how to manage your life, and your time, for greater happiness and clarity
Dr Jess says: While mental health is slowly becoming something that more people are comfortable with discussing, for others, it still brings feelings of shame that they can’t cope with the pressures of everyday life. But feeling this way is common, with as many as 74% of people feeling this way at some point in their life, according to the Mental Health Foundation1.
Life has ups and downs for us all. But I have found that for myself and my patients, making a plan to deal with issues and facing up to them is the first step towards feeling better. It can feel easier to avoid our problems and procrastinate, but just small, simple steps, taken at a pace that you can manage, can help to make you feel better and move through the overwhelm to a happier and more positive frame of mind.
If we aren’t feeling great about our life, it becomes easy to procrastinate and find excuses and reasons not to do things. Little by little, things can start to slip and we can find ourselves struggling to keep on top of everything. This creates a chain reaction, where we feel guilty about not doing the basics and because we feel bad, our motivation decreases. It can be a downward spiral for many and can, in some cases, lead to depression.
Of course, sometimes there are reasons for us to slip into this cycle of procrastination. Unexpected events, like the loss of a job or the breakdown of a relationship or the death of a loved one can be a trigger for us to feel that life is hopeless and for us to struggle to keep on top of things.
In other cases, procrastination can be a step into feelings of stress, anxiety and depression and come from multiple, cumulative causes.2 If you feel that what you are experiencing goes beyond procrastination, it is important to see a medical practitioner to ensure that you are not experiencing depression, which should be addressed as a primary issue.
Things that can trigger procrastination.3
- High levels of continuous stress
- Focussing on short term goals, without considering the longer term
- Resistance or magnification of difficult tasks
- Other, more fun activities to distract from getting important things done
The problem is that when we procrastinate, we start to feel like we are losing control. It becomes easy to paint a picture in our mind of what is, in reality, a quick (but boring or complex) task, making it into something much bigger than it actually is. We become fearful of tackling it, when in reality, it causes far more stress and anxiety in our minds to delay it, than it does to just get it done.
Being (and staying) organised is a great way to overcome those negative emotions of being overwhelmed and feeling as though you have too much to cope with. Even if you have had more time on your hands than ever before, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy to get more things done, or that the things that need doing won’t stress you out.
It’s easy to find ways to procrastinate and find reasons not to do things. But, the problem is, that often, being in denial and the stress that goes with it, is much worse than the effort of sorting out your life. Feeling stressed, from any cause, can lead to many physical symptoms and can cause long-term damage to our health. It can cause memory problems, lead to negative changes to our immune system, hormonal changes and even increase our risk of heart attack and stroke.4
solutions to reducing stress and procrastination
Putting a simple framework in place to get and stay organised can help you to manage stress better, to give you more time to spend on the things you enjoy doing. Organisation is having the right tools and the self-discipline to maintain it daily. Don’t forget to check out the stress and burnout section of The Natural Doctors’ site, for more useful tools to manage stress. If you are feeling overwhelmed as a result of other major life changes, see your medical practitioner and consider either a talking therapy (counselling) or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and visit our brain function and mental health toolkit for other supports.
The tools below are to create your own long-term organisation plan. Once you develop the habit of using the plan, it will become an easy way to get back some control in your life and start to feel better. Planning like this can benefit most of us to ensure we don’t spiral into an endless period of procrastination that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.
define the problem
Find a blank piece of paper (or treat yourself to a nice notebook for the job) and write down all the jobs, worries and ideas in your head. Sit for as long as necessary and write down everything you come up with – even the little things. Just the act of writing this down can be cathartic and is helpful to start to gain some perspective about what needs to be done.
On a fresh page, divide your paper into four boxes:
- Important and urgent – these are the time-limited things that are important and need prioritising
- Important, but not urgent – these are important and should be a priority, but are not time-critical
- Ideas and goals – this is where the things that interest and engage you should be
- Not important and not urgent – these are those admin-type jobs that we all need to do, but are not urgent or important
Put each of your tasks, actions, ideas and worries into one of the boxes.
prioritise and work through the things that are in your ‘important and urgent’ box
Get these done first. If you find a task overwhelming, break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks (use a timer, if you find it helpful) and work through it a little at a time. Don’t forget to keep adding any new tasks that come up on to your list, for organising later.
use a ‘to-do’ list and calendar
To do list: Transfer your ‘important and urgent’ and ‘important but not urgent’ boxes onto a to do list (electronic or paper). Set aside the ‘not important’ list, and write a separate list for ‘ideas and goals,’ which you can update regularly. Once you feel back in control, you can start working through this list.
Calendar: Any jobs that are time-dependent (for example, if you have a bill to pay by a certain date) need to go onto a calendar on the relevant day. If you are using an electronic calendar, set an alert or reminder. If you need time to prepare for an event, mark this in advance to give yourself time to forward plan. Things like birthdays and insurance renewals can be set to remind you each time they occur.
important – check and update daily
A to-do list is pointless, if you don’t use it and keep it updated. Spend 10 minutes at the beginning of every day to check your list and edit it, by adding or removing actions. Keep the list with you, and write jobs down when they are given to you, so nothing slips or gets missed. If you have a busy work and home life, consider having a separate list for each. Most people also find it useful to update their list and calendar before bedtime, to clear everything out of your head and cross off any tasks completed. This allows you to clear your mind for sleep.
invest in a wall planner or whiteboard
Although electronic calendars are useful, if you have a lot of projects to plan, it’s useful to have a year wall planner to look at tasks that are coming up. This helps you to visualise your time and break it into chunks. It also lets you see busy weeks and months where you will need to prioritise your time (and if there is anything you can do now, to get ahead). This will also help you to ensure you mark out time for holidays and rest.
important! Keep your workspace tidy.
Your workspace reflects what’s going on in your head internally. Being efficient can challenge us all, when we are working in a disorganised and chaotic workspace. A tidy desk, with a set of plain manila files for organising any papers (the desktop equivalent is having well thought out files for all your different jobs and tasks) and have a drawer or box to file those papers in. An ‘in’ tray can help you keep on top of things, before you file them, and an action/urgent tray can be the best place for any important/urgent paperwork. You can even replicate these on your computer and set up your email, so it automatically assigns mail from different people to different folders, to help you prioritise. Just be sure that you are not overly focused on creating a big and complex system, as that in itself can become overwhelming. Trust yourself to find the best system to work for you.
A label maker is a good investment to organise yourself. Labels can be printed instantly to go on files, boxes and shelves, to help to maintain order throughout your home. Marie Kondo can be be inspiring to help you organise clutter and create order and has a beautiful, mindful philosophy for keeping things tidy.
if you are experiencing financial difficulties
Many of us have times in our life where money worries overwhelm us and there appears to be no way out, and ignoring the problem seems the short-term solution. However, the longer you leave these issues, the worse they become. Visit the Money Advice Service, a government-led initiative who can help you with independent, impartial advice on what to do if you are struggling financially, and can direct you to debt advisors and charities who can help.
a note on procrastination
Everyone has jobs that they do not want to do (these usually fall into the ‘important, but not urgent’ box), which they leave until the last minute or ignore until it is too late. These jobs are usually the ones that cause us the most stress and challenges. If a job on your to do list has been there for a prolonged amount of time (longer than four weeks), then put a star next to it and start working on it the next time you sit down to work through your jobs. In most cases, the stress you have exerted in delaying it is far worse than the task itself.
try the egg timer challenge
When your tasks list feels overwhelming, or a task seems endless, attack it by breaking your time into chunks. When you have a spare half hour, set a timer to work solidly at that task (or on items in your ‘to do’ list), but only work on it for that chunk of time. Afterwards, have a break or, if appropriate, leave it until your next gap of time. Knowing that you are working through your tasks means that you can truly switch off when you want to relax. Just 20 minutes a day of tidying a messy room, or doing your accounts will have everything sorted efficiently and in the least stressful manner!
- Label maker and spare label tape
- Smartphone with notes and calendar app, with reminders and alerts, or a paper diary with a section that can hold a to-do list.
- An in tray, ready for sorting and filing and an urgent/ important tray for the most important tasks
- A new pack of plain manila folders
- A drawer or box for keeping filing
- A wall planner
Once life is running more smoothly, look at your goals and ideas list and write out where you would like to be personally and professionally in the next five and 10 years.
What would need to have happened in the next year to start you on that path?
Setting regular goals is the only behaviour that is common to all successful people. Try it! There is a section in your profile for goals and whether you want to keep these private or public, it is an extremely useful exercise.
q&a with dr jess
I can identify with some of the things you’ve discussed. How do I know if I’m depressed, or just feeling overwhelmed?
Overwhelm is often part of depression so we would encourage you to see a medical practitioner if you are concerned. However, symptoms of depression include persistent feelings of; low mood, apathy (not feeling enthusiastic about anything or getting any pleasure from activities), hopelessness (the feeling that things will not get better), low energy and possibly disturbed sleep, poor concentration or poor appetite. Visit our brain function and mental health toolkit for more support in how to improve your mood.
This all feels easy to say, but I am still struggling to make changes. What can I do?
When I am feeling overwhelmed I often find it helpful to get out a large piece of paper and write down everything in my head I feel I need to do. Although it feels like you can never write everything down, it often surprises me that I can fit it on the paper! Once I have defined it I can start to organize it as we discussed above. Try not to focus on how much there is to do, just start with this step and then use the egg timer for even 20 minutes a day to work on the To Do list. Once I’ve got organised I no longer try to keep my list in my head, I keep it on my phone and update it daily along with my calendar app.
Are there any natural supports that can help me with feeling overwhelmed?
Feeling overwhelmed is often part of long term stress and burnout, you can read more about this here and natural supports like herbal adaptogens that can help you cope with stress.
- Mental health statistics: stress
- Beutel ME, Klein EM, Aufenanger S, et al. Procrastination, Distress and Life Satisfaction across the Age Range – A German Representative Community Study. PLoS One. 2016;11(2):e0148054. Published 2016 Feb 12. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148054
- Svartdal F, Granmo S, Færevaag FS. On the Behavioral Side of Procrastination: Exploring Behavioral Delay in Real-Life Settings. Front Psychol. 2018;9:746. Published 2018 May 16. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00746
- Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017;16:1057-1072. Published 2017 Jul 21. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480