How to Hack Your Program When You’re Overwhelmed

It’s the end of the summer term, and all my final projects are due soon. To make matters worse, back when I had more energy and the sun was shining, I decided to really push myself and take on challenging final projects that would be more meaningful. I originally thought that, if things got tough, I could take a few personal days off from work to wrap things up. Nope; all my work deadlines are hitting at the end of the month, too. Whoops.

Tweet: "It's week 6 of 10. I'm in the midst of figuring out what my final projects will be, and both profs have indicated that my choices might be rather ambitious, but doable. Stay tuned in 4 weeks to see me regret everything.

Long story short, I’m overwhelmed—the kind of overwhelmed where you completely shut down and lose the ability to do anything at all. Clearly, this is deeply counter-productive. I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on why this happens and ways I try to snap out of it.

I’m trying to do everything at once.

I take two graduate classes in addition to working full-time in a library. When that overwhelmed-and-anxious feeling starts to rise, I try to pause and take a look at what I’m doing. Last night, like many nights in the past, I found myself in the following scenario: a clipboard with an urgent work to-do list is sitting next to me so I can jot down new thoughts, I’m halfway through writing a discussion post for my Database class, the lecture I need to watch is loaded up in a different tab, Visual Studio Code is open and waiting for me to work on my website design, and I have multiple tabs of W3Schools tutorials that I keep flipping through to resolve issues in my code or accomplish different design goals. No wonder I’m not getting anything done. Here’s what I’m trying to do when I realize this is happening:

  • Take a maximum of 5 minutes and write down everything I was working on or was thinking about working on. Bookmark any open tabs that I’ll need later and close all but one. This should free up some working memory space.
  • Choose which topic I’m working on today. Allow myself the time and brain space to dive into just one thing. Promise myself that it will be more efficient than jumping between five at once. My other projects will still be there when I decide to direct my attention toward them.

I don’t feel like anything I’m doing is good enough.

I am a perfectionist. Sometimes I’m grateful for that trait, sometimes it’s a curse. If I’m not sure how to make something at the level I want it to be, I can get stuck in my uncertainty rather than working towards gradual improvement one piece at a time. Contrastingly, I also dwell on the tiniest details of something, which distracts from the task as a whole. (Here’s looking at you, exact layouts in webpages or the first sentences of papers!) What I need to do:

  • Break it down—if I’m stuck on the idea that my whole project needs to look a certain way, I can be easily overwhelmed by that mental image. Instead, I need to pick one aspect and work to achieve that first.
  • Step away—if I’m spending too much time with the details, especially if I’m getting frustrated, I need to step away. Sometimes that looks like moving on to another section of the same project, a different topic, or carving out some time to relax.
  • Accept my limitations—remind myself that I’m still learning, and that’s a good thing. If it’s a project that will continue to exist in the world, I can come back and improve it as my skills develop.

There’s too much visual clutter.

I tend to let things pile around me and get messy when I’m feeling focused and confident, but as soon as I’m overwhelmed or anxious, the visual clutter gets to me. As soon as I realize what the issue is, it’s an easy fix:

  • Take some time to tidy up.

This is great for a number of reasons: it gets me moving, it lets me refocus and process my ideas as I step away from projects, and it means I finally get that laundry done.

I don’t feel good physically.

Note to self: stop eating junk food when stressed.

I’ve had some health issues this year and I’ve come to realize that I can’t eat as carelessly as I could a few years ago. If I slip up and eat something I’m not supposed to, it can set me back for days. Grad school is also not known to encourage healthy exercise routines or be good for sleep schedules. The plan of attack for preventing this sounds simple, but might be hardest of all:

  • Eat what’s good for you.
  • Get sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.

What do you do to push past inaction when you’re feeling overwhelmed? I’ll take all the advice I can get!

Kerri Milliken is a MSI LIS candidate at the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University. Kerri currently works as a learning and development specialist for a public library system in Pennsylvania. Find her on Twitter (occasionally) at @klmillik.

If you’d like to learn more about anxiety-related procrastination, check out this article from Psychology Today.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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