How to get things done when you’re overwhelmed

A litany of to-do list task items

As working moms, we’re expected by society to do, be, and have it all together, all the time. There’s no room for dropping any of the balls we juggle: kids, spouses, parents, jobs, businesses, home, all of it has to be perfect all the time. Right? Wrong. 

 

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders – What would you tell him?”

 

I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”

 

To shrug.”

― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

 

Mama, it’s time to shrug. 

A sculpture of Atlas holding the heavens up on his shoulders
What my to-do list feels like some days

(Before you email me, yes, I know Atlas is holding the heavens on his shoulders. But the quote’s still apt.)

 

Here’s another quote for you, from Madeleine Albright “I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we’re not trying to do it all at once.”

 

There are times I think “doing it all at once” is the very definition of motherhood. We have to take care of the kids, run the house, support our partners, please our bosses, show up for our friends, and look gorgeous, all at the same time. It’s overwhelming, what we expect of each other, what we expect of ourselves.

 

That stops, right here, right now. 

Why you can't (and shouldn't try to) do it all

First of all, there are only so many hours in the day. If you spend two hours getting everybody ready to leave the house in the morning, half an hour on the commute to work, nine hours at work, another 30 minutes to drive home, two hours helping the kids with homework while you make dinner, half an hour eating dinner, an hour playing with the kids, half an hour on bedtime routines, two hours cleaning the house, an hour with your partner, and eight hours asleep, you’ve already hit 27 hours. 

 

And that’s if nothing else is going on. No grocery shopping. No extracurriculars for the kids. No time with your friends. No crises crop up. Nothing unexpected happens. Nobody gets sick or has an accident or needs to see a doctor. Nothing in the house breaks. Your boss doesn’t ask you to work overtime on an important project. No possible way to squeeze everything into a 24 hour day. Something’s gotta give, before something breaks. 

A litany of to-do list task items
I'm overwhelmed just WRITING this to-do list!

What to do to avoid overwhelm

There are any number of ways to flex things. But first, you need to do a brain dump. Write down everything you have to do in a normal, same old, same old kind of day. From the time your eyes snap open in the morning til the time you pass out at night. Don’t include any of the extras like grocery shopping or stopping by the bank. No outside appointments. Nothing but home and work. 

 

Next, write down everything else you have to do in any given week. This is where the kids’ soccer practice and piano lessons, your weekly trip to the Super Walmart, date night, and girls’ night out will go. 

 

Finally, write down everything else you have to do on a monthly or longer basis. Doctor’s appointments, oil changes, yardwork, the school bake sale, balancing your checkbook, anything that has to happen less often than once a week. 

 

You’re going to feel overwhelmed when you do this. That’s okay. Because we’re going to get you out of that feeling.

Break it down

Now take a look back at that daily tasks list. Divide it into two groups: things you personally have to do, and things someone else could theoretically do. For example, do you personally have to fix the kids’ breakfast in the morning? No, you do not. 

 

Kids can get their own breakfast once they’re old enough to pour a bowl of cereal and milk, or grab a granola bar and a Go-Gurt. They could microwave frozen waffles or get a bowl of fruit out of the fridge. You don’t have to do any of those things for them.

 

You personally have to get yourself ready for work. You personally have to work. You do not personally have to drive yourself there. You could grab an Uber or carpool so you can get your work day started on your way to the office. 

 

You personally have to eat dinner with your kids. You do not personally have to make dinner. Older kids or your partner can cook. You can order takeout or delivery. You can hire a private home cook who sells homemade dinner to people like you, complete with reheating instructions.

a family eating dinner together
Eating dinner with the fam with candles on the table? Fancy schmancy!

Prioritize your tasks

What’s more important, finishing the Jacobsen account or taking your sick kid to the doctor’s office? Obviously, taking care of your sick kid wins that comparison. Figuring out what’s most and least important can be as simple as ABC. 

 

Write down all the tasks that only you can do. Put a letter to the left of each one. Now start comparing them, one to the next, and the next, and so on. If task A is more important than task B, write an A to the right of task A. If task C is more important than task A, write a C to the right of task A. Go through your entire list this way. 

 

Then start counting letters. If there are five A’s to the right of task A, that’s the value of task A. If there are four B’s between what’s to the right of A and B, that’s the value of task B. Always look to previous rows to include the count of the letter you’re tallying up. 

 

To do a paired comparison, write down your list. So if I want to shave the cat, write a book, mop the walls, and make a cake, I list them with letters in front. Like this:

 

A Shave the cat

B Write a book

C Mop the walls

D Make a cake

 

Then I start comparing. Between shaving the cat and writing a book, which needs to be done first? Well, the cat’s fur is full of chewing gum and brambles, so I probably oughta shave him before I write a book. So I write A next to Shave the cat. Same goes with mopping the walls and making a cake; they have less urgency and importance than shaving the cat. So two more As go next to Shave the cat.

 

Do the same thing comparing Write a book to Mop the walls and Make a cake, then finally compare Mop the walls and Make a cake. Than you’ll have something that looks like this:

 

A Shave the cat AAA

B Write a book BD

C Mop the walls D

D Make a cake

 

Then you count up your letters. You’ve got 3 A’s, the most of any letters, so A goes first. then you’ve got 2 D’s, so that goes second on the list. There’s 1 B and 0 C’s, so they go third and fourth. So you’ve got this:

 

A Shave the cat

D Make a cake

B Write a book

C Mop the walls

 

There’s your order for pursuing tasks. Shave the cat first, then make a cake, followed by writing a book, and ending with mopping the walls.

A hairless cat standing up on its hind legs
Caution: shaving the cat may have unintended side effects

Break it down more

Now that you have your prioritized task list, it’s time to get nitty with the gritty. What tasks do you absolutely have to do every day? Which ones could move to every other day, or 2-3 times a week? Which could be done weekly or monthly? And what tasks do you really not have to do at all?

 

For example, maybe your morning mindfulness practice includes journaling, meditation, and yoga. Could you do the yoga part every other day? Or three times a week? Or say you’re cleaning the kitchen after dinner; do you have to scrub down the hood vent every day? Or could it be done weekly or monthly instead? (Or could you not have to personally clean the kitchen at all?)

 

Take a look at the tasks on the bottom of your list. Are there any you could drop entirely? Things you could delegate? Things you could pay someone else to do? Things that just aren’t that important? 

 

Once you finalize your task list, to reduce overwhelm even more, break your tasks down into smaller, bite-sized chunks. For example, when you clean the kitchen, you rinse dishes, put them in the dishwasher, wipe down countertops, wipe down the stove top, shine your sink, sweep, and mop the floor. As you do these smaller tasks, you’ll find more satisfaction in crossing them off your to-do list for the day.

Schedule everything

To help get out of the overwhelm with procrastination, schedule your daily tasks in your calendar. To keep going with the kitchen example, you could schedule rinsing the dishes for  6:30, putting dishes in the dishwasher at 6:45, wiping down countertops at 7, wiping down the stove top at 7:10, shining your sink at 7:20, sweeping at 7:30, and mopping at 7:45.

 

Make sure you schedule in the bigger, more important tasks first, like work, spending time with kids, and spending time with your partner. Most importantly, schedule time with yourself, to make sure you’re not getting burned out or  overwhelmed by day-to-day life. Including a mindfulness practice every day. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy schmancy, but it does have to be on your calendar to eliminate analysis paralysis. If tasks are on your calendar, you don’t have to decide what to do and when to do it, because you’ve already made those decisions.

Be mindful

In everything you do, be mindful. Mindful of your time, mindful of your energy, mindful of your money, and mindful of your priorities.

 

Be present in the moment, whatever you are doing. If you’re helping your kids with homework, focus on helping your kids with their homework. Don’t let your mind wander to work tasks, what you need to do tomorrow, what has to happen next week, just spend that time with your kids.

 

It’s okay to multitask on some things, like cooking dinner and helping with homework, or cleaning the kitchen while you listen to a  podcast, but don’t try to do too much at the same time. Countless Studies have shown that people suck at multitasking. All of us do. Every last one. That includes you.

Be mindful of your time

 

To be mindful of your time, set alerts on your calendar that warn you five or ten minutes before it’s time to switch tasks. If you find that tasks are taking longer than you scheduled them for, adjust your schedule. Using your calendar in this way will help you stay focused on the task at hand, knowing that you’ll get an alarm when it’s time to do the next thing.

Someone using their smart watch
"I don't care how smart it is, it still won't let me have 27 hours in my day!"

Be mindful of your energy

Being mindful of your energy will help you schedule tasks more efficiently. For example, if you’re a morning person, you could work on tasks that require more energy first thing in the morning, rather than leave them till the evening. If you’re a night owl, the reverse is true. 

 

After spending most of my life as a night owl, I’ve become a morning person, typically waking up between 3 and 5 every morning. I started writing this blog post at 4:30 this morning. I had planned to write it yesterday, but the day got away from me, and I didn’t have time to sit down and write until about 8 last night. I knew if I started then, I just have to rewrite the entire thing today. So I waited.

Be mindful of your money

 

Be mindful with your money. Spend where it makes sense to spend. For example, you could hire a housekeeper to come in once a week and clean your house from top to bottom for oh, let’s say, $100.

 

Or you could spend that $100 on paying your kids to do household chores, either per job or as a weekly allowance, then have money left over to pay someone to cook those premade homemade meals for you so you don’t have to cook as much.

 

You could hire a nearby college student for absolutely no money at all, to do your laundry or babysit your kids in exchange for letting them do their laundry once yours is done. 

Stop trying to do it all

Take a quick look over your list keeping the four D’s of time management in mind: Do, Delay, Delegate, and Delete. Do tasks are those that must be done by you, and must be done nowish. Delay tasks are those you can put off to a later time or date. Delegate tasks are the ones someone else can do instead of you. Delete tasks are the ones you decide don’t have to be done at all.

 

This framework will help you reprioritize your task list, to make it work most efficiently for you. With practice, you’ll be able to categorize your tasks more quickly, and help you be more mindful of your time, energy, and money.

 

Getting things done when you’re overwhelmed can feel like a daunting, Herculean task. You may feel like there’s nothing at all you can do, except curl up in bed with Netflix and a bucket of ice cream. But I promise, you can get things done. Not all of them, and certainly not all at the same time, but you can get things done. 

How to get things done when you’re overwhelmed

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