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5 tricks to stop drowning in overwhelm

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Author: Dr Natalie Matosin | Category: Career Development | April 14, 2017

As we get a bit further into our Ph.D.s and beyond, we’re presented with more opportunities (exciting!) and also more expectations. I think we all reach a point of realization that we are spread a bit too thinly and are drowning in overwhelm.

I was chatting to you guys recently on Twitter and a lot of Ph.D. students and early post-docs seemed to be facing this issue. You guys asked me how I deal with it. To be honest my initial reaction was that I have no idea. I’m not immune to this and could do with some help, too!

However I got to thinking. I completed my Ph.D. in three years, have a few grants and publications under my belt… and those things didn’t occur in a vacuum. So I must have some strategies that enabled me to do this.

Here’s what I came up with.

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In general

I realised that I take a lot of precautions to not become overwhelmed in the first place — some people function well with a lot on their plate, but I don’t. I get my knickers in knot and then I walk funny. Can’t accomplish much when you’re walking funny.

So in general I try to ensure that my responsibilities either: (1) align with my long-term career goals (i.e. full time research career, have my own lab, etc.), (2) fit in with my short-term schedule and goals (i.e. papers or grants due, lab work that needs to be done), or (3) fulfil me at a personal level (this is just as important, in my opinion).

Of course we can’t always choose whether or not we will do certain things — this is part of being a good team member and playing nicely with others. In light of the non-negotiables, it is especially important to carefully choose what to do with the remaining time.

So that’s how I approach it on the grand scheme. When it comes to the every day stuff, there are 5 main things that I tend to do regularly to prevent becoming overwhelmed.

1) When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I get it onto paper

Try spending 5-10 minutes writing down everything that is in your head, in a completely unfiltered, unedited manner. Everything, from tasks that need completing to all your worries and concerns.

I’ll be completely honest. I always feel a little mental resistance against doing this exercise. It feels unnatural, and sometimes it can be confronting to put words to vague feelings I’m experiencing. Sometimes I like to self-indulge and swim backstroke in my overwhelm. Maybe it makes me feel important, I dunno.

However every time I push through and get it done, I feel a ton better. There is something therapeutic about getting it out of your head and in front of your eyes.

Once its all out, I then move on to step two.

2) Cross it out

Next step is to start putting big fat red lines through certain things.

I put a big fat red line through everything which I can’t control. If I can’t control it, there’s no point worrying about it.

I then pick out the things that really don’t matter at the moment. Like wanting to learn Persian or to play the guitar. Big fat line through those – they’re just not pertinent right now.

I typically have items on my list that involve worrying about things which haven’t happened yet. You guessed it, big fat red line, please.

What this leaves behind is a skeleton of to-dos where I really should be directing my attention without all the additional emotional fluff.

3) Triage

I then go through the list and prioritise the things that need to be done. A trick which I picked up here is to mark the things that are urgent “U” and the things that are important “I”.

In my experience, the “U”s take all my energy, contribute to everyone else’s agenda and goals and cause my own goals to fall behind. Yet, very little is actually urgent.

So my rule is before I do any “U”s, I do at least one “I”.

I also try to use verbs in my to do list and to break down big tasks into small tasks. A tip I recently implemented was to not only have a to-do list, but to actually schedule tasks into my calendar. Having them cemented into time slots tends to keep things on track.

4) Plan your day the night before

Super simple hack and incredibly useful. Before I wrap up at work or before bed, I plan the next day as intricately as I can. This enables me to wake up with purpose, instead of squandering the morning away until I make my to do list.

It is also really useful for when life is a little unpredictable or inconsistent. It doesn’t always work to have a routine or a set plan that can be stuck to the same way every single day. So I plan my day the night before.

5) Done list

As well as my to-do list, I also have a done list. I keep it on the back of my monthly planner and every time I feel I have achieved something, I add it to the list. I include simple things, such as ordering consumables for the lab, paying a bill or following up on a phone-call (the little things make up the big picture).

I find this extremely helpful. It motivates me, shows me where I have been spending all my time, and reminds me I’ve been productive when I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. It also helps me to see patterns so I can figure out ways to better manage my time. I tend to review it at the end of every month to inform my planning for the month ahead.

Natalie Matosin is a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. This blog was originally featured here and is reposted with permission. 



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