“Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have.”–Arthur Ashe
There are times I feel as if I can’t think straight. My thoughts are scattered like fall leaves, colorful shapes of ideas caught in the whirlwind of my mind. I have goals and lists of things to-do for school (I’m an educator), writing, home, family/friends, self, and so on . . . .
For example, I may begin my day feeling energized, fully focused, and operating in a flow state, moving from goal A to goal B. Remaining clear-headed, I move on to task C, when, unexpectedly, an email or text will be sent my way, creating an impending deadline for another task that was not on my radar for the day.
Meanwhile, another challenge develops, and another issue needs addressed, and the wires in my mind that were moving linearly, now have to bend, zig, and zag. When time and circumstance finally permits me to circle back to task C, my thoughts are scattered as I wonder how I will ever make it through the day, much less the week.
Too much to do, too many responsibilities/obligations, and numerous distractions, for many of us. Is it any wonder we often feel scattered, overwhelmed, and/or agitated/anxious with greater frequency in a culture that fosters and rewards busyness. Therefore, if hiring a personal assistant isn’t anywhere on the horizon or budget, what are some practical and more mindful techniques mere mortals can practice when feelings of overwhelm threaten to take our minds away.
Practically speaking, there are organizational strategies.
- Long list: I like to start my week with a long list, or a brain dump, of all the things on my mind, mostly for the upcoming week, but some items are more long term. I typically do this on Sunday or Monday. I am old school, so I prefer handwriting, but it really doesn’t matter. The point is to get all my deadlines, worries, ideas, goals visually listed and out of my jumbled mind. I may add to this list throughout the week as various items pop-up.
- Short list: From my long list, each day, I try to prioritize 2-4 items to complete and mark off my long list. I typically write these on a post-it note for the day or add it to my reminders app.
- Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps: For example, in my world, this may look like setting the goal of grading one class’s (or ½ half of a class’s) essays each day, with the goal of finishing that grade level by week’s end. I apply this to all other larger/bigger projects, setting mini-goals for each larger job.
- Create rituals/routines: For certain tasks, I create rituals/routines. I set aside specific time periods/days for completing certain tasks. For example, laundry is typically started on Saturday and finished on Sunday. Food preparation for the week is Sunday afternoon. Early mornings on Saturday and Sunday are set aside for writing and/or school tasks, with a few hours added in the afternoons of both days, if time allows.
- Set boundaries on email, texts, and social media: These are rabbit–holes of distractibility if I am not careful, especially when working. Therefore, I check email at certain times of the day, and that is it. If I am grading/writing or completing any other type of work that requires my full focus, the phone is face down, silenced, and I set a 50-minute timer with an allowance for a 10-minute movement break and text check each hour.
- But, be flexible: All of these strategies may work, but–and there is always a ‘but’ in life–we have to be ready to bend with life and be flexible enough to throw lists and plans out the door as needed. Which is why we need mindful strategies . . .
When life gets in the way, all the best laid plans go out the door, and this is when overwhelming feelings can occur. Therefore, we need more than neck-up strategies; we also need strategies that speak to and soothe the heart and soul.
- Breathe, and try not to panic: Take several deep belly breaths and acknowledge that you feel overwhelmed without judgment. I know this isn’t easy, but be gentle with yourself. Your work may not be coming together as you originally envisioned it or within a time frame you had hoped, but you’ve completed other challenges before, you are trustworthy and committed; therefore, trust that you will get it completed.
- Take a break: If time allows, take a short break. Consider walking away for a moment, even if only for the time it takes to walk to the restroom and grab a drink of water. If you can’t walk away, look away from the work for a moment. Close your eyes for a breathing break, focus on an image, look out the window if you have one, pause for a prayer–whatever works to SLOW down your breathing, distract your mind, and reduce the stormy feelings inside.
- Switch gears to another job. This may mean completing a short task that requires little, to no, brain power; or, it may mean jumping ahead to another item on your list and working on it for a few minutes. The point is to gain a sense of accomplishment to refresh your spirit and put you into a more positive mindset.
- Be your own cheerleader: Offer yourself encouragement and supportive thoughts. “You’re doing great.” “Two steps completed; you’re on a roll.” “Two phone calls down. Only three more to go; you’re making progress.”
- Make peace with the storm: Work-life balance is fluid. Sometimes life is as calm as a cloudless June day; and other times, it is like a room full of toddlers who haven’t had their naps, and they all have colds–you don’t know which nose to wipe first or which kid to attempt to calm because they are all crying.
Accepting that life is messy, imperfect, and sometimes turbulent is not easy, but resisting this fact, only makes it more difficult. Just as the toddler teacher cannot leave the classroom of crying kids, neither can we leave the storms of life.
In the end, making peace with our sometimes traffic-jammed brains doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be organized or equipped with strategies, it merely means we accept the process of working through the challenges of life. It’s a commitment to the implementation of daily strategies, mindful habits, and a healthy dose of gentleness in order to recover some semblance of clarity when the chaos of life occurs.