To those of you who share my love for 1990’s rom-coms, you may remember this particular exchange from 10 Things I Hate About You:
Chastity: “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be, like, whelmed?”
Bianca: “I think you can in Europe.”
I’m currently in the phase of my PhD program where all of my school work is done and it’s time to apply for a year-long internship. This process involves sifting through thousands of potential sites, narrowing the list, updating my CV, writing essays and cover letters, getting letters of recommendation, and then eventually going on interviews and hoping I match with a site.
This, and several other graduate school experiences, on top of my normal daily responsibilities of life, have often left me feeling overwhelmed to the point where I’m not sure how I’m going to get everything done. Now this is not a blog post about who has more on their plate, but I bet you’ve all probably had times in your life where you can relate to this feeling of doggy-paddling just to survive. (Or drowning, to be honest). In these times, I find myself wishing that I could just avoid everything and escape to Europe to feel whelmed. Rather, here are some other tools that are cheaper and likely more effective:
Break Things Up
My most anxious day of the school year was always the first day, because it was the day the teacher reviewed the syllabus. Looking forward to all of the things I had to do in the semester felt like more than I would be able to handle. Even though it’s good for us to have big picture goals of where and who we want to be, if our focus is always on the final product, it can leave us paralyzed with how much has to be done to get there.
What we can do to continually make progress towards those long-term goals without getting buried with their weight, is to break those goals down into smaller tasks. For example, writing a 10-page essay can sound daunting; but deciding to start with an outline can feel more feasible. By focusing on the next small step towards your eventual goal, you can keep things manageable and build momentum towards your goal.
There’s an analogy I sometimes use in my therapy sessions in these situations of feeling overwhelmed. It’s about two lumberjacks that go out to work in the woods. The first lumberjack gets straight to work, cuts down their first tree, and goes straight to the next one to get to work on chopping it down, and so on.
The second lumberjack has a different approach. At the beginning and in between each tree, this lumberjack takes a break to rest and sharpen their axe. At the end of the day, both lumberjacks end up cutting down the same amount of trees. What we learn from this is that putting our head down and working “harder” does not always equal working “smarter”.
We can sometimes think that we just need to power through everything that is thrown at us. But what we often find is that the quality of our work as well as our energy and concentration get worse with prolonged time. Know your limits and consider whether a short break to recharge may make you more efficient in the long run.
I love the clinical work that I get to do as a therapist, but I don’t love conducting research. It’s amazing how I can magically find time to clean or run that errand I’ve been putting off forever when I’m trying to avoid a research project. We can sometimes trick ourselves into feeling productive by getting something done, when what we’re really doing is avoiding the most important, but dreaded thing.
What you might have noticed when you continue to procrastinate the big thing, is that it gets even more intimidating and anxiety-provoking the longer you put it off. Instead, try prioritizing your tasks and beginning with the most important. Although you may not get as many tasks done, completing the ones that matter most will leave you feeling more accomplished and less overwhelmed than the little ones at the bottom.
Know When You Need to Drop Something
Sometimes there are literally not enough hours in the day to do all of the things you’ve committed to. This is where the prioritizing comes in handy. What are those things further down the to-do list that are less urgent to take care of right away? Find what you may be able to sacrifice for a little while so that everything doesn’t suffer as a result. This will free up that extra time that you need to either recharge or put towards the more important things.
We all get overwhelmed. On the bright side, there’s still so many things within your control to make the situation easier and eventually get to a point of “just whelmed”.