Overwhelm – the scourge of lockdown life: how to beat it in three easy steps

Woman hiding behind keyboard

Overwhelm. What does the word mean to you? How does it make you feel? Is there a knot in your stomach when you consider it? Do thoughts of ‘shoulds’ start racing through your head?

I’m hearing it everywhere, from my A Level students to my 12-year-old, and amongst a number of friends too. That sinking feeling that there so much to do that you’ll never achieve it all, and it’s so tempting to not even start – to just bury your head in the sand and wait for it all to be over.

But we’re supposed to be doing it all, aren’t we? Working, home schooling, studying, learning a new language, achieving world peace?

At the start of the lockdown, I fiercely resisted this idea. This is a weird time, let’s just look after ourselves and those around us while we adjust. Let’s not try and do all-the-things. We’re not home schooling, we’re just treading water and doing some activities that the school sends us. Completely different.

But then it went on… and on…. and now, while some people are acting as if the virus has gone away, we’re still largely stuck here at home in the same situation we were in early April. But Time Has Passed. Children have missed a term of school, work won’t wait for ever and life must go on.

So what to do?

First, we need to tackle that overwhelm head-on by unpicking exactly what it is. If you google ‘overwhelm’, you get two initial definitions:

  1. bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something
  2. have a strong emotional effect on

Don’t they just sum it up? It does feel like we’re buried under piles of work and expectation, and that definitely has an emotional effect on us, bringing up feelings from guilt to panic.

These definitions also point to a solution though. Even though there is an enormous amount to do, it is not one big thing. It’s lots of little things that can be separated and broken down. It’s not even as hard as eating that elephant “one bite at a time” (as a vegan, I’ve always had a problem with that saying). And the emotional side? Well, the starting point is to notice and acknowledge how we’re feeling, rather than trying to fight it or flee it through self-berating and distraction tactics. Bringing a touch of mindfulness to the whole situation can make it a lot more manageable.

Step 1: Breaking it down

Let’s look at the work. Realistically. Get an accurate picture of all the different things that need doing. This might be for your business, your studies or your child’s schooling. Make lists, charts, colour code things, whatever you need to get clarity on the situation. Set it all out. As you do so, try and become aware of how you’re feeling. What bodily sensations do you notice? What emotions are coming up? What thoughts are appearing? Try to just observe them and let them go. If it becomes too much, take a break and focus on your breath for a while, or try these instant mindfulness techniques and notice how much calmer you feel.

When you’re done, look – is it less than you thought? Often, the most difficult part is simply facing what we’re up against. That huge, amorphous cloud of doom becomes fairly harmless when we break it down into its constituent parts.

Step 2: Prioritising

Now it’s all there in front of us, it’s time to prioritise. There are lots of different ways to do this, but most of them involve the ideas of urgency and importance. Makes sense really: tasks that are urgent (with a fixed deadline) probably need to be done first. Whether something is important or not really depends on your situation. What will the consequences be if you do or don’t complete this task? Can you get advice from someone else about what’s most vital? For instance, teachers can often advise students on which tasks are essential for progressing in the subject and which ones are ‘nice to have’ if you want to do well. At my son’s school, the advice for overwhelmed students is to focus on Maths, English and Science, adding one or two other subjects if you can. Sometimes all we can manage is the bare minimum. In this situation, we need to be kind to ourselves and accept that that’s how it is for now. Strip out your list of ‘things’ until you have a small number of tasks that you can achieve today. Then do them (if they’re quick) or follow Step 3 to plan a specific time to get them done.

Step 3: Planning

In this house, we slipped into ‘holiday’ mode quite quickly when lockdown started. Staying up late, sleeping in, not getting much done before midday, going out for a ‘daily exercise’ stroll in the sun. Like many people, we soon forgot what day it was. It took effort to pull it back, and we’re not there yet, but we are starting to formulate a new schedule of what home working looks like. I’ve even joined an online writing group to set aside time for writing this!

A weekly plan can be useful here too. There is a template I use with my clients, The Life Tutor’s Life Planner, which helps them work out when to work, rest and play (just hearing a 1980s advert jingle in my head there!)

An important note for planning your week: we are not aiming for perfection. That way frustration and guilt lie. We are putting together a week that works for us, fits in the essentials and still leaves time to relax, socialise and sleep. It goes like this:

  1. First, set out fixed commitments on your planner, e.g. lessons, webinars, working hours in your job, planned zoom calls
  2. Next, fill in sleeping time: assume 12 til 6 and add at least 2 more hours – ideal sleep time is 8 hours for adults and 9-10 for teenagers.
  3. Now add flexible commitments (ones that you can move around) e.g. study time, admin etc. This is where you put those important tasks from your list. Make sure you put a limit on this. Your fixed commitments and flexible commitments shouldn’t add up to much more than a standard full-time job. If there are too many tasks, go back to Step 2 and strip some more away.
  4. Now for the fun stuff! Divide the remaining time between a range of activities including socialising, exercise, relaxation, family etc – whatever floats your boat. Your weekly plan is complete!

Put your plan somewhere where you’ll see it every day. This is your hour-by-hour guide for what to do with your life – as designed by you. It has all the serious stuff, but it also gives you permission to kick back, take some time off and do things that nourish your soul too. Without this set up, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we should always be working, and that is one of the leading causes of overwhelm.

Try following your plan for a week and see how it goes. At the weekend, review, tweak and go again. Let me know how you get on.

Lucy Aditi is on a mission to help stressed students enjoy their education and meet their life goals. With over 20 years’ experience working with young people, she is the creator of Ride the Waves, the academic life coaching programme specifically designed for people aged 14-21. She is also a busy teacher, entrepreneur and parent.

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