Overwhelmed By Your To Do List?

Breaking down a large task into smaller manageable steps, in a logical order will change how you process it.

What is happening in the brain when we become overwhelmed?

The amygdala is the section of the brain connected to our automatic emotional response to a situation. When we become swamped with too many, or a particularly challenging task in our work life (or at home and personal) a fight or flight reaction occurs. Fight is resistance, while flight means you might ignore it. Procrastination will not win you friends or influence people. Either way you are more than likely, experiencing negative feelings of guilt, shame, anger or frustration, none of which is conducive to productivity.

It’s not the app, it’s the app user
We always need a task list and it seems there is no getting away from them. Notebook and pen or the many iterations that app developers seem to be thriving on. Seven of the best recommended in The Guardian include, Wunderlist, Todoit, and Any.do, while zapier.com have forty of the best! Take your pick, but however you manage them on paper (or app) is secondary to how you process your task list alongside the daily routines in your business and work life.

Getting to the Source
Getting to the source of overwhelm is certainly a useful endeavour. It is not in all respects painful, but it may take some no nonsense straight self-talking. It appears that the task list is causing the overwhelm and the emotional discomfort. It is a little more layered than that. We all share the same basic human needs which range from shelter and sustenance, choice, communication, respect or safety to meaning and purpose with many more in between. The underlying desire for one or more of these needs to be met is the back seat driver in moving from surviving overwhelm to thriving.

Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome. ~ Booker T. Washington

Results will vary with the individual, however, if the source is grounded in fear of failure or of success, the commentary running beneath the surface level emotions and feelings of stress, frustration and dissatisfaction are most telling. Thoughts on looking bad, unprofessional, lazy or plain stupid are the kinds of things we think and say to ourselves under these circumstances and that send us into fight or flight mode. We resist tasks, hence the one that has been on the list for weeks, we allow ourselves to be distracted by social media or some other task such as filing, reconfiguring our computer or phone settings, or even emptying the dishwasher. But as each plate and cup is stored away, mugs on hooks and cutlery in drawers the negative feelings prevail. When we connect to and become aware of what is driving the overwhelm beyond the detail on lists and we hold ourselves responsible for our reactions, we are empowered to do something about it.

Tips and Tricks

1. Write it down: take a moment (or longer) to sit at your desk and write out all of the items, activities and tasks that you are finding overwhelming. You can also write a bit about how it is all making you feel. No finesse required here and nobody else ever need see it. It is an exercise in clearing the mental debris weighing on your mind. The release of tension is pretty much instant.

2. Talk it out: being mindful of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a brain dump, request some support perhaps with a trusted colleague or work buddy. It’s another way to let go of debilitating thought patterns. When I am working with a client and the need arises, I suggest that they brain dump the content of their overwhelm. This opens up the space for creativity to get on with the work they really want to do to transform their working lives.

3. Review and renew your task list: on a weekly basis is best. Knowing what your priorities are and most of all, what is coming up will stop you from feeling overwhelmed. Awareness is the key to most aspects of life, the knowledge required to make sense of and be empowered in the activities that are going on around us. The mind is always seeking to align with the structures in which we exist or that we create to make sense of life. Provide the mental space for these natural processes and you find yourself ahead of the curve.

4. Change your perspective: instead of a to do list, create a will do list. Replace your to dos by each day selecting tasks that you commit to completing that day. Tricking the brain into a reframe by creating a new or different context is worth the pay-off you will receive in the long run.

5. Trust: ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen, if that longstanding task has not been completed at close of play as promised for the umpteenth time? No lives will be lost in this event. Look around, the world has continued to turn (just about). Finding a way to trust that what needs to be taken care of in priority will rise to the top and you will know how and what to do to make it happen. Consequently, if you find yourself fire fighting and carrying out tasks in a stressed out state, then you have not found a way to trust and handle your task list with a light touch. Allowing your instincts to be your guide as well as what is written in black and white is almost an art. In truth, when you have reached this state of understanding and awareness of how to cope with life’s competing demands, it’s likely you are no longer becoming overwhelmed.

Now that you are managing your task lists like a pro and have created the space for focus, you can work in a more productive way. Breaking down a large task into smaller manageable steps, in a logical order will change how you process it. Providing no cause for the amygdala to fly into an unproductive response. Starting with the desired outcome and working backwards is a good way to do this.

Don’t forget to reward yourself. It could be a tea break with a healthy snack or a diamond ring. The choice is yours. What this sets you up for, is the positive feelings from completion. Provide yourself with a carrot as a means of motivation, which is preferable to putting tasks off. When you complete a task, this naturally motivates you, whereas waiting until the next day is more likely to bring up feelings of guilt.


Practise using the tools to overcome overwhelm until it is a thing of the past. It is totally possible to become someone who does not suffer with the woes of procrastination. Ultimately, it is a huge waste of time and emotion, that could be better used creatively in a myriad of ways. Just as the brain has learned an unproductive emotional response to a busy schedule or list, it can be re-wired to react in a way that better serves our busy lives. American film maker, Casey Niestat has it tattooed to his arm, do more, and for whatever reason or motivation there are many of us with the drive to do just that.

When faced with familiar triggers, the urge to become overwhelmed will most likely never completely vanish. The hippocampus which helps us to store and remember information will make sure of that. It is part of the function of the front brain. However, as you continue to use the tips and tricks that work for you, you will develop a sixth sense for the negative emotional responses. At which point, you will be able to very quickly interrupt those unhelpful patterns. The gaps between the urges will become wider, until one day you realise that overwhelm no longer has you. Rather, you have it in the palm of your hand where you can stay in control of it.

The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering. ~ Ben Okri

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