to take a few minutes to clear your head and think. Stop whatever you’re doing (or if you can’t, then schedule 30 minutes for sometime today), and take some time to consider everything you have going on. Take a walk to clear your head if necessary. Get some fresh air.

2. List everything. Make a list of all your tasks and projects (or one list for each if you like). Put everything on there, including personal stuff, civic commitments, everything. In order to make good decisions, you’ll have to see everything at once.

3. Set limits. It may seem impossible, but if you set limits for yourself, you will be forced to choose only the essential. The actual limits aren’t as important as the act of setting them at this point — you can adjust the limits later depending on what works for you. I recommend you choose just 3 important tasks to accomplish today, and limit yourself to only 3 projects.

4. Prioritize. Once you’ve set the limits, you can take a look at your long list of tasks and projects, and choose which ones you’re going to focus on. Which tasks and projects are the most essential? NOT the most urgent, but the ones that will get you the most long-term benefit. Which ones will have the most impact? Often some tasks and projects will seem urgent, but it’s only in our head. If you ignore them, they often lose their urgency (not always, but many times).

5. Eliminate. Of the tasks and projects you didn’t choose as your top priorities … are there any that can be just eliminated? Any that you can put on a someday list? Any that can be delegated or automated? You don’t need to do everything on your list — slash it mercilessly.

6. Renegotiate commitments. Of the stuff you decide not to do now, but can’t just eliminate or delegate … you’ll need to renegotiate them. Go to the person or people you’ve committed yourself to, whether that be a boss or a client or a team or a spouse or friend, and tell them honestly that you just cannot do everything on your plate right now, and ask for a different deadline or timeline. Can they wait a week? A month? Set a new date, and try to stick to it.

7. Take time off. This step is optional, of course, but if you can possibly take a day or half a day or even several days to relax and recuperate, that’s the best possible scenario. That will mean renegotiating everything on your list, probably, so that you don’t feel stressed while taking time out or overwhelmed when you get back. Push everything back a week, two weeks, or a month, depending on the commitment, so that you don’t have anything urgent when you get back. Then take time off, and don’t do any work. Don’t even think about work. Do that when you get back — upon returning to work, take at least 30-60 minutes to prioritize and plan so that you can focus on your most important projects and not be overwhelmed (see next step).

8. Create the ideal workday. What would your ideal workday be? When would you work on your most important tasks? When would you start and end? When would you take breaks, hold meetings, have lunch? I suggest mapping out your ideal workday, with blocks of time for certain types of tasks. For example, I might choose 2 hours in the morning to write, another hour for communication (email, etc), 2 more hours to work on my most important project, an hour to exercise, an hour for smaller tasks, etc. By creating this map (and sticking to it as much as possible), you create a structure that will prevent you from becoming overwhelmed, and that will have you at your most effective.

There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. – Sylvia Plath

A Guide to Cutting Back When You Feel Overwhelmed was originally posted on Zen Habits on 1/16/08.

5 Powerful Reasons to Make Reflection a Daily Habit, and How to Do It

It’s New Year’s Eve (where I live), and I’ve been doing a lot of reflection over the last year. It’s the perfect time of year to look back and reflect on what you’ve done right this year, to learn from what you’ve done.

And on further reflection, this habit of reflection is something that I’ve developed pretty strongly this year.

It’s actually one of the secrets to my success.

At least once a day, and more often several times a day, I reflect on my day, on my life, on what I’ve been doing right, and what isn’t working. I reflect on every aspect of my life, and from this habit of reflection, I am able to continuously improve.

Reflection is what gave me the topic of this post, and the tips that are to follow. Reflection is what gives me the content of every post I write here on Zen Habits.

I highly recommend that, if you haven’t yet, you develop the daily habit of reflection, in your own way. It could have profound changes on your life.

Here are but a few:

1. It helps you learn from your mistakes. If we don’t reflect on our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them. And that’s not very smart. However, if we reflect on those mistakes, figure out what went wrong, see how we can prevent them in the future, we can use our mistakes to get better. Mistakes, then, are a valuable learning tool, instead of something to feel embarrassed or upset about. Reflection is an important way to do that.

2. It gives you great ideas. Like I said, every single post idea that I have for Zen Habits (or other blogs I write for) comes from reflection. Basically, I reflect on things that I’m doing or that are going on in my life. If things aren’t going well, I learn stuff I can share with others. If I reflect on something that’s a success for me, I think about how I got that success, and share that too. I’ve had hundreds of great ideas this year from reflection.

3. It helps you help others. The ideas I get for posts are not just things I feel like writing about … they’re ways that I can share what I’ve learned to help others going through the same things. And this year, I’ve learned just how powerful that is. I began the year with the hope that some of the things I’ve learned in the past couple years can help others … and I’m ending the year with the profound realization of how such simple little tips can change people’s lives. I’ve had hundreds of emails from readers who tell me how little tips, like how to wake up early, or how to start the exercise habit, have changed their lives. That’s incredible. I’m overjoyed if I help people or inspire them.

4. It makes you happier. If you reflect on the things you did right, on your successes, that allows you to celebrate every little success. It allows you to realize how much you’ve done right, the good things you’ve done in your life. Without reflection, it’s too easy to forget these things, and focus instead on our failures.

5. It gives you perspective. Often we are caught up in the troubles or busy-ness of our daily lives. A mistake or a high-pressure project or something like that can seem like it means all the world. It can overwhelm us sometimes. But if we take a minute to step back, and reflect on these problems, and how in the grand scheme of things they don’t mean all that much, it can calm us down and lower our stress levels. We gain perspective, and that’s a good thing.

How to Make Reflection a Daily Habit
If reflection isn’t something you feel you do enough, consider making it a habit. Here are some suggestions for doing that:

1. Start a one-sentence journal. I picked up this trick from my friend Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project … basically, it’s the easy way to start the journaling habit. If you’ve tried and failed at journaling in the past, try the one-sentence journal. It’s a habit that you’ll love, especially when you look back on a year’s worth of entries.

2. Focus on doing it at the same time, every day. No exceptions. Even if you don’t start a one-sentence journal, get into the reflection habit by taking just a few minutes at the end of every day to reflect on your day. Journaling helps crystalize those reflections. Either way, whether you write it down or not, make reflection a daily habit. Write down your goal: what you’ll do, when you’ll do it, and where. Then focus on doing it every single day, same time, same place, no exceptions whatsoever. If you have a trigger (such as, “right after I brush my teeth”), this will help establish the habit. Otherwise, sign up for an online service that sends you a daily reminder at the same time each day.

3. Exercise. One of my favorite times to reflect (other than at the end of the day or while driving) is during one of my runs. I like to take that time to think about my life, and my work. Some of my best post ideas come during runs. If you don’t run or have some other form of daily exercise, consider just taking a walk and using that time for reflection. Make a daily appointment and don’t miss it!

4. Think about your day, your work, your life. In that order. I like to take a look back on my day, to think about what I did right and wrong, what could be improved. Then I take a look at my work, to see how things are going there. Then I step even further back and take a look at my life as a whole. It’s a three-step system that leads to a lot of improvement over time.

5. Write about it publicly. If you post your reflections on a blog, or a forum you belong to, or just on a LiveJournal account viewable to friends … you’re holding yourself accountable to a group of people. Your reflections are shared with others, and once people start to read them and expect them, you’ll feel that positive public pressure to keep it up. That’s what has happened with this blog, and it’s been a great thing for me.

5 Powerful Reasons to Make Reflection a Daily Habit, and How to Do It was originally posted on Zen Habits on 12/30/07.

Why You Should Celebrate Your Mistakes

When you make a mistake, big or small, cherish it like it’s the most precious thing in the world. Because in some ways, it is.

Most of us feel bad when we make mistakes, beat ourselves up about it, feel like failures, get mad at ourselves.

And that’s only natural: most of us have been taught from a young age that mistakes are bad, that we should try to avoid mistakes. We’ve been scolded when we make mistakes — at home, school and work. Maybe not always, but probably enough times to make feeling bad about mistakes an unconscious reaction.

Yet without mistakes, we could not learn or grow.

If you think about it that way, mistakes should be cherished and celebrated for being one of the most amazing things in the world: they make learning possible, they make growth and improvement possible.

By trial and error — trying things, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes — we have figured out how to make electric light, to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to fly.

Mistakes make walking possible for the smallest toddler, make speech possible, make works of genius possible.

Think about how we learn: we don’t just consume information about something and instantly know it or know how to do it. You don’t just read about painting, or writing, or computer programming, or baking, or playing the piano, and know how to do them right away.

Instead, you get information about something, from reading or from another person or from observing usually … then you construct a model in your mind … then you test it out by trying it in the real world … then you make mistakes … then you revise the model based on the results of your real-world experimentation … and repeat, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, until you’ve pretty much learned how to do something.

That’s how we learn as babies and toddlers, and how we learn as adults. Trial and error, learning something new from each error.

Mistakes are how we learn to do something new — because if you succeed at something, it’s probably something you already knew how to do. You haven’t really grown much from that success — at most it’s the last step on your journey, not the whole journey. Most of the journey was made up of mistakes, if it’s a good journey.

So if you value learning, if you value growing and improving, then you should value mistakes. They are amazing things that make a world of brilliance possible.

Celebrate your mistakes. Cherish them. Smile.

Why You Should Celebrate Your Mistakes was originally posted on Zen Habits on 1/26/09.