If we have neglected to employ Marshall Cook's organizing principles, and we are alive and living in the 21st century, chances are we will occasionally experience some days when we have way too much to do, and we feel it--in a bad way. You know, that shoulders hunched, blood pressure raised, jaw and hands clenched, mind racing, head in a vice, impending disaster body state that makes you want to run for your life away from it but you can't because it's inside of you? Or maybe it is you?
I have had a short string of such days recently. And although Gretchen Rubin, who wants us all to be happier, would have us "reframe" situations we dislike as ones we love, I can't quite manage that degree of mental or spiritual contortion. I have, however, had a lot of opportunities to think about and try out ways to cope with that pressure cooker feeling. The following list of tips is a work in progress. (I started out with a list of ten suggestions, which grew to 18 as I typed.)
18 tips for surviving when you're too busy to turn around
1. Do something you love to do, even though you don't have time for it.
I learned this approach by watching my husband head out the door to play golf on a day too crammed with work to accommodate this time-consuming nonessential. His practice is pretty evolved from years of overcommitment; I don't advise that we novices begin with such an advanced counterintuitive move. But maybe a little time spent reading a novel, or calling a friend, doing needlework or whacking a tennis ball around can give you a feeling of having more time.
2. Practice strategic "blowing off"--excise a task or meeting from your to-do list, and replace it with a more productive use of your time.
For example, this morning I am skipping a meeting, at which I would probably pick up a future task or two, to spend the time on the “crunchiest” of the days projects.
3. Breathe. Deeply, and often.
You may find, as I have, that you are prone to breath-holding when stressed. Oxygen-deprivation will only make the situation worse. Take a few deep breaths, hand on belly, unknot your diaphragm, and then keep the air flowing.
4. Remember death--This too shall pass.
Sounds grim, perhaps, but I get comfort from the knowledge that none of the things I am so wrought up about matter so very much in the cosmic view. The idea of my limited time on earth helps to keep things in perspective.
5. Do what you're doing--Be here, where you are. Don't get ahead of yourself.
Yes, the current overwhelming task will be followed by another , equally daunting. And then there’s Murphy’s Law. And traffic. But mentally visiting these future landscapes exposes us to their anticipated stress, concurrent with the pressure we’re already feeling. Don’t go there.
6. Laugh at the situation--think of your day as a sitcom episode.
How would Frasier handle a day like yours? What would Niles say? How crazy would it all look on TV?
7. Get rid of nonessential tasks--but not all self-care.
Even though it’s Thursday, when you normally dust the living room furniture, embrace dustiness just for today. And the monthly bills can probably wait until the busyness typhoon has passed. But if, for example, you rely on meditation or exercise or journaling or a long soak in a bubble bath to keep you sane—or, like me, all of the above—don’t eliminate all of these from your day from hell.
8. Improve the day’s ambience with treats.
I don’t know about you, but I can almost face the prospect of producing a complicated, last-minute set of meeting materials if I can count on having an extra foamy decaf latte at my side. Though it is chic to scoff at such indulgences, Starbucks was made for these times.
9. Ask for help.
When we’re up against it, we may have to remind ourselves that we don’t have to do it all alone. Think creatively about what small or large parts of an overwhelming task, or set of tasks, might be manageable by someone else. And then ask them.
10. Show kindness to someone.
Many of us have absorbed the view that we suffer from the “disease to please,” are co-dependent, and would benefit from paying more attention to our own needs. But a small kindness shown to someone else can nurture a feeling of connection, and large-heartedness. These are antidotes for the sense of isolation and smallness that typically accompany mega-stress. Just don’t go overboard. There is a difference between holding a door for someone and taking their children for the weekend.
We’ve all seen this on every stress-busting list, but it’s there for a reason. As Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us, "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." Or, in this case, your relative serenity.
12. Turn down the volume. Take refuge in silence, or at least quiet.
Turn off the radio in your car, the background music in your office. If you can, find a quiet place to work without distraction.
13. Wall off—Do less email checking, phone-answering, talking, door-answering, etc.
There are so many conduits of stress and additional demands in our culture. The image that comes to my mind is from the first Harry Potter book, when Hogwarts was trying to send a letter to Harry. Eventually, letters were piling up under the mail slot, flying down the flue, and swirling overhead. When you are already feeling overwhelmed, don’t expose yourself to more input. Close that transom.
14. Diagnose--How did I get here? How can I avoid such crunch times in the future?
Of course, now is probably not the time to launch a full-scale investigation into the roots of your present difficulties. But make notes while the experience is fresh, for later analysis. “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
15. Steer clear of other stress-fiends--they will only make you crazier.
Unfortunately, this means I need to avoid my husband whenever I'm stressed-out, since that is his nearly-permanent state. When I'm at my wit's end, the man I love is almost always toxic, since stress pours from him like dirt from Peanuts' Pigpen.
16. As my yoga teacher would say, "ground down" into your body--catch yourself tensing and rushing, and slow down.
17. Get and give hugs.
Even my normally stressed-out husband can help with this. And my dog is a genius of healing touch, with his silky fur and his talent for lying by my side while I work.
18. Take short breaks where you can
Let me know if you have additional suggestions. For now, I'm off to the races. While breathing.