How to Turn Stress and Overwhelm Into a Totally Actionable Plan

Do you ever find yourself too stressed and overwhelmed to move forward with a plan?

You’re not alone.

Like you, I often have a challenging time keeping up with my to do list and I found myself feeling like I just wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

That’s when I realized exactly what my problem was:

I’ve got Unrealistic Expectations.

And I bet you’ve got them too!

I see this all the time: smart, capable, ambitious people– whose lives are already so full with friends, family, work, art, and volunteering– fail to make progress towards their goal and think that their lack of progress means something about their ability to perform.

I can’t make this work.

This is impossible.

Maybe I don’t have what it takes.

Here’s the thing:

Achieving goals requires more than a vision.

It requires that we make strategic decisions around how we spend our time and our energy. 

It requires a plan.

And it’s hard to make a plan when you’re stressed, overwhelmed, burned out and frustrated with yourself.

Here’s some good news:

I’ve got a six step process that I’m sharing today so that you can turn your own vision into a totally actionable plan.

And if you want a free workbook to help you implement this approach, grab the Work Wonders Resource Guide. It will help you clarify priorities and implement a plan you can actually stick to.

I use this strategy every single time I’m feeling stressed out or like I’ve taken on way too much. 

If you need help creating a clear path, take thirty minutes and give these steps a try!

  1. Write down absolutely everything that is on your mind.

Every work task, personal task, errand, or project.

Things you’ve been meaning to do. Every appointment, family birthday party, and brunch plan. Put it all down in one place.

Don’t worry about the order or priority of things, just work on getting everything down on paper.

2. Break each project down into tasks.

Now, take a good look at that list.

Chances are you’ve got some projects on that list. 

So repeat after me:

Projects are not tasks.

Have you oversimplified anything on your list in an effort to capture it? 

That is fine for the “brain dump” part of the exercise, but now we want to make sure that we capture the actual steps that need to be taken.

For example, let’s say you wrote down, “Get a haircut.”

You might break that into two tasks.

For example, “Call the salon to schedule the appointment” and “get your hair cut.”

Yes, this will make your to do list longer BUT it will make it easier to cross items off of your list.

(And I think we can agree that’s basically the whole point of making a list, yes?)

3. Prioritize the list.

Are there any obvious priorities or deadlines that you need to pay attention to?

Alternatively, are there any items on the list that would be nice to accomplish but are much less urgent? Spend a few minutes separating out tasks that are urgent from the rest of the list.

I have a whole system for this (obviously).

I draw a circle around priority items, a rectangle around non-urgent but still important items and I underline non-urgent items. 

You don’t need to have a fancy, shape-coded system. You simply need a way to separate out the super important from the less important.

4. Pick that low hanging fruit.

I look at the list of urgent and important items.

Is there anything in there that I can do quickly? Like in less than five or ten minutes?

Anything that you can do in the next ten minutes…do it.

>Here are some examples:

  • schedule appointments (hair, dentist, doctor, etc)
  • respond to emails that only require a brief response
  • filing paperwork (or cleaning up your desktop)
  • delegating a task
  • RSVP to a meeting or event
  • dropping off mail

5. Schedule the rest.

Whether you’re using a paper planner or a digital calendar, take the time to look at the week, month and even several weeks out. I’m partial to Sunrise. (Update: Sunrise no longer exists! *Insert sad face* I’m really into Fantastical and they do have a free trial available on their site!)

This is another opportunity to pay attention to how much you really have going on. I always find commitments and deadlines that I had forgotten about. 

If that’s the case for you, too, you may need to cancel some things. Is there one commitment you can back out of fairly easily?

Once you’ve created some space, it’s time to start blocking out time to complete urgent tasks.

I am a firm believer in scheduling.

In fact, for busy, multi-passionate people, I think it’s key.

Even if you’re perfectly capable of remembering everything, all of the time, I don’t think you should waste your precious brain storage on memorizing your schedule. There are an array of tools out there. Use them and let them do the work for you.

For people who work better with pen and paper: I hear you. I do all of my planning and brainstorming on paper calendars (I purchased this cute template on Etsy) and then I add it to Sunrise. I love the look of Sunrise but what I really use are the reminders and push notifications.

6. Pretend it’s not your to do list and ask: Is this reasonable?

This final step is not about planning but more about managing your own expectations.

I literally just completed this exercise myself and you know what I realized?

I realized that the to do list in my head, the one that was floating around and causing me stress, was not actually something that could be accomplished in a week.

In fact, now that I’ve completed this exercise, I can see that it’s more reasonable spread out over the next few months.

Not weeks, months.

When my list was in my head, it seemed like a lot of work, but written down and fleshed out, I can see now that it’s so much more than that.

Consider if you were looking at a friend’s to do list?

Would you encourage them to take more time? Adjust their expectations? Probably.

If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, you might also be setting unrealistic expectations, but taking thirty minutes to walk through this quick exercise can help get you organized, prioritized, and help you check in with yourself about how realistic your goals and timeline might be.

Give this a try and let me know what you think in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “How to Turn Stress and Overwhelm Into a Totally Actionable Plan

  1. Thank you so much for writing this!! I struggle with this so much, and found myself today saying to myself, “You really need to schedule an eye appointment.” And instead of writing it down or doing it, it’s just on replay in my brain and it stresses me out! That’s just one small example. I love this system, especially #6! Can’t wait to try it!!!

    1. Yes…unload that brain!Sometimes I think people try to “think” their way out of problems or tasks, but taking action — even just writing it down– can make such a huge difference. Let me know how it works for you!

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