How to beat overwhelm if your to-do list is never-ending

How to beat overwhelm if your to-do list is never-ending

Welcome to the era of instant gratification and unparalleled convenience.

Tasks that once consumed hours of our time are now effortlessly automated or completed with a simple swipe. Thanks to the power of technology, the answers to our most pressing questions are just seconds away.

But for all the supposed ease of modern life, it seems like we’ve never been more burnt out, exhausted, and overwhelmed. The ability to multitask is a point of debate among the neuroscience community, with some blaming constant task-switching for our inattention, cloudy brains, and insurmountable to-do lists.

Considering the types of environments we evolved to thrive in, it’s unsurprising that we feel overloaded. Our brains have not changed significantly in the 200,000 years or so humans have existed. For the vast majority of that time, life was relatively simple. We spent most of our lives in smaller communities, focused entirely on survival and procreation.

These days, we’re constantly bombarded with information and demands on our time and attention. Our focus was once solely on the handful of friends and relatives in our immediate communities, but we now have an intimate view into the lives of just about anyone anywhere in the world.

We are also expected to be competent in so many diverse realms. Before the rapid acceleration of technology, we outsourced far more tasks to professionals. Travel agents planned our holidays, real humans staffed inquiry hotlines and helped us find what we needed in stores, and dedicated administration staff lightened the burden of our workload.

These days, most of us constantly have at least nine tabs open on our computer. We’re finishing a project, making our own airline bookings, maintaining a Google calendar to track our children’s homework and extracurricular activities, and consuming social media that often leads to impostor syndrome or unfavourable comparisons about our own productivity or ‘success.

It’s no wonder that almost everyone I talk to responds with “tired” or “busy” when I ask how they are. I can barely remember the last time I felt fully on top of my to-do list, had good energy levels, and was satisfied with my achievements. Our neurology isn’t designed to manage this amount of scattered attention and diverse demands on our cognitive energy.

7 ways to beat overwhelm if your to-do list is never-ending

Since it’s unlikely that the entire world will slow down for you to catch your breath, what changes can you make individually to calm your nervous system and reduce overwhelm? How can you find glimpses of peace without eschewing all your responsibilities entirely?

Here are seven tips for beating overwhelm if your to-do list is never-ending:

1. Lean into discomfort

Counterintuitive as it may seem, opening your arms and welcoming the icky feeling of being overwhelmed can help the emotion pass much more quickly than if you fight against it.

Noticing and accepting difficult emotions without judgement can lessen their impact on you and create the space to process them.

Ultimately, anxiety is simply a psychological phenomenon that helps your body prepare for an upcoming challenge or threat. Your heart rate may increase, and blood rushes to your extremities. This emotion is only devastating when you layer shame on top of it by telling yourself you “shouldn’t” be feeling overwhelmed.

The sooner you accept the feeling as natural, the quicker you can get your nervous system back to baseline.

2. Breathe

When perpetually rushing from one task to the next, you can become disconnected from your physical body, including your breath.

When stressed, your breathing can become rapid and shallow, which may only worsen feelings of anxiety. Taking a few moments out of your day to take deep, conscious diaphragmatic breaths can have a powerful impact.

Conscious breath can help lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce stress hormones in the bloodstream, signalling to the body and mind that you are safe and capable of meeting the challenges you face throughout your busy day.

3. Ask for a hug

Affectionate physical touch is known to have health and wellbeing benefits.

Almost every living creature uses physical touch to create stronger social bonds and relieve stress. Touch from people you trust and love helps boost your oxytocin levels and lowers stress.

If you live alone or work from home and can’t get a hug from someone else, soothing self-touch – like hugging yourself or gently stroking your arms – can produce similar benefits in reducing cortisol and help to manage overwhelm during a busy day or week.

4. Keep your to-do list realistic

While optimism and ambition are great, setting overly challenging goals can make you feel out of control and disheartened. You have limited time and energy, which fluctuates based on your health, relationships, and other competing demands.

If your to-do list fills you with dread before you’ve even had your first coffee, try creating a shorter list of only the most critical tasks. Anything else you achieve is a bonus.

When you lower the bar this way, you can sometimes surprise yourself by getting more done than usual. Removing the added pressure frees up mental energy to actually do the thing, rather than stressing yourself into a state of task paralysis.

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5. Get comfortable with giving 60%

The idea that you should always give 100 per cent sounds good on paper, but it’s ludicrous when you really think about it.

Firstly, it upholds the antiquated belief that your worth is inextricably linked to your productivity and how much of an ‘asset’ you can be to capitalist societal values. Giving 100 per cent to your work means you have zero left for your health, relationships, hobbies, and rest.

Secondly, it completely ignores human beings’ cyclical, fluctuating nature. We evolve and change with the seasons, but modernisation has forced us into rigid routines and soul-crushing working hours, leading many of us to resentment, burnout, and mental and physical health challenges.

Sometimes, it’s more important to get something done than to get it perfect. Perfection is illusory and subjective, so running yourself ragged trying to attain an imaginary level of flawlessness will only worsen your overwhelm. Perfectionism can sometimes even make your output worse, as you can start to overthink things and miss seeing the bigger picture.

Of course, some tasks require lots of time and meticulousness. The challenge is learning to discern when it’s better to bash something out quickly and embrace being ‘good enough’.

6. Take a break

Tempting as it is to stay chained to your desk when overwhelmed, taking even a few minutes to step away, go outside, and get some fresh air can help you refocus and re-energise. Even a tiny amount of movement and rest allows your mind and body to return refreshed and solve problems more effectively.

Your brain has powerful subconscious processing abilities, which requires a rest from deliberate concentration to activate. This mechanism explains why the word you are searching for suddenly comes to you when you finally give up trying to recall it or why a solution to a complex problem pops into your head when you’re relaxing or showering.

7. Seek support

Feeling overwhelmed occasionally is normal, especially given the unprecedented demands of fast-paced modern life. However, if you feel perpetually inundated and unable to cope, it may signal that something is wrong.

Take the time to check in and ask yourself if you need assistance managing your to-do list and mental health. Can you outsource anything or ask a friend to help you? Can you automate any tasks that take up too much time and energy? Can you instil healthier boundaries with your boss, colleagues, friends, or family?

Seeking the support of a qualified mental health professional can also help identify the root causes of your overwhelm and prevent it from taking a serious toll on your energy, productivity, and quality of life.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon


Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.