The Secret to Dealing with Feeling Overwhelmed

If you’re living in contemporary society, you probably have a to-do list… maybe on a legal pad, computer, phone, post-it note, sticky pad, left hand, or some other surface. 

And every time you look at it, you might get that sinking feeling of, “I have too much to do and it won’t all get done.” 

Your brain might then fill in, “And you will be fired, your loved ones will leave you, and you will die.”

No wonder we feel so much stress and pressure when we look at the tasks on our to-do list.  Our brain is telling us, “Do these things or die alone!”

The secret to dealing with this feeling of overwhelm is to recognize a simple truth:  We are always in the present.  The future and past are useful constructs for planning and creating, but they never actually exist except as memory or anticipation. 

Since we are always in the present, we can only accomplish one task at a time.  This may seem obvious, but part of what creates the feeling of “overwhelm” is an awareness of all of the impending tasks at once.  Our minds are overloaded with the magnitude of the tasks at hand, and so it freaks out. 

Our mind freaks out because it knows there is literally no way we can do all of those tasks at the same time.  We are mono-tasking beings, which psychological research has proven by showing that our brain only processes one information stream at a time, even if we switch rapidly between different streams. 

So the next time you find yourself feeling stressed out by your to-do list, just tell yourself, “I can only do one thing at a time.”  You might be surprised by how freeing that statement is!  It’s definitely helped me focus better at work and stay present with the task I’m doing at that moment. 

With so many factors outside of our control, it’s reassuring to remember that one thing we always have control over is our attention to the immediate task at hand. 

If you have any other tips for dealing with overwhelm, I’d love to hear about them in comments! 


Posted on October 2, 2014 .