When the list of to-do’s, calls to return, and emails in your inbox is growing at a steady rate, it is easy to get overwhelmed.

When you’re overwhelmed, it feels like there are piles everywhere and you just cannot get ahead of them, no matter what you do. The laundry and dishes pile up. The email threads get lost in digital piles. And looking at the real paper piles on your desk can make you cringe.

It is hard to know what to do next. And it seems like things are never going to be “done.”

What we want to do in times of overwhelm is keep going!
We tell ourselves: Do this one more thing. And then this. And then go over here and do this. Keep going! It will get better if I just keep going!
But it does not get better.

Good news! I have learned a key trick that can help reduce overwhelm within a few hours. You probably know it too. It’s simple — and we almost never do it.

Stop. Get organized!

This is not what we want to do. Looking at all those piles of work increases our anxiety, and we usually want to flee from it. I know I do.

I promise that if you get organized, you will feel better. You may have to push through that first bout of anxiety, but you will feel better! And getting organized improves the chances you will actually accomplish the task you set out to do.

I did this earlier this month.

Right now, I have a number of projects going, including quite a bit of on-site facilitation. At the end of April, I was beginning to wonder how I was going to get it all done.

My first response was to put my head down and just push through. To ignore the piles that were building up around me and simply take care of the next task… and the next… and the next.

I pride myself on being there for my clients. In order to do that, I actually needed to be there for myself first.

So inside of blindly running forward, I set aside an afternoon and evening to get organized. I did not delve into any pending tasks or to-do’s. Instead I cleaned up and fine-tuned my systems.

Here is what I did:

Manage the project and work backwards from deadlines

First I tackled my project management system. I cleaned up the software I use for project management. (I use Asana for business, client and personal projects.) I made sure all my major projects were in the system, with their monthly and weekly tasks. I worked backwards from my deadlines and set completion dates for the key components of each project.
 

Review daily to-do’s

I use my project management tool and calendar to tell me what needs to happen and when. And I keep track of my daily to-do’s in an actual paper notebook that is always with me. (I know most people are fully digital now – I just cannot give up the great feeling of crossing off tasks on a piece of paper. AND this process allows me to step away from the computer during the day.)Each day I write out two to four to-do’s and/or meetings. If I have more than four to-do’s, I know my project timelines are off and I am not going to get everything done.
 

Clean up the calendar

I took a look at my calendar and made sure it was “telling the truth.” I reviewed the last few weeks and previewed the weeks coming up. This means that what my calendar says I am doing and what I have planned to do is ACTUALLY what is occurring. When I revisit my calendar, I learn how I am spending my time. That helps me be more realistic about how long it will take me to complete upcoming tasks. I ask myself, “Can I really get this done by then? And what other chunks of time will it take to get this task done?”
 

Get emails under control

I got back on top of my emails in a few steps. I scanned my email. I responded to anything I could handle quickly. For emails that needed a more thoughtful response, I used Boomerang in Gmail to send messages out of my inbox and back to me at a time when I could focus on them. And I deleted A WHOLE bunch of email, making sure to unsubscribe when pertinent. When I am receiving too much email, I change my email priorities. I respond only to clients, potential clients, friends, and family. I delete the articles and “forwards” in my inbox and start fresh.
 

Clear the decks

As I worked through this process, I paid attention to tasks that could come off my plate. I asked myself, “What can I move to next month? What can I do a few months from now?” I revised some deadlines in my project management system. I canceled a few appointments. I asked for more help from other people on my team. I decided whether some tasks were truly critical, and whether I needed to do them. I took some tasks off my plate completely. Yes, I actually chose to NOT do some things that were on my to do list.

I know my priorities this month. I have fewer piles. I know what needs to get done. I gave myself permission to let a few things slide for the next five weeks (things like laundry and home-cooked meals).
 
 
The whole thing took about four hours. When I was finished organizing, I was tired! And I still felt residual overwhelm.

But the next morning I woke up refreshed! I knew what I needed to tackle and I was no longer avoiding my email or calendar.

This month and the beginning of June are full of good work and good times with my loved ones. I know I will have to stop and get organized again — maybe more than once. I will also need to take an hour at the end of every other day to straighten out my email, my calendar, and my project management system.

If you’re overwhelmed by the work, set aside the time to get your systems in order. When you know what you need to get done, your overwhelm will decrease significantly.

Piles all around you?
Before you do another task, stop and get organized!