Feeling Overwhelmed? Here’s the Counterintuitive Cure, According to a Time Management Expert

ByThelma D. Griggs

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Do you often feel overwhelmed, that you have too much for you to do and you can’t get to it all? That’s a very common feeling, says Anna Dearmon Kornick, certified time management coach and head of community at Clockwise, which makes time management software for teams. But the reason for that feeling may not be what you think it is, she says. It may not be because you have too much work to do. It could be that you have too many different important matters to focus on at once. “All of that context switching leads to ovewhelm,” she says in an interview with Inc.com.

Worse, it can create the illusion that you aren’t getting anything done. “We’re basically making an inch of progress on all our projects, instead of making a lot of progress in one area,” she says. “It’s so small that you get frustrated by the fact that you’re not seeing major progress, which gives you negative feelings about the projects, which causes you to feel bad about yourself or think you’re not good enough.”

You might expect a time management coach to advocate narrowing your focus to one task at a time, eliminating or delaying the rest. Unfortunately, real life rarely works that way. You likely have employees, customers, colleagues, and even family members, who need you to focus on different priorities so that they can operate at their best. “When you work with a team, time is a shared resource,” she says.

If you’re stuck with context switching as a fact of life, what can you do to reduce the overwhelm? Here’s her counterintuitive advice.

1. Have a visual tally of all your projects.

“I find that so many people who feel overwhelmed are overwhelmed because they don’t have a visual of everything they’re managing right now,” Kornick says. “So when it comes time to prioritize and make a decision about what to do next, they can’t choose because they don’t have a visual of the full menu. Things are just kind of bouncing around in their head.”

So start by making sure you have a clear list of all your currently active projects and tasks, both in your work and personal life, and that the list is somewhere you can easily see it. For example, Kornick has a whiteboard prominently displayed in her office that has all her work projects and personal projects on it. “Having that visual enables you to do a mental run-through at the end of the day,” she says. “Ask yourself what’s the status of each, what’s taking priority, and what’s getting left behind.”

With the list in front of you, you can see which projects you may be able to pause, and which you can’t because they’re dependent on someone else’s deadline, or someone else’s deadline is depending on them. You can also see which obligations are “nice to have” but not essential. “This is where we look at things like volunteer commitments and commitments on the personal side,” she says. “And then we look for ways to politely step back and offload things. We have to look at where we can be ruthless and step away from things, and with things you can’t step away from, can you ask for help?”

2. Rank your projects and tasks in order of importance.

This can be very difficult to do, Kornick says. “We’re often very reluctant to make big decisions and to say that one project is more important than another, because choosing means we have to go all in on one. And it means we don’t get to spend as much time somewhere else. And we’d love to believe that we have enough time for everything.”

This is why it is both very challenging and very worthwhile to make a ranked list of your projects and priorities, she says. “So you have that clear line in the sand that you’ve drawn for yourself to know any any given moment, if you have to make a decision about what to focus on–there’s your list. You’ve got it right there.”

3. Design your ideal work week.

“Designing an ideal week is creating a template for how you’d like to spend your time week-to-week,” Kornick says. “It’s not meant to be perfect, and it’s not meant to be a measuring stick of how good you are. It’s a decision-making tool so that you can decide, in an ideal week, what would be the optimal way you would want to spend your time?”

Start by filling in big items that aren’t deadline-based, but help you perform at your best, she says. Those could be items like exercise, making sure to rest and recharge, and also your morning routine, your end-of-day routine, and planning for the following day. Once those are in place, add in any standing weekly meetings or commitments you may have. 

Once all that is in your ideal week, you can see how much time is left for things like working on big projects, making phone calls, pitches, and so on. “We can only get about four true hours of productivity a day for focused work before we get exhausted,” she says. For most of us, this works out to about a two-hour work block in the morning and another in the afternoon. Since most of us have the greatest focus in the morning, she suggests devoting your morning work block to focused work such as writing, and the afternoon to meetings. “It really starts with zooming out and seeing what those most important items are, putting them in first, and then designing your week around supporting those,” she says.

I don’t know about you, but this advice makes a lot of sense to me. The combination of my upcoming workshops, a new book launch, and international travel on top of my daily routine has me floundering. So I’m going to give all Kornick’s suggestions a try. How about you?

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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