Do any of these scenarios sound like you?
“I can’t seem to focus on my projects at work. For instance, I was put in charge of the search committee to find the new branch sales manager. Initially, I was enthusiastic, but after a few days I couldn’t seem to concentrate anymore, and I wanted to move on to something else. It became a real burden. ”
“Now that I am retired, I have a lot of free time to do everything I’ve always wanted to do. I have thought about traveling abroad, learning how to play golf, joining a book club, and many more things … my bucket list gets longer and longer and nothing ever gets fully checked off.”
“I have so many different organizations I volunteer for, along with family obligations. I can’t seem to get anything done, and I am letting everyone down in the process.”
“I have too much stress; I am constantly worried about all the things I am not getting done. The more things I have to do the more stressed I become, and the less that actually gets done.”
If you saw yourself in any of those scenarios, I have some tough love for you: admitting you are overwhelmed or anxious is not enough, not even close. Admitting you have these feelings is the easiest part of the process. It gets tough when you have to decide what you are going to do about it. This may even cause you more stress in the short term, but this is exactly the thing you have to do to move forward and break out of the cycle. And it is where most people fail because they are not ready or willing to make changes.
Practical advice on how to break the cycle of stress
Have you thought about changing your schedule? If you get assigned more tasks than you are able to handle make the day longer. How do you make a day longer? Wake up 30 minutes earlier. Maybe only use half your lunch hour. Whatever it takes to give you more time to devote to getting the job done. Little changes like this can make a world of difference on stress levels.
Stop taking on new tasks if you are already overburdened. Many times, not everything needs to be done right now, or even by you. Guilt drives many people to say “yes” when asked to take on new projects when their plate is already full. Even in the work world, this can still apply. Managers need to know if you are being overworked, and if you don’t let them know, they may assume you don’t have enough to occupy you.
Stop feeling pressure from things you think you “ought to be doing.” An example: You see some Pinterest projects that friends have done that are amazing. You put them on your list to do and even buy supplies. But weeks later, the supplies for the project are still sitting untouched; you just never found the time and now feel anxiety at not having followed through. You fell into the trap of feeling pressured to do something your friends were doing but that was not that important to you. Learning to distinguish what you actually want to do from things you only think you should be doing is key.
Stop lying to yourself. You don’t actually care about learning how to quilt—you just are fond of quilts—and you don’t actually want to do the work of learning Chinese as a second language. You think those things are interesting, but not interesting enough to invest the time that it would take to master. These are things that if you start them will only make you feel guilty at not following through. Realistically we can only learn a few new things per year. Make sure that if you take on a new hobby it’s fulfilling to you.
Do not wait for inspiration to hit. Sudden inspiration drives many people to act impulsively and pursue something only to grow bored after a time and lose interest. You see the Pinterest project and are inspired, but you are being inspired by the end result and not the process to attain the finished product. This leads you to abandon the task or keep putting it off until later, only to make you mad at yourself for not completing it.
Next steps for positive change
Probably the most important and obvious way to effect changes is to build structure and systems into your life to accomplish tasks. If you have a long to-do list in your head, instead schedule those items in a calendar or an online project management tool (my favorites are Evernote and Trello). No matter how small the to-dos are, add them to your calendar so you cannot forget them. For larger goals, break those down into a series of tasks that will ultimately get you to your goal. Don’t let yourself skip over those tasks you assigned to yourself. Checking these things off a list or a calendar can give you an added boost and a sense of accomplishment—helping motivate you to check more and more items off your list.
Dovetailing with adding items to a tracking system, make sure that you block out a realistic time frame for completion. If you find you have more tasks than time, this will be your indicator to jettison the tasks that are not vital. If that is not an option, then at least you know not to take any new projects on until you have seen your existing ones through to completion.
When you feel your stress levels rising through the course of your day, take a moment to get away. It may be as simple as going for a walk, or if you are at work—take a lap around your office and grab some water from the water cooler. Just a 5-minute break to collect your thoughts can help put stress in perspective.
Many people turn to natural remedies for an extra boost. For instance, the aroma from eating oranges or using a citrus essential oil can stimulate your senses and give you a needed pick-me-up if you are feeling unmotivated. Many people also like using homeopathic solutions. We would recommend Anxiety + Tension or Overwhelmed, which are designed specifically for people who are having stressful feelings**. Self-massage can also help relieve tension.
At the end of every day, take stock of what you have accomplished and what was left unfinished. If what was left unfinished isn’t a part of a larger goal, does it need to be done at all? Look for trends in your own behavior. If the items that routinely get put off are necessary, resolve to do those items first before anything else. Then the rest of your tasks will seem like a breeze. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish when you do the hard tasks first and don’t have them looming over your head. It will feel as if a weight has been lifted.
And finally, each evening, set out items that you will need for the next day so you are not scrambling to get them at the last moment. This will relieve a lot of stress in the morning, setting the stage for a successful day. Thinking ahead is a form of mindfulness that anyone can do.
Jana Taylor is a staff writer for Liddell Laboratories.