Our lives are fuller than they’ve ever been before. This is wonderful in many ways: we have multidimensional roles and identities that are fulfilling in their own right, we belong to different communities, and we’re productive with all the responsibilities that come with these - and how satisfying it is to feel productive!
On the other hand, this constant productivity and busy-ness can be overwhelming, even unmanageable. With each of these roles and communities comes a plethora of tasks and obligations, many of which are time sensitive and energy-consuming.
This has come up with almost every person I’ve worked with: being overloaded with things that need to just get done. They tell me everything on their plate and how it becomes a vicious cycle: the more they have to do, the more tired they are, and the harder it becomes to accomplish anything, and then the more they still have to do, and so on. I also often hear about a mental fog and increased difficulty with concentrating that comes with this.
If you’ve worked with me, you know my typical response to this is an emphatic “No wonder!” I’ll tell you any one of the roles you’re discussing (i.e., a college student) is a full-time job in itself that comes with an array of assignments, schedules, and necessity for focus and attention. On top of that, for example, you’re a mother and a partner who is trying to eat healthy, pay off their credit card debt, and practice self-care (which often goes to the bottom of the priority list, let’s be honest). Each of these come with an endless task list of things that need to get done. So, I say, no wonder your mind is foggy..
When I have this discussion with folks, I visualize a brain being drained of energy and power. I see it almost as a physical entity, like a cloud, seeping out of someone’s head and their facial expression is one of pure exhaustion as a result of it. The brain becomes stuffed with a never-ending checklist that it hits capacity and has to drain to make room for more.
So, how do we plug this brain drain and start to manage the never-ending task list of life? Over the years of working this through with clients as well as with loved ones and in my own life, I have some suggestions.
A few years ago I was working at a college counseling center. I was overwhelmed with tasks I was in charge of. I had two separate job titles, I was on several committees, I led dozens of projects, and juggled a caseload of students I saw for therapy. My schedule was packed daily with no lunch or break. I felt it viscerally - I was frustrated, exhausted, and constantly on edge from all I had to do.
One day, after feeling like my brain was going to burst with all it was keeping track of, I sat down with the notebook I used to manage daily tasks. See, every morning I wrote down tasks for the day and then I had a separate place to track ongoing projects and obligations. It had never occurred to me to write down every little thing in one place. So I gave it a try - I wrote down everything I was responsible for in my various roles from big projects to small to-do’s. For the tasks that involved smaller tasks, I wrote those down underneath the bigger one. I listed everything.
It took a few days because writing was time-consuming and draining, but when I was done I was so glad I did it. It resulted in ten pages of checkboxes on every single line, front and back. I flipped through the pages and couldn't believe I had been storing most of it in my mind. Again, no wonder I was at my wit’s end! I felt a deep sense of compassion for myself with all that I was carrying and a big sigh of relief for taking a load off of my mind.
Dumping out the task list from my brain onto a piece of paper was a game-changer and it could be for you, too. You could take one aspect or role in your life and do the same thing. Although, I would challenge you to go a step further and make an all-encompassing list for every aspect of your life.
Don’t worry about categorizing (unless that helps!) or if you forget something or write something twice. The point is to get the checkboxes out of your head and visualize them on a piece of paper. I know it sounds daunting and like a whole task in itself, but take your time with it. It will be extremely therapeutic to take the burden off your brain and it won’t have to drain so much.
Aside from the sheer amount of tasks I hear folks discuss, I also hear a sense of vagueness about certain tasks and resentment towards other ones. When I piece this out with them, we discover the vagueness is due to a lack of clear goals and the resentment is due to taking on responsibilities which are not really theirs to take on.
If you made a list of tasks from the last suggestion, scan through them. There are probably plenty of specific ones, like turning in an assignment or sending in your mail-in ballot.
These are accomplishable tasks in that they are measurable. Once the assignment is done, you can check off the box next to it. Once the ballot is mailed, you can check that off, too.
There are also probably non-specific tasks as well, such as practicing self-care. It’s important to identify clear goals so the tasks that follow are accomplishable. Instead of writing “practice self-care everyday,” try writing “practice yoga at the end of the work day” or “write in my journal when I wake up.” Using the S.M.A.R.T. goals acronym as a guideline for creating goals is extremely helpful.
In addition to setting clear goals, you must also set clear boundaries. I cannot say how many times I’ve heard people share how they have to do things their colleagues or their partners or someone else should be doing. This is where having an understanding of what is truly important for you to do and what is important to ask someone else to do comes into play. For example, do you have to be the one who is running errands or can you enlist the help of your partner? Do you tend to take on a colleague’s work because you don’t trust them to get it done?
Of course, there are plenty of instances where you’ll be doing things on behalf of others, such as being a parent, a caretaker, a boss, etc. We all have a social responsibility to one another, but it works both ways! Is there anything on your list you can reach out for support with? Are you the most appropriate person to be doing that task? This may involve having conversations around boundaries and my number one recommendation for facilitating that communication is to approach responsibilities as a team. Don’t attack or insult the other person, but be assertive and stand in your knowledge that you have thought this particular task through and it is either not for you or you need someone’s help with it.
Setting clear goals helps with the fogginess brain drain creates because instead of trying to meet this vague task, you have a concrete idea of what needs to be done. Setting boundaries also helps with brain drain because you are able to unload, delegate, and share tasks so they don't “clog up” unnecessarily for you.
In the suggestion of setting boundaries, what thoughts came up for you? Just writing it myself, I had some negative self-talk show up: You’ll be a burden to those you ask for help. You’re a failure if you can’t do it all yourself. You should just do it yourself because you can’t trust anyone else.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Throughout this process of plugging the brain drain and managing your tasks, it’s likely you’ve had some negative self-talk come up. The first thing to know is it’s completely normal. In our capitalistic society, we’re expected to juggle countless responsibilities and roles and to perform at our max. To be, like I said in the first paragraph, productive.
Add on identities like being a woman, being queer, and/or a person of color, and the expectations are that much higher to perform at maximum capacity.
These suggestions I’m providing challenge this notion because they redefine what productivity, and thus value, look like. We have to rewrite the script that having a never ending task list and keeping it all in our heads while never asking for help is the appropriate - let alone healthy - thing to do.
Even more, it’s not effective. What IS healthy and effective is to lessen the burden on yourself so you can actually complete the tasks that you need to. We don’t want to keep mindlessly pushing forward as we check off the task list - we want to be intentional and careful. We want to be present so we can fully and completely accomplish the tasks and heck, even enjoy them while we’re at it!
Notice when and where the negative self-talk arises and begin to rewrite new self-talk to replace it. Take these examples:
These are just a few examples. I challenge you to write down some of your negative self-talk that arises when you look at these suggestions and to come up with alternatives to them. Of course, it will take time for these alternatives to really settle in and become habitual, but with practice and patience, they will!
These are only a few of many suggestions and tips for plugging your brain drain and managing the never-ending task list of life. Give these a try and let me know how it goes by contacting me below. These are only the tip of the iceberg so if you’d like help and more ways to manage everything you need to do, please reach out! Schedule a complimentary video consultation for yoga+therapy and I’ll be happy to discuss how I can support you.