Ever feel like there’s not enough time in the day to get everything done? Do you start feeling overwhelmed as soon you think about everything on your plate?
If you’re an entrepreneur, you probably know this feeling well. You’re running on all cylinders trying to build your business. You have a long to-do list that seems to grow longer every day. You just don’t have enough hours in the day.
Feeling overwhelmed can result in negative emotions such as anxiety, worry or irritability. And it can increase your stress levels, which could lead to even more serious issues with your mental or physical health.
While you can’t add more hours to your day, there are a number of strategies you can use to help you stop feeling overwhelmed.
1. Take a Deep Breath
When you’re overwhelmed or feeling stressed, it can be hard to think clearly.
And when you’re not focused and thinking clearly, you’re more likely to make a bad decision or struggle to get things done.
The first and most important step when you’re feeling stressed is to relax.
In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School physician developed a technique called the relaxation response. This is a state of deep rest that helps to change your response to stress e.g. reduced heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension
You can use a number of techniques to induce the relaxation response, including mindfulness, tai chi, yoga, deep breathing etc.
Deep breathing, which is also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a simple but powerful technique for dealing with stress. Here’s a short 3-minute video that will teach you this technique:
You can practice diaphragmatic breathing lying down, sitting or even standing up. Once you’re comfortable with this technique, you can do it anywhere.
2. Start Writing
One reason you might be overwhelmed is that your brain feels overloaded with information. You might be mentally juggling a long list of tasks or you may have negative thoughts spinning around in your head.
One of the best ways to clear your mind is to write things down.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed because your head is filled with all the things you need to get done, then try this simple exercise.
Get a piece of paper and spend 10 minutes making a list of everything that you need to get done. Don't try to evaluate or organize every task, you can do that later. For now, just get those tasks out of your head and onto paper.
This simple technique can help to reduce the feeling of overwhelm. Your brain doesn’t have to keep juggling all these tasks and deadlines anymore. You've cleared your ‘mental RAM' and captured all those thoughts in a safe place.
If you’re struggling with negative thoughts, you can use a similar technique to help you get rid of that ‘head trash'. Grab another sheet of paper and write down all your negative thoughts. And when you're done, throw it away.
It sounds like a silly exercise, but in 2012, a study published in Psychological Science showed that writing negative thoughts and then throwing them away can help clear your mind.
There’s something magical about writing things down.
3. Reset Your Compass
Making a list of all the tasks bouncing around in your head is a great way to clear your mind. It's a simple ‘bottoms up' approach to planning your work.
But it can still leave you with a nagging feeling. You might be able to check things off your to-do list and do some ‘busy work'. But are you also working on the things that will help you make meaningful progress towards your goals?
I once worked with a software development team that used Scrum and agile planning to regularly ship product updates. Every month they'd select items from their backlog, work on them and celebrate when they were done.
But when I asked them what they were trying to achieve with their product in the next 6 to 12 months, they had no clear idea. They were stuck in ‘bottoms up' planning. It was like getting into your car every day and celebrating you'd driven 5 miles. But you had no idea what your final destination was.
That's why you also need ‘top down' planning. You need to think about your most important goals and identify the key activities that will move you closer to achieving those goals.
Here's a simple exercise to help you with ‘top down' planning.
Grab a sheet of paper and write down your 3 to 5 most important goals in the next 90 days. And then for each goal, write down the top 3 activities that you can do to make progress towards that goal. By the end of this exercise, you'll have a list of the things that you should be spending 80% of your time on.
4. Focus On Process, Not Outcome
It’s great to have a vision or big goal that drives and motivates us. It gives you a direction for your business and personal life. But when it comes to sitting down and doing work, continuing to focus on a vision or goal can become a problem.
Let’s say that you want to write a blog post. You know that you’re doing this so you can get more customers. You want to use content marketing to generate a steady stream of new leads. You want to hit a million dollars in annual revenue.
But suddenly you realize how much work you have ahead of you. And you start thinking about how many more blog posts you’ll have to write before you see any kind of meaningful result. The task now seems overwhelming.
Several years ago, I read a wonderful book called ’The Practicing Mind‘ by Thomas M. Sterner. It helped me to clearly understand the difference between process and outcome.
Instead of thinking about how your blog post is going to help generate a million dollars in revenue, you should focus on the process of writing that one blog post. You should approach it with a ‘practicing mindset’ and a skill that you can improve.
As Sterner says, ‘the secret is in learning that the process of achieving your goals is not something you must endure, but instead is where the REAL joy waits to be discovered.
You should absolutely have an inspiring vision and big goals. But when it comes to doing the work, focus on the process, not the outcome.
5. Build a Single-Tasking Habit
The truth is that our brain isn’t very good at multi-tasking.
Our mind is programmed to deal with one thing at a time. So when we try to multi-task, we’re rapidly switching from one task to another and back.
We try to multitask because we think we’ll be more productive, but there’s plenty of scientific evidence that shows the opposite is true. Also, when we multitask, we’re not being mindful and fully engaged with the task we’re doing.
In 2009, a research study by Stanford University showed that multitasking is less productive than single-tasking i.e. doing one thing at a time. The study also found that ‘people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time’.[Tweet “Multi-tasking is the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.”]
It might seem counter-intuitive, but when you’re feeling overwhelmed, focus on doing one task at a time. You’ll be more productive and less stressed.
6. Learn to Do Less
As entrepreneurs, we have no shortage of ideas. We have a long list of things we want to do today and enough ideas to keep us busy for years.
It can be frustrating when you realize that there just isn’t enough time for you to do everything in the day or in this lifetime. And that creates overwhelm.
The first step to dealing with this is to accept that you’ll never get it all done. I know that’s hard to accept (and say), but it’s a reality. Once we acknowledge that, we feel less stressed because we have less resistance to trying to do it to all.[Tweet “Do three things well, not ten things badly. – David Segrove”]
The second step is to realize that it’s not about doing lots of things. It’s about doing a small number of things that really matter and help you make a positive impact in people's lives.
Think about 5 years from now. What would you like to have accomplished? How many of the things that you're working on right now will you even care about in 5 years?
It's easy to get consumed with our day-to-day priorities and fire drills. But when you do the 5-year exercise you quickly realize that most of those things just won't matter in the future.
You'll also start to get more clarity about the one or two things that you should be spending the majority of your time on.
Remind yourself every day that it's not about getting more done. It's about getting results that matter.
7. Start with Micro-Actions
Some years ago, I started taking golf lessons at a local driving range.
I'd arrive early and practice hitting the ball. I'd miss the ball completely 8 times out of 10. And the times I did make contact, the ball didn't go very far.
The instructor gave me a simple tip. Instead of taking a big swing and trying to hit the ball 100 yards, take a very small swing and hit the ball 5 yards.
It seemed like a pointless exercise. But I agreed to do what he said.
Now that I had such a small goal, I didn't try very hard. I took a very small swing and slowly hit the ball 5 yards. It was almost a perfect shot.
The instructor then asked me to hit the ball 10 yards, then 20 yards, and so on. Eventually, I was hitting the ball 100 yards 8 times out of 10.
Why was I able to do this?
Because I started with a micro-goal i.e. a really small and easy goal. It didn't take much effort. I didn't need to try hard.
But that micro-goal gave me confidence. It helped me build momentum. And pretty soon I was achieving a much bigger goal.
When you're overwhelmed it can be hard to get started. It's easier to procrastinate.
So start by setting yourself a micro-goal. Give yourself something so easy that you have no resistance to doing it.
If you're struggling to write blog posts on a regular basis, set a goal to write 100 words a day. You can do that in 5 minutes.
Got a big project you need to start? Pick one action that you can complete in 2 minutes or less.
You can work on anything for a few minutes.
Most of the time, those few minutes will build the momentum you need to keep working and to take the next step and the next step.
Remember, “if you can't beat the clown, how are you gonna beat Shooter McGavin?” 🙂
Simple Strategies, Big Outcomes
It can be easy to get overwhelmed as an entrepreneur. The overwhelm can lead to anxiety and stress, which can make things worse. There’s no silver bullet that will ‘cure’ your overwhelm.
But the simple strategies in this guide can be a useful reference when you need a little help. So the next time you feel overwhelmed, hit the pause button on what you’re doing. Go through the exercises in this guide to clear your mind and get refocused.
Let me know what you thought of this article in the comments below.