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How do you focus when you are overwhelmed?

“Focus is so difficult for me. There always seems to be a million things that need to get done, or that I should be doing better.” – Twitter friend on @davidaimi

This statement puzzled me. As I sympathized and dissected what this person said I thought “well why on earth do you have a million things to get done?!”  How on earth would this person be able to focus when there is just so much going on?  I think the answer is obvious, you can’t.

The more I thought about it the more it inspired me to write this blog post. Listed below are some ways you can better manage what you should be focusing on:

Trim the fat and do less

It sounds like a “duh” statement, but I really mean it.  Stop doing so much.  The broader you stretch yourself the thinner you will be. Start narrowing down your interests and tasks. (Assuming you can, obviously I’m not recommending you to neglect picking up your child from daycare!) Let’s say you have ten things on your plate.  Next, group them together as best possible and see if you can eliminate at least half of them.  Focus on the things that matter the most to you right now. By doing this, you will accomplish more and avoid spreading yourself too thin. The key to focus is narrowing your focal points to what matters most.

If you always look at things with the attitude “I have to get things done”, you probably will never do them.

When you view all the things you would like to do from a start to finish perspective you often instantly depress yourself which in turn cripples your motivation. It’s hard to see the end zone when you instantly overwhelm yourself. This sets up the dominoes for interest depletion, abandonment and failure. Take micro actions instead, remember action conquers fear. Give yourself small iterative goals that will eventually make up the bigger picture you are seeking.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is temporary

Ever feel like you’re going to lose your mind, but all of a sudden you have that magical beer or glass of wine and suddenly you don’t seem  to worry as much anymore?  That’s because being overwhelmed is a temporary emotion. It will come and go, and sometimes it’s best that we just step out of the room for a few minutes and cool off.

If you want true focus, stop everything else you are doing and focus on just one thing

This may be difficult if you are already feeling overwhelmed and inundated with everything you want to do, but just give it a shot.  Drop what you are doing and focus on one thing at a time.  It doesn’t even matter if you finish, just narrow your focus to one micro action. Taking small iterative actions will boost your confidence and you will feel that you are making progress. You may have one focus that is itching you the most, and that is the one that you should scratch first.

Perfect over time, not all at once

Don’t overload yourself with being a perfectionist the first time around. I know many of you out there will argue that it’s in your DNA and you can’t help being a perfectionist. I get it, but try to reprogram yourself. Let your mind know we are still aiming for perfection. (Because it’s true, we are)  The difference is that we want to make an effort to iterate to perfection versus driving ourselves crazy and derailing focus. It took Thomas Edison 1,000 tries to create the light bulb.  He was successful because he iterated and perfected over time, not because he focused on scenario countless times.

Stop making excuses for your inaction

It sounds harsh, but maybe it’s time you just be honest with yourself.  Take a few minutes and have an honest conversation with yourself.  Are you REALLY that interested in doing all these things right now?  Can some of them be re-prioritized later on for the sake of sanity?

Clutter is to the mind like hair is to the drain

What happens when our minds become so overwhelmed?  It gets clogged up and shit just overflows. It’s all bad. Try to declutter some things around you. It can be something as stupid as finally throwing away that coca-cola can that’s been sitting on your desk for 3 months that you’ve always meant to throw away. We often have trouble focusing because we let clutter build up around us.  The same thing goes for our minds.

You may be a digital nomad or have a split mentality

Have you ever stopped to think that maybe how your mind works will never change?  Do you have issues with lack of focus because you just have so many interests at any given time?  You could have what I call a split mentality. Do you require constant challenge, creative stimulation and change? Do you struggle with singularity and have a fear of committing to only one career for the rest of your life? You may just be someone who is multi-passionate.

In my opinion, the best way to focus when you are overwhelmed is to take a step back and re-assess everything you’re doing. Trim the fat and re-prioritize. Grab a glass of wine or a beer and relax and take a break from being hard on yourself. After you’ve cooled off, do something small like remove clutter or complete a micro action to refuel your engine.

How do you focus when you are overwhelmed? I want to hear your thoughts!


Did you like this article? Leave a comment! I want to hear about it!  Message me on Twitter: @davidaimi, or visit me on Facebook!

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  • I find that when I multi task, what I have is actually just a bunch of partially finished projects. I like to think I’m good at juggling a lot at once, but what really works for me is to get in the zone and tackle just one or two at a time.

    • Hey Blair, thanks for the comment. I used to think that multitasking was a great thing. I am definitely capable of doing it, but found it strings me out in too many directions. I absolutely agree that focusing and being in the “zone” is way more effective. I also think if you focus you’ll get the same amount of things done faster and more efficiently. That was a main point in writing the article. The more things you focus on the less focus you have overall. Great to hear from you!

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  • “M”

    You know …

    … to answer the post’s title question, I just do my best to do one thing at a time, and at the end of the day I seem to be able to accomplish most of what’s on the to-do list and/or what everybody else has asked.

    Thing is… that way of working doesn’t bother me … but it sure seems to bother everybody else who thinks I should be sociable AND “productive”, when I’m trying to be focused.

    And that can affect employability more than I think our culture is willing to talk about.