When I'm Overwhelmed

If you're like me (and as John Rody used to say, "I know you are sometimes"), life in the academic world can be a whiplash between manageable and outright panic. There are a few times a year where I feel like I'm barely able to tread water with the number of tasks and projects I need to worry about. I've just endured another one of these - the last three weeks of a semester can be especially stressful. Having survived the mayhem, I'm ready to breathe a little, make new plans, and clean up the landscape.

I think one of the special stresses that adds to the mayhem is the worry that I am not following through on the disciplines and habits that are important to me.  I notice that I feel stress not only from the amount of work that I need to accomplish, but also from the worry that I am dropping the ball.  But I believe that there are some ways to think more strategically about a GTD methodology during times of immense stress and overwhelming responsibilities.

 Here are a few tips that seem to be working for me in stressful situations...


Before you say, "duh?!?", lemme say what I mean about preparation.  I have a pretty clear idea of when the major stresses are going to come, so I get ready for the storm by making some adjustments to my method...

  • Adjust Start Dates: Whatever projects or tasks that I can defer until AFTER the busy period, I go ahead and defer them BEFORE the busy period.  That way, during review, I am not having to concern myself with low-priority tasks or projects.
  • Review Due Dates: Be careful about "due dates."  This is especially true when I am preparing for stress - I need to know that whatever tasks pop up as "due" are ACTUALLY due.  Sometimes due dates are actually soft-reminders. I prepare to ensure that due dates are REALLY due dates.
  • Complete Tasks Early: As I prepare for the final weeks of the semester, I try to get everything done that I possibly can before the storm comes.  That's not always possible, but I've found that there are a lot of things I can knock out ahead of time.


When I am feeling overwhelmed, I feel much better about managing my tasks if I focus upon "capturing" the stuff into my task-manager.  In fact, I have really begun to find a great deal of stress-relief by merely agreeing with myself to "focus on capturing."  I think this works, primarily, because the stress of feeling overwhelmed can be exacerbated by a concern that I am letting things slip.  If I can be intentional about capturing, I find that I can have some security that things aren't be lost (regardless of whether things are getting done).

  • Capturing High Priorities: If a task comes along that will be important, I try to process it at the time of capturing (assign start date, due date, context, and project).  
  • Capturing Low Priorities: If a task comes along that isn't very important, I let my inbox fill up a little more than usual.  
  • Prioritize Capture over Do: This is the real secret. I usually give myself an "attaboy" when I complete a task - but when I am overwhelmed, I get the self-prescribed "attaboy" when I capture something.

Daily Review

During the normal times of my year, I do a review once a week - I find that is sufficient to manage all of my responsibilities and to ensure that I don't lose a task or allow a project to fade unnoticed. But during the storm, I review daily - sometimes several times daily.  While that may sound like a great deal of time, it really isn't.  I am specifically finding "next actions" in smaller sets, bringing them to the top of my system, and managing smaller collections of tasks.

  • Next Actions: When I am overwhelmed, I avoid listing 10-12 tasks that need to be completed. Instead, I list 3 at a time.  When I've completed those 3, I get another 3. The daily review (or several times daily review) gives me a chance to pick up the next group of tasks.
  • Prioritize Difficult Tasks: This is similar to the advice that I often hear to "eat the frog" - to do the least preferable thing first - but I try to go back to my task manager to find the next actions that take more energy first. I find that I feel a lot less stress when I know that the only tasks left are the things that are easy or pleasurable.
  • Procrastinate: Seriously! If I am swamped, and I discover that I really CAN do something later, I defer the task.  The secret to effective procrastination is to schedule time after the storm to catch up on the stuff that was deferred when I was overwhelmed.
  • Omnifocus Tip: I have two different perspectives for viewing available tasks.  One is a perspective that I borrowed from David Sparks, called "Clear."  It shows all available tasks. I use this perspective during normal weeks of the year.  But when I am feeling overwhelmed, I flag specific tasks (like three at a time), and use the "Today" perspective that shows only flagged actions.  
  The "Clear" perspective - shows all available and remaining tasks. Borrowed from  David Sparks.

The "Clear" perspective - shows all available and remaining tasks. Borrowed from David Sparks.

  The "Today" perspective - shows only flagged items so that I can concentrate on just a couple of "Next Tasks"

The "Today" perspective - shows only flagged items so that I can concentrate on just a couple of "Next Tasks"

Clearing Up the Mess

When it's all over, and the storm has passed, I will often give myself a morning to go through my system and recalibrate.  For many folks in Higher Ed, this can be especially useful because we sort of live in three major seasons of the year (Fall Semester, Spring Semester, Summer).  I actually schedule several days for transition - cleaning up old files, archiving things (digital and physical), and planning for the next semester.  

Part of that transition, for me, is to spend some time at what David Allen calls the "thirty thousand foot view." This is a great time to go through the projects remaining and decide what needs to stay, what needs to be added, and what needs to be deleted.


If I know that I am going to be overwhelmed (end of the semester, writing a grant, submitting a paper), I like to know that I can prepare and repair.  I should note that there are times when I can't be prepared (crises like a death in the family, illness, etc.), where I will sometimes go through my next actions and defer them ALL until later.  I can't prepare for crises.  I can prepare for the seasons of the academic year, and even find a little joy in them by making small adjustments to my GTD methodology.

*Image Credit: http://leadnet.org/planning-to-launch-your-first-site/

Posted on May 16, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management.