Plates Spinning on SticksA New York Times Op-Talk blog got me thinking about a common theme among my clients and friends: chronic overwhelm. The article focuses on breathing, reframing and working less as solutions, but in my experience, those can be helpful only after we’ve gone a bit deeper.

Throughout my career, I created unmanageable to-do lists that at best simply paralyzed me, and at worst left me feeling lonely and inadequate.  I rushed around chasing my impossibly long list of daily goals and failed, leaving me exhausted, disappointed, and chronically late. Day by day, I created a habitual downward spiral, suffering the physical, mental and emotional side effects of living in a constant state of stress.

I did this for decades. And while I blamed it on the demands of my job, I was fully responsible for the entire mess: the hurry was in my head. “Busy” is a story we make up about areas of powerlessness in our lives.

Your to-do list isn’t making you miserable; what you’re thinking about your to-do list is. Shifting your thoughts will end the onslaught and bring you the relief you’ve been longing for. How?

Step One: Awareness

To shift out of a perpetual self-imposed clusterfuck, start by recognizing what researchers at Duke University have discovered:

when your goals are in conflict with one another, time pressure, stress and anxiety rise.

Ask yourself which of your goals are in conflict with one another. Spending more time with family versus getting a promotion at work? Finding someone to share your life with vs. maxing out your bonus pay? Making cupcakes for the first grade party vs. finishing a document? Dropping off the dry cleaning, cleaning the cat box, washing the floor and getting the laundry folded vs. getting some exercise? Recognize which tasks seem most important and which ones will make you most crazy if left undone—if they’re not the same ones, take note.

Step Two: Step away from the screen.

Notice how technology makes it worse. If the computer screen dares to go to sleep, we wake it immediately, even if we’re not actively using it at that moment, lest we miss an email the instant it arrives. Smart phones urge us to juggle our online social lives with work emails, actual social events, quotidian tasks and family—a real-life version of the plate-spinning circus trick: you just know that if you let one plate crash to the ground, it will take out several more on the way down. You watch your plate-spinning self leap from plate to plate, anxiously anticipating the inevitable disaster: an explosion of splintered pottery, and of course, public disgrace. Focus on one thing at a time—the myth of productive multitasking is a sinister driver.

Step Three: Choose to do the things that align with your values.

In the coaching world, we’ve intuitively understood the idea of conflicting goals, and have been teaching people how to reduce the conflict by relating all items on their to-do list with what’s essential for their well-being. It’s a tough concept to grasp at first, but unless you are an actual circus performer spinning actual plates because that’s the thing that brings you more joy than any other pursuit, you do NOT have to spin plates you think you have to spin for any other reason than that you’ve chosen to spin them.

Everything on your to-do list is a choice.

You don’t have to do anything. You choose to do things because you value the joy of doing them, or you make a decision (often unconscious) that the consequences of not doing them are unacceptable. You don’t have to file your tax returns; you choose to because a jail term doesn’t align with the life of freedom you prefer. You don’t have to make dinner for your kids; you choose to because you want them to be nourished. You don’t have to clean your house until it sparkles. Ever.

We behave in alignment with what we value, so anyone can tell what’s most important to us by watching what we do. It makes sense, then, to be aware of what we’re prioritizing, as it speaks volumes about our beliefs. If impressing the boss is more important than voicing disagreement with company policy, we’ll grind out the work, complain a lot, and say, “I have to do it this way.” If we’re more concerned with outward appearances than inner peace, we’ll run ourselves ragged trying to keep the house spotless, and miss opportunities to relax into meditation or recreation. And we’ll complain a lot.

Step Four: Know thyself.

Time pressure and anxiety dissolve when your goals are in alignment with your essential self and your life’s purpose. Take the time to articulate these things clearly, find a coach or mentor or wise woman to help you identify and own your truest self, and connect to what you feel called to accomplish in this world.   With this information, you can hold every task up to your higher purpose; if it doesn’t support your journey, you may choose not to do it. If it does, you’ll have all the motivation you need to get it done. Without complaint.

It may seem like a lot of metaphysical work for a trip to the dry cleaner’s, but once you begin to practice “I choose to because…” rather than “I have to,” you’ll find that the cure for overwhelm was inside you all along.


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