How to Be Productive When You’re Overwhelmed and Freaking Out

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Face it – you're cooked.

Coffee cup and a mobile phoneEd’s note: This post was written by guest editor Tess Robinson of Smack Bang Designs.

Putting two-day-old underwear on, inside out. Leaving the house with feta in your eyebrows and lipstick on your teeth. Spending your days with 12 too many empty coffee cups on your desk. Eating melted gelato and your kid’s teething stick you found on the floor for lunch at a quarter past four. Spending the entire week squeezing mayonnaise onto your toothbrush and trying to start your car with your leftover toast. You’re cooked.

It’s not that you’re not trying. Heck, we live in an age where we are not just awarded for our productivity, but identified by it. You’re eager to face the music, knuckle down and get shit done with as much glitter and gusto as Beyoncé (and let’s face it, in the age of Google Calendar, isn’t that all of us?).

But the simple fact is, your productivity has evaporated in the furnace of fire and you’re freaking the F out. So, in the face of despair and on a quest for motivation that doesn’t come in the way of a curly script font or ‘Yes Man’ conference, I share with you a pocket full of game-changers that I keep up my sleeve when I find myself ordering a drive-through coffee from a homeless man.

1. Pinpoint your purpose

Do the world’s most successful people get overwhelmed? Yes, absolutely. But they are still productive even when they are in the middle of a Britney Spears style freak out. But it’s not because they don’t feel the chaos of crazy flooding through their veins, it’s because their passion for what they do is stronger than the discomfort of a 6-tonne to-do list. Step away from your computer, hop into the comfort of your warm car (and recline your seat if you must), and put pen to paper for a quick and dirty goal-setting sesh. Write down some intentions for the bigger picture of your life; who you are, what you stand for and what you were put on this earth to do. Get back to the core of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Slow down and soak up the feeling of what it feels like to connect back to your purpose.

2. Prioritise your priorities

If you’re a classic type-A personality, like me, you’ve got a nasty habit of adding things to your task list for no good reason. You have a constant stream of to-dos running through your brain at lightning speed and you’re trying to be a success story with no real strategy or game plan. But we all know that a cyclone doesn’t build new houses, it tears them down. Begin by doing a brain dump and list every single thing that you feel like you should be doing. Then immediately cross off anything that you sincerely do not need to do. I’m sure there’s a few. Next, get prioritising, from might-spontaneously-combust-into-flames-if-it-doesn’t-get-addressed-right-this-second, all the way down to might-get-done-11pm-before-my-funeral-day. The trick is to be very discerning about your to-do list and limit yourself to only three core items per day.

3. Stop and take stock

Idleness is not an extravagant vacation or bad habit left over from your days of smoking gunja and wagging class at uni. Idleness is as indispensable to the brain as calcium is to your bones, and deprived of it, we find ourselves wading through murky waters of indecision, fatigue and a severe lack of lust for life. I believe the worst epidemic that our modern world faces is the disease of being constantly busy for the sake of busy – doing for the sake of doing. We are all fiercely addicted to filling our schedules to distract ourselves from rest and reflection. Schedule in an hour to each of your days to do nothing. Yes, you will struggle, like a junkie looking for a fix; your fingers will itch to get back to the keyboard and your brain will crave some form of stimulation. But get comfortable with the discomfort, as counter-intuitive as it seems, your energy levels and productivity will thank you for it.

4. Do what you wanna do

It’s okay to say no. I bet even Mother Teresa once said no. Here’s the thing, when you start a business, you start your own little mini utopia, where you create the rules. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed and freaking out, check in with yourself; are you actually doing the work that you want to do? We all need to take a good, hard look at ourselves and ask, “Am I working because I want to? Am I working because I’m being productive? Or am I just working on these tasks because they just so happened to land on my desk?” This relates to your calendar and personal commitments as well. Look at your social obligations and personal commitments for the month ahead. Which of those do you actually want to attend? Which of those are going to propel you forward and give you joy? Great. Scrap off everything else with as much sorry-not-sorry as you can muster.

5. Embrace imperfection

My business coach used to tell me that “done is better than perfect”. At the time I was like, “Nothing is better than perfect. Duh, that’s why it’s called perfect”. And when I felt overwhelmed, I would bury myself deep in a task finessing the tiny details and repeatedly making changes to my work that not even my mum would notice. But now I realise that being productive doesn’t mean being a perfectionist. It means doing the best you can, with what you’ve got. Don’t get bogged down in making sure everything is 100 per cent, exactly one pixel to the left and one Pantone shade darker than the way it should be. Productive people know that done is better than perfect.

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