Overwhelm Series #4: How to stay productive when you're overloaded
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If you’re feeling overwhelmed, struggling with procrastination, forgetful, short of time/energy/motivation, it can feel impossible to get anything done. Read on for a crucial tip that will help you keep moving even when things feel impossible. If you’ve been following this series of posts on Managing Overwhelm, I’m curious whether you’ve experienced the life-changing effect of good sleep yet? (If you’re struggling or unclear how to make this work for you, Email me - I’m a sleep evangelist on a mission).
Today we’re digging into something almost as foundational as sleep: How to stop using your brain as a storage system so that you can get more done, especially when you have limited resources.. This is absolutely essential for anyone struggling to get things done with ADHD. You’ll discover that the overwhelm that you feel when faced with a to-do list is not a fundamental part of life with ADHD. It happens because you’ve learned a technique for coping with your to do list that doesn’t understand how brains work. Not just ADHD brains - ALL brains. But it's especially important for neurodiverse folks and people with executive function issues.
When I ended a fourteen-year relationship with the father of my kids, it was a huge upheaval. I left the house we had bought together with no money, no income, home or even a car. It was intense. I house-sat to keep a roof over my head. My kids and I lived in SEVEN different homes over those eight months. They were all great places - the best of which was a gorgeous art deco villa where we spent Christmas - but it was a lot of change, not a lot of security and I was literally blessing every pound that crossed my sticky palms.
While I waded through the emotional and physical turmoil of the transition and slowly got settled again, a huge mound of admin piled up from the change of life.
New address, new bank, new car, new schools. I was solely responsible for everything for the first time. Oh and did I mention I have major issues with focus, attention and energy because of suspected ADHD / autism? I was exhausted and overwrought, and guess what got left for another day? The admin of course!!
For a good couple of years at least I had an ongoing to-do list that was several pages long. I didn’t want to do any of it. I didn’t do paid work a great deal during that time - just enough to keep my head above water - and often clearing the backlog was all I could do day-to-day.
Bit by bit, I ploughed my way through and got my life set up. Now of course there’s still lots to do, and I still struggle with feeling tired a lot and having off days. But my to-do list is literally a whole different thing. The mound of SHOULD-MUST-URGENT is almost entirely dissipated. I’ve automated a lot of stuff (something I’ll talk about in due course) and my actual to-do list fits neatly onto a single page in my journal.
This week’s blog is all about one of the most important lessons that helped me to wade through this intimidating and demoralising backlog against a backdrop of intense personal and financial stress... and not-a-lot-of mojo.
It’s a simple approach that frees up your brain for the sophisticated processes of life and more flow.
Stop using your brain as an office
You need your brain for the sophisticated processes of life: loving people, designing your long-term plan for world domination, making beautiful things.
Most people don’t use theirs mainly for this sophisticated processing. They use it for remembering to pick their kids up from school and trying to find their keys. Oh and facebook.
The trouble is, your conscious brain isn’t designed for this kind of ephemera. If you fill it up with endless lists of things you need to remember (probably in no particular order) it will quickly get jammed. You’ll be unable to get either the big or the small things done. Add in the emotional toll of a stressful period and your thinking-and-doing brain will more or less seize up.
A big part of learning how to be more effective isn’t about trying harder or getting cleverer, it's just about clearing space and learning how to use what you’ve got for the purpose it was designed for.
Keeping lots of random information in your head is like trying to mash potatoes with your smartphone. It would be bad for the phone, hard and annoying to do and leave you with very lumpy mashed potato.
When you try and hold your to-do list in your short term memory, you’re asking one of the most evolved organisms on the planet (your pre-frontal cortex) to do what a simple piece of paper can do perfectly well.
(There are a few online tools that can help you do this such as Evernote, Trello, Notion and good old Apple Notes. I do, however, believe that a good ol’ piece of paper can do the trick, so long as you keep it in a safe place!)
If you find it hard to think straight, make decisions, remember things or focus, this is because the part of your brain that governs these functions is overstretched by managing the minutiae.
The term for this is “Cognitive Load” which refers to the amount you are asking your cognition (your conscious processing/thinking) to do at any given time.
Some people literally have less capacity for handling things consciously like this. If you notice you get easily stressed by the minutiae, or know you have issues around executive function as a result of ADHD, Autism, Aspergers, Dyslexia, Depression/Anxiety, Chronic Fatigue or other issues, then paying attention to cognitive load is going to be a game-changer for you.
Reducing Cognitive Load is also a really important move if you want more flow in your life. Flow is the state of deep engagement, focus, creativity and absorption that is at the root of the world’s greatest achievements, but also the most enjoyable and memorable moments of your work, personal, interpersonal and spiritual life.
Flow happens when your pre-frontal cortex kind of goes off-line. If you’re straining to hold everything in your head, you won’t be able to drop into flow, and you’re missing out on a neurochemical supercocktail in the process.
Create Your Master List: Action Step to free up space in your thinking-and-
This exercise got me out of trouble on many, many
occasions when I was adjusting to life as a single mum. I’d leave things for weeks on end until it got too much, then I’d do this, and make a plan. This is just step one. I’m going to explain the following steps in the next few blog
posts. But just doing this will be a big leap forward.
Get a pen and paper (do not do this on your computer).
You’re going to dump out everything you’ve got to do.
Get it all down.
Write down everything in your head you’ve been trying to get done, or want to get done, or are planning to get done, or feel you should get done.
Gather together all your post-it notes, your seven notebooks, phone reminders, emails, productivity apps and anywhere else you might have scribbled down something to remember.... and transfer everything onto this list.
Once you’ve finished, you might feel a little bit queasy: this is ok.
The next step is learning how to tackle this monster, and what to do with to-dos in future so your task list doesn’t feel overwhelming ever again.
Things are going to get better, I promise.
It's quite a thing to be able to sit back and look at the enormous pile of things you’ve been expecting yourself to tackle. How does it feel?
No wonder things have been a tad challenging.
Don’t stress about how you’re going to get it all done yet. You need a little bit of time to let this sink in.
Here are all the things that have been weighing on you. Maybe it's less than you thought. Probably it's more than you realised. Perhaps you can be a bit more gentle on yourself, now you see how many things you’re responsible for.
This is the first step in clearing that backlog AND getting systems set up so that this doesn’t happen again. This is relevant for you even if you think you are chronically disorganised, a can’t-stick-to-anything, or fundamentally beyond help.
As you go about your business this week, keep this master list close so you can add any new, incoming jobs (small or large) so they all stay in one place.