Many of my entrepreneurial clients are in a constant state of overwhelm. They wear many hats: head of sales, head of finance, head of marketing, head of HR, head of strategy, head of product, etc. When managing a multi-page to-do list, it’s all too easy for tasks to creep past their deadline, causing anxiety to shoot through the roof.  Whenever clients are trapped in this vicious cycle, I always advise them to take a First Things First approach. 

Over the past few years, I’ve let overwhelm get the best of me from time to time. But through these experiences, I’ve also learned how to get effectively navigate past this vortex of misery. Here’s how I do it.

1. Calm Down

To escape this workload morass, it’s important to calm down. By simply taking a deep breath and relaxing, we’re able to take a new perspective on the situation — to observe our emotions and create the space we need to make the smartest choice.

In some ways, it is an indulgence to give into overwhelm. It incapacitates us and provides an excuse to avoid doing whatever we need to do. You may not have a choice about what's on your to-do list, but you do have a choice in how you respond to your emotions.

2. Lay It Out

The mind of an entrepreneur is like a tornado — with a cow, truck, mailbox, light pole, and a house all swirling in a chaotic mess. When I help my clients "land the tornado," I simply ask them to do a brain dump of everything on their mind (worries, to-dos, questions, etc.) and I take notes. Pulling this information from their mental whirlwind and placing it onto paper will reduce stress and create more space for creativity and productivity. Stop juggling things in your head. Rather than trying to “remember” everything, eliminate that mental tornado and lay it out instead.

3. Break It Down

You’ll remain perpetually overwhelmed if you look at your to-do list as one giant gob of interconnected tasks. In order to make progress, you need to break down this mass into digestible, moveable, and measurable chunks.

Too often, our minds want to link tasks into a clean, linear flow. With this mindset, one missing link can thwart the entire process. Don't let this happen. Instead, break everything down and examine any so-called “dependencies.” Are all of these tasks truly interconnected? Or can you break them down into easily digestible pieces and not let one missing link stop everything?

4. Can-Do Attitude

To move past overwhelm, you must maintain a can-do attitude. You should focus on what is possible and remain optimistic. After all, you have the headwinds of competition, economic conditions, staff or vendor issues, and many other challenges that will beat you down. Keep your chin up and view every challenge as an opportunity to grow. Also, use these stressful times as a chance to energize others, lifting them up and creating a community of people with a mindset that in the end supports you. 

5. Take Action

Starting is the hardest part. Sometimes I'll have the urge to build out a big plan, to really think things through, to do research, etc. In reality, these tasks are just fancy ways of avoiding the work — they create the illusion of progress and productivity.

Look at your to-do list and pick a few simple tasks. Get them done right now. Do them before you look at your phone, check your email, or do anything else. Maintaining momentum is the key. By taking immediate action and addressing even the smallest of tasks, you will create momentum and release positive brain chemicals. When in doubt, take action. 

6. Cut Through It

Breakdowns will happen. A vendor won't perform. A freelancer will disappear. A piece of technology won't work properly. A personal matter will distract you. A competitor will confuse you. These things will happen the moment you commit to moving past overwhelm and getting things done. This is the Universe testing you. Cut through it — cut through the excuses, the fear, the complexity, the resistance, the uncertainty. Cut through it with an unwavering and relentless consistency that is like the tide coming in against a rocky beach. 

Wrap Up

1. Calm down - Breathe and think clearly. Create mental and emotional space.
2. Lay it out - Get everything out of your head and onto paper.
3. Break it down - Chunk up your work into digestible, non-dependent chunks. 
4. Can-do attitude - Believe and express optimism that things can and will get done.
5. Take action - Get going with small wins. Build momentum.
6. Cut through it - Knock down obstacles that will stop your progress.