How To Tackle An Overwhelming To-Do List

overwhelm, verb
over·whelm, /əʊvəˈwɛlm/
to overpower in thought or feeling

As a word, ‘overwhelmed’ seems to be bandied about a fair bit, and much more frequently in a negative way than a positive one. This is a shame, because there is nothing nicer than being overwhelmed with support, or love, or any other pleasantry. For now though, I want to talk to you about less happy overwhelmedness. Interestingly, all of the example uses of ‘overwhelm’ in the Merriam-Webster entry I found online are, indeed, negative.

You’re overwhelmed with work. You walk past a stand of newspapers and the UK is ‘overwhelmed’ with immigrants. You open YouTube and someone you have never heard of is overwhelmed by the pressure of now having twenty billion subscribers. Your to-do list is full of small tasks that individually aren’t a big deal, but it’s as long as your arm and it all has to be done ASAP and you’re overwhelmed.

You take an evening off from being overwhelmed, and go to the cinema to see whatever’s on; it’s a bit pants; you’re underwhelmed. You read a book that has been raved about to you, but you can’t get into it; you’re underwhelmed. You try out a new recipe, but it’s only a mediocre 6/10 and you’re underwhelmed.

The similarity between these is that they all stem from expectation. Being underwhelmed stems from an expectation of more, while being overwhelmed stems from an expectation of less (or even a lack of any expectation at all).

It’s the first day of March, which means that several things are just round the corner. Spring, and spring cleaning. Exam season. A sort of innate self-imposed deadline for making summer plans. Easter eggs. The second of March. April. You get the idea.

Many of these things have the potential to be either over- or under-whelming. As for things that could be underwhelming, simply set your expectations loowwwwww, or if you can, then just discard them entirely. Problem solved. Overwhelmedness is not quite so easy to tackle.

There are stacks and stacks and stacks of mechanisms you can use to get yourself back to a neutral level of whelmed-ness (whelmosity??), so this is just one of many that I find works for me. It may work for you, too.

Grab something to write on, and something to write with. I use a whiteboard and a whiteboard pen, which I enjoy muchly for reasons I shall explain presently.

Now divide your writing-on thing into four boxes, by drawing a line vertically down the middle and a perpendicular one horizontally. At the time of writing, I am optimistic that I can either find or make an illustration of what I mean because this is not the best I have ever explained something. You’re essentially drawing a set of axes. (Update: I’ll draw it out and add a photo, but please make do with my attempts at describing for now!)

The x-axis will be for urgency, and the y-axis for importance. Once you have labelled your axes, you will see that your boxes offer four different combinations:- important and urgent- important but not urgent- urgent but not important- neither urgent nor important

Urgency basically just refers to time-pressure, while importance refers to how much value or weight something carries. To give an example, my dissertation is definitely important but it’s not due until May so it definitely isn’t urgent. On the other hand, finishing the powerpoint for a presentation I’m giving tomorrow (fun uni life) is definitely urgent, and also pretty important. Buying bananas is also urgent as I have v sadly run out, and much as I might like to argue the importance of plentiful stocks of fruit and veg, it’s probably not important enough to go on the ‘important’ side of the scale. I also need to sell my old iPod (barely used & good as new 8GB lime green iPod touch 5th generation for sale, anyone interested?), but that’s not really important or urgent. Is this starting to make sense?

So how does all this relate to being overwhelmed? Well, I find that if I ever feel like everything is piling up and I don’t even know where to start, it always helps to break it down into categories so I can actually see right in front of me what I do and don’t need to think about.

If you end up with pretty much everything being both important and urgent, as I did just a few days ago, then you are screwed. Lol. No wait please don’t click away, I’m joking!! What you can actually do is break it down even further, either by when things need to be completed, or how long they’ll take (if you start from the quickest you can feel all productive when you tick off a bunch of things after not too long), or by any other means of ordering.

And then, if you use a whiteboard, you can have the satisfaction of - quite literally - seeing your tasks disappear before your eyes and your list of things to do visibly diminish. It’s a great feeling. Small pleasures in times of multitudinous deadlines, and all that.

So, yep. That’s it. It’s not groundbreaking, but I was blown away by how simple and effective it is when I first heard of it (thanks Mum u are totes a bae xxxxx) so hopefully it will help someone else, too. And we’ll all be just perfectly whelmed forever and ever, the end. The Goldilocks of whelmosity.



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