Stress Management Techniques to Deal With Overwhelm

Too often we blame ourselves for the stress caused by the swirl of demands for our time, energy, and attention.   We tell ourselves if we were just better organized or were better at prioritizing, we wouldn’t be so stressed. 

But if everything is urgently important, nothing can be a priority. What often is blamed on a lack of organization or poor time management usually turns out to be an overwhelm-induced confusion of urgency. 

I get it!

My moment of clarity about overwhelm involved sticky notes! Here is the story from my book Stress-Proof Your Life:

As a solo practitioner of an odd profession, it is easy for me to get overwhelmed by my own swirl of obligations. Several years ago, three other professional speakers and I created a mastermind group. While none of us live in the same state, we act as each other’s co-workers and often as a quasi-board of directors for each business. We talk regularly on online video calls and get together in person each year to work on our businesses. 

At first, still invested in appearing to have everything together, I was fairly guarded. I didn’t want them to judge me for the chaos in my world. I asked for some feedback but didn’t reveal too much. However, once we built trust, and perhaps spurred on by a bottle of wine, I decided to let them see what was stopping my success. As a person with an office supply buying issue, I always have a few packs of sticky notes in my bag. The night before it was my time to be in the“hot seat,” I wrote out all of the things calling for my time, energy, and attention, each on its own note. 

In the morning, I laid it all out on the table, literally. As I described each issue and covered the table with sticky notes, I became more and more anxious. In the end, I looked down and declared, “This is why I can’t get anything done.” 

The volume of notes was overwhelming for all of us, but my friends started to pick up one note at a time and ask questions about it. 

“Is this important?”
“Do you like doing this?” “Does this make you money?” 

When we came to one project, which I declared to be a splendid idea, I had to admit it was: 

  • Earning me no money.
  • Costing me significant money to develop.
  • Draining my energy, because I wasn’t excited about the work. 

My colleague Thom crumpled up the sticky note and threw it on the floor. Seeing it on the floor took my breath away! He just threw away something calling for my time, energy, and attention. It was scary, but also freeing. It also reminded me of something I’ve taught for years: 

Saying “no” to something means emphatically saying “yes” to what is important. 

I was reminded that if I took more notes off the table, I would have more time for what matters most. If I sorted the swirl of things calling for my time, energy, and attention, I would have more capacity to be purposeful in my work and focus more on my quality of life. As we sorted through the sticky notes, my group helped me eliminate some activities, reevaluate others, and elevate what was most important. I was left with a finite group of people, activities, and projects. In the following six months, I was more successful and content in my work and my personal life than I had been in years. By identifying and taming my stress environment, I increased my vitality, as well as my capacity for a purpose-driven and enjoyable life. 

I built the Stress-Proof Ecology Exercise found in the book around this sticky note epiphany. Over the years, audience members and participants in training programs have loved and profoundly benefited from these activities. Facilitating this process and the discussion that follows has allowed me to witness vivid moments of clarity as people recognize the real cost of overwhelm. 

Don’t beat yourself up about time management – sort through your environment of stress!


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