Does it ever feel like your conscious thoughts are just one giant to-do list?
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The human mind can juggle an amazing amount of information — but there is a limit. “At some point, you reach a critical mass,” says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. “You start missing things, avoiding things, getting angry, and struggling at work, home or in your relationships.”
Trouble is, when there are already a hundred things on your mental list, “stress management” can feel like one more duty you don’t have time for. (A calming bubble bath? You barely have time to shower.)
So how do you banish the overwhelm? Start with these five strategies, courtesy of Dr. Bea.
Just do the thing
When we have a lot on our minds, our must-do items tend to circle around and around in our brains like the ticker at the bottom of a cable news show. (And let’s face it, that news is never good.)
Sometimes the best way to get it out of your head is to just get it done. Whatever is taking up mental space — shopping for groceries, replying to that email, lifting weights, scheduling a dentist appointment — stop thinking and start doing.
“When we move toward tasks instead of away from them, our tension goes down, and our confidence goes up,” Dr. Bea says.
We understand: Taking action is not as easy as snapping your fingers and making it happen. To rein in the chaos, Dr. Bea recommends putting every task on your calendar.
- Plan all the things: Don’t just schedule the obvious, like appointments and meetings. Fill in blocks of free time with the little items that have been taking up brain space. Schedule both the fun (booking a hotel for summer vacation, having coffee with a friend) and the not-so-fun (touring assisted living homes with your mom, rewriting your resume).
- Take your calendar as gospel: “Scheduling tasks commits you to doing them. It’s a great way to reduce mental overload,” he says.
Or, skip it
If you keep avoiding something for weeks (or months), ask yourself: Does it really need to get done? If not, cross it off your list for good.
If your cranium is reaching max capacity, now is a great time to let go of non-necessities. Reassess your volunteer commitments. Forget the holiday cards this year. Even consider putting a cap on your kids’ extracurricular activities. (Don’t feel guilty. Some mental downtime is good for everyone.)
“People exhaust themselves thinking they have to get to some finish line,” Dr. Bea adds. “It’s OK to let some tasks remain undone.”
Ask for help
You can’t expect other people to rescue you from your obligations, but you can ask for assistance. “It can be hard to ask for help, but it gets easier with practice,” Dr. Bea says.
- At home: Tell your partner or kids you need them to take on more of the household chores.
- At work: Let your boss know you’ll have trouble meeting the deadline without more support.
- Recruit friends: Ask friends for a carpool favor or some babysitting help so you can run an errand. (You know you’d be happy to lend them a hand in return.)
Don’t overthink it
Feeling overwhelmed isn’t just having too much to do — it’s often having too much to think about. You’re not just putting off that assisted living facility tour; you’re thinking ahead to moving your mom out of her home. You’re not just procrastinating meeting with your child’s teacher; you’re worrying about your son’s attention problems.
When you start getting ahead of yourself, observe your thoughts and then let them go, Dr. Bea says. “Get past all the thinking about it — and just do it.”
It might not get you all the way to mental inbox zero, but it’s a start.