Because I have a long list of interests and activities I’m involved in, it’s easy for me to overcommit. After a few days of running myself ragged, I’ll become frazzled enough to realize my life has gotten off balance (again). I know it’s time to recenter, refocus, and get back to basics.
Ironically, recentering can be an overwhelming task itself – usually because we don’t do it until we’re suffering from burnout. A brain in the throes of burnout does not think clearly, has a hard time prioritizing, has lost perspective, and needs rescue, STAT!
When I am overwhelmed, I often regress into a petulant three-year-old: I like. I hate. I want. So I embrace my inner brat and purge these impulsive judgments onto the page. I do this using an easy exercise I call “Working/Not Working.”
Make Your Lists
Turn to a fresh page and draw a vertical line down the middle. Label one side “Working” and the other side “Not Working.” If you are using a computer for journaling, simply type the two headings and leave room under each.
Now brainstorm items for your lists, using the prompts: “What is working right now?” and, “What is not working right now?” Write down the first thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t matter how silly, petty, insurmountable, mean, or lofty it sounds. Just pound it out.
Try to see if you can come up with 10 items under each list without stopping. Don’t even pause to reread what you’ve written.
The key to making effective use of this tool is to NOT think about solutions. Totally clear your mind of how you’re going to address any of these issues. Ignore all assumptions about what is or is not possible.
Go back to that three-year-old self. The self who wants a pony. Who doesn’t WANT to go to bed early. Who hates brussel sprouts. Who wants it to stop raining so she can play outside – NOW.
Realize you can assess solutions or make your big important judgment calls after the list is complete.
Judging your items will summon your censor. As soon as you start making excuses like, “I don’t have the money to do that right now,” or “She doesn’t mean to be so demanding,” the ideas stop flowing. You lose touch with your true desires.
Allow yourself to write some things even if they make you feel bad or guilty. It’s okay – you’re just venting, and nobody is going to see this. For ten minutes, your bratty three-year-old can be mad at her best friend and not want to share her toys.
If you’re really frazzled when you begin this exercise, you may be looking at 50 items that are “not working,” and a big blank space under “working.”
That’s okay! It just means you have lots of room to make improvements in the way you’ve been doing things. Get excited to make some changes.
Divide and Conquer
So you’ve got your lists – now what?
The goal of this exercise is:
1. Ensure the Working items continue
2. Brainstorm solutions for the Not Working items
The key to clearing your head of all this chaotic crap is to write it down some place actionable so you don’t have to think about it anymore. You’ll need a calendar and two sheets of paper. Label one sheet “To Do” and the other “Shopping List”.
Let’s start on a positive note with the Working list. I’ll share part of my recent list to walk you through the process.
- running after work
- sleeping until 6 AM
- going out for Pho
Items on your Working list are often the glue still holding you together. Our goal is to make sure these items continue to happen.
A few of these items represent recent changes I implemented that were clearly good ideas since they appear on the Working list. A couple of weeks ago I was thinking it would be a great idea to transition my wake-up time to 5 AM so I could go running before work. However, since “sleeping until 6” and “running after work” both appear to be making me happy, there’s no reason to make that change right now. Good to know – I wasn’t looking forward to getting up at o’dark thirty!
“Going out for Pho” is also a recent change. I like to eat out. We live in a bustling restaurant district and I happen to love sushi. There’s few things as expensive as eating sushi in a restaurant. This means I either don’t got out for sushi as often as I’d like, or I go anyway, which results in more things Not Working because I lack the disposable income.
So I decided to try switching to going out for Pho, which is Vietnamese noodle soup, if you’re unfamiliar with it. It’s really amazing and a perfect dinner for winter in the Pacific Northwest, where it’s cold and wet all the time. Basically Pho is a vat (seriously – like half a gallon) of piping hot soup with rice noodles, bean sprouts, fresh basil, lime, vegetables, and if you want, beef or chicken. The best part is that Pho is $5 a bowl. The place I like includes free cream puffs. This means dinner for two under $15 – including tax, tip and dessert.
Pho seemed like a good replacement for sushi, allowing me to eat out weekly instead of monthly. Since Pho is on my Working list, that was a wise decision. (Now I’m really hungry.)
Identify Low-hanging Fruit
We want the Working items to continue, so take out your planner and schedule them right away. Since running after work is successful, I’m going to write it in my calendar for the next two weeks. I’m also going to schedule two nights out of Pho.
It feels pretty awesome to schedule the Working stuff right off the bat. And it gives you perspective – you are doing some things right after all!
On to the Not Working.
- spending 6 hours on laundry
- wet feet while walking to work
- feeling like a slave to email
- being contact for club website
Again a focus on low-hanging fruit. Is there anything on the list I can immediately eliminate, cancel, reschedule or delegate?
Wet feet is easy to solve – I obviously need rain boots. With the money freed up from eating Pho instead of sushi, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll add rain boots to my handy shopping list right here.
Now, let’s look at some strategic planning items that may require further journaling to get to the center of.
Why is laundry taking me 6 hours? That’s a big question. Especially since it’s the very first thing Not Working so it must be bothering me.
After some thought, I realize it’s taking 6 hours because my apartment building only has two washers and dryers, and everyone tries to do laundry on Sunday, myself included. People do a load of wash and then don’t pick up their clothes, so you’re stuck in that conundrum of either waiting for them to collect their clothes or taking it out and risking offense.
So I can try doing it at a time when most people won’t be doing it — like when I get up at 6AM. Or late on a Tuesday night.
Or I can delegate that task and give it to my houseboy and let him worry about it. Which seems like the best option right now. So I will put “Talk to the Page about laundry” on my To Do list.
One more example – “Being the contact for the club website.” One of the clubs I’m involved in has my email linked from the contact page. I originally didn’t mind answering the barrage of emails coming in, but lately it’s been too much and I don’t want to do it anymore.
So instead of feeling overwhelmed and resentful every time an email appears in my inbox, sucking my time, focus and energy, I’m going to approach the club and find a volunteer to take over the task.
Hopefully these examples show you how you can use your gut-level lists to brainstorm ways to make little changes and get your life back on track.
The 80/20 Principle
There’s a principle guideline in economics and sociology called the 80/20 rule. Supposedly, it can be applied to anything in this fashion: 20% of your customers bring in 80% of the profits. 20% of your obligations require 80% of your effort. 20% of employees do 80% of the work. 20% of the population holds 80% of the wealth. And so on.
You can use the 80/20 rule to your advantage by examining the lists you made in your journal. For example, 20% of your problems are causing 80% of your frustration. So if your Not Working list has 10 items on it, which two items are causing most of your grief?
Apply all of your energy to the big wins and do something about those two items. This will help you avoid getting overwhelmed by your list exercise, which is intended to help you refocus, rebalance and STOP feeling overwhelmed.
The Working/Not Working exercise helps me hack a small entrance in my pile of rubble so I can begin making sense of it. It’s a great starting point for problem solving, and really helps me get started.
Often once I’ve made the lists, I already feel better and a little bit more in control of my life. This relief frees up some energy and mental space, and I feel better equipped to take on the changes that need to be made.
Hope it helps you do the same.