Many of us are responsible for juggling a large number of tasks and priorities at once. We get pretty good at just plugging through it all and getting things done. But every so often that list can become overwhelming. When that happens, knowing how to prioritize may become a struggle. Instead of being able to trudge right on through, we’re faced with a sort of mental anxiety.

We feel exhausted, confused, and unable to focus. At a time when our productivity needs to be at it’s best, we’re stuck, nearly at a standstill. It’s hard to know how to prioritize when everything feels like it’s a high priority.

I like to refer to these moments as mental upheavals. Everything on our plate seems to reach a boiling point and rupture. The ground shakes and our thoughts to be tossed in every which direction.

Focus Becomes a Struggle

We struggle to focus and re-orient ourselves. We’re forced to really look at everything that’s on our plate. Piece by piece we collect and re-examine all of our tasks and priorities trying to organize and make sense of what needs to be accomplished.

These mental upheavals can take a day, a week, or sometimes even longer from which to recover. While we re-assess all that’s on our plate the stress and anxiety we feel is at a peak. It can be debilitating at times and until we can get our thoughts back together or a new plan in place, our productivity is at an all-time low.

Have you ever been there? I know I have and finding ways to cope and get through a mental upheaval or better yet, how to avoid one altogether, has saved my butt on more than one occasion. So today, I thought I’d take some time to share a few methods for getting through a mental upheaval.

Can You Avoid a Mental Upheaval?

Mental upheavals happen. I’d like to say that they’re 100% avoidable, but at some point or another, we all experience that “slammed” feeling. That overwhelming sense that we are too far behind to catch up and we’re going to fail at everything because there is no plausible plan that will get everything done when it’s needed.

As a society, we put a large amount of pressure on ourselves (and on one another) to perform, hit numbers, meet deadlines, and of course, exceed expectations. Who wouldn’t explode under all that pressure at some point or another?

The trick is to take steps to assure that the pressure never gets that high and nothing is truly a high-priority, gotta-have-it yesterday, type of scenario. Now I get it, sometimes even that can’t be controlled. I always had people interrupting my planned work-time for things that they needed ASAP or the proverbial, “Hey, I need this yesterday. So I need you to drop whatever you’re working on and do this first.”

Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward

Once you’ve hit your wall, the first thing to do is figure out what is truly important. It may feel as though everything is a high priority, but it’s time to re-evaluate the list and here are a few ways to do that.

1. Remember to Breathe

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember to breathe. Take a deep breath in through your nose. This gets oxygen to your brain quickly which helps to simulate our higher brain. In this state, we are better equipped to focus and conduct rational thinking.

So many of us forget to breathe when we’re stressed. Remember that step and even take a moment to close your eyes and focus on your breathing for a few breaths. This will help you tremendously.

To further help, place your thumbs on your temples and rest your forehead gently on your fingertips. Imagine the pose we often put ourselves into when we have a headache. Do that. This will make use of the electromagnetic fields in your fingertips to help stimulate the higher brain and to draw blood to it. All of these things will help to quickly regain focus and reduce stress and overwhelm.

2. Wave Your Little White Flag

This doesn’t make you weak or ill-equipped to handle your position. I would much rather have someone ask me for help then struggle on through it in their self-created silo. This only increases your risk for failure.

If you have a manager or boss, share your responsibilities or tasks with him or her and ask for their help to prioritize for this week. Set up a time in a day or so or at the end of the week to touch base again on how things are going.

If you don’t have a manager, find a friend or a colleague that can provide a second perspective and help you sort things out. If you don’t have anyone you can turn to, make a list of all of your tasks at hand with the due dates and pick 1-3 to work on each day.

Sometimes just looking at one or two at a time is all you need to get back into the swing of things.

3. Re-Confirm Due Dates

Reach out to the people involved with the tasks or responsibilities on your plate. If someone else asked you to get these things done, did they give you a clear deadline? Ask them when these things are truly needed.

Oftentimes, especially if it’s for family or friends, the “deadlines” we think we have are pretty arbitrary. You likely have more time and can set some things lower in the priority list. So just ask the other people involved.

If the task is from someone you work with maybe they are behind as well. It’s possible that while they need that thing from you, they won’t even get to it for a couple more days or another week.

If you’re feeling nervous about asking about deadlines, just tell them something along the lines of this:

“I’m reviewing my current list of projects so that I can best organize my day/week. I don’t want to miss anything, so I thought I’d touch base to double check when you really need this from me.”

People will appreciate the proactive gesture. You’ll sound super organized and they’ll know you haven’t forgotten about them. It’s really a win-win.

4. Prioritize by Deadline

This is pretty much a no brainer, but sometimes it helps to have a reminder.

When prioritizing tasks, get a list together of everything you need to do as well as the actual deadlines. Then regardless of the amount of effort needed or other inputs you might still need, work backward to create a priority list.

Pick the top 1-3 things to focus on each day until they’re done.

5. Set Aside Stalled Projects

If you’re waiting on something from someone else before you can move forward, but all means, set this task aside! Remove it from your workload until it can once again move forward. If it’s not their fire, it shouldn’t be yours.

Try not to put pressure on yourself for things that are out of your control. Focus on the things you can do.

6. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Whenever you re-organize your list of priorities or potential completion dates, make sure that you have it all written down and can share the changes with whoever else may be involved. Put it in writing. This will help re-set expectations and ultimately cover your butt.

Take it one step further and create a Trello board. The tool is free and allows you to list tasks or projects with deadlines and statuses. You can also share your board with others.

What’s Next?

You’ve sorted out the priorities and can start to move forward again. But, how can you avoid some of the stress and overwhelm that lead up to the mental upheaval in the first place?

Stay tuned. In my next article, I will share the 3 primary reasons we experience moments of complete overwhelm. I will also explain steps you can take to minimize the effect.