Dealing with Overwhelm

By Randy Ingermanson

Once in a while life feels overwhelming. It feels like everything is crashing in on you at once.

Like you’re spinning your wheels. Going nowhere.

I learned a neat trick a few years ago from Eben Pagan on how to deal with this. Eben teaches productivity techniques, and he’s good at it.

Today, I desperately needed Eben’s trick. When I logged onto my computer this morning, it told me that my external hard drive (the one that contains all my backups) was having problems. I ran some diagnostics and concluded that the hard drive really couldn’t be saved.

This meant a trip to town to get a new one. Since I live quite far away from civilization, this meant taking hours out of my day. Hours I didn’t have.

By the time I got home, I was feeling pretty depressed. I’d burnt a lot of time on an emergency and now I was way behind. And I had already been feeling stressed when I woke up, because there are a ton of things on my plate for this week.

I felt horribly overwhelmed.

So I tried Eben’s trick. Here it is, and it might work for you on a day when you feel like you won’t ever get caught up:*Open a new text file and start spilling your guts. Write down EVERYTHING on your plate right now. All the things that are stressing you because they need to be done today or tomorrow or yesterday. Don’t get fancy here. You don’t need an outline. Just dump it all on the page in whatever order things come to you. You can also write how you feel about each thing on your plate. If you’re dreading it, say why. If you’re mad at somebody for pushing this task onto you, say so. Get it out.

*Stop when you run out of things that are overwhelming you. This will typically run a page or two. You might be surprised that your feelings of being overwhelmed tend to decrease with each item you write down. Mine do. It’s a nice feeling to move the anxiety from your mind to the document. When you finish, your mind should be clear and you’ll have a document that contains all the things that are making you crazy. Yes, it’s a big horrible plate. Admire just how horrible it is for just a minute. Be astounded at what a tough life you live, you brute, you.

*Find all the tasks in your document that you can reasonably knock off the list TODAY and put each one on a new line and mark it with one asterisk. You might want to pick out all the crappy little tasks that you’ve been putting off that really don’t take much time. Knocking off a bunch of those all in one day really feels good, especially if they’re things on your Dread List or your Hate List.

*Find all the things you can reasonably get done this week and put them on their own line, marking them with two asterisks. Don’t get too optimistic here. If you KNOW they have to be done this week or you’re certain that you can work them in, then mark them. Otherwise, don’t.

*Everything else is stuff you aren’t going to do this week. Either it’s not important or it’s not urgent or it just can’t be done this week. Put each of these items on its own line and mark it with three asterisks. Now give yourself permission to forget about all the three-asterisk tasks for this week. Don’t worry about losing them. You’ve got them all written down. Next week, when you look at this document, a LOT of things will be crossed off. Your plate will seem a lot more manageable.

*Now collect all the one-asterisk items together into a single list and promise yourself that you’ll do every single one of them today. This should be a much shorter list than the original big horrible plate that you started with.

*Do everything on the short list today. It’s a short list. You constructed it to be precisely the things you can reasonably get done today. So it’s doable. Go do it. When you finish the list, you’re done for the day, even if you finish early. Reward yourself with something nice — a walk or some reading time or the magic beverage of your choice.

*Tomorrow, look at all the items with two asterisks and choose a few that you can reasonably get done in one day. Then do them. You know the drill here. Don’t overbook yourself. Keep the list reasonable. Do it all. Reward yourself. Keep doing this every day for a week.

By next week, your dark and dreary world will look a little brighter. You’ll have knocked off a lot of the riff-raff stuff. You’ll be ready to tackle some of the longer-term items. You’ll feel like you’re finally getting some traction in your life.

If you’re still feeling overwhelmed next week, repeat the process. But I would bet that you’ll feel LESS overwhelmed next week than this. After a few weeks of this, you may actually start feeling human again. And your plate will start looking less ridiculous.

Remember that you aren’t ever going to get it all done. Modern life is too crazy for that.

You may find that some tasks keep getting three asterisks week after week, forever. If they aren’t really important to you, then why keep lugging them along? At some point you might want to cut their vile throats. When the time is right for this, you’ll know it. Keep your knife sharp.

If you’re wondering whether this actually works, all I can say is that it works for me. This article was one of the things that got one asterisk today.

Now it’s done.

It feels good.

I’m going for a walk.


This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with over 7,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit
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