I was talking to a writer who was feeling overwhelmed.
"I'm starting a new chapter, and have a lot of material to manage; I also have issues managing my work space; I also have a trip to take; and, oh yeah, I also have an injury."
Well, that's a classic description of being overwhelmed: to be drowned beneath a mass.
Combinations of problems are made more difficult because each problem demands attention, and each has negative impact on emotions. The fact that all the problems demand attention also tend to take us away from the most efficient way of dealing with the problems: one at a time. We can't do everything at once; no matter how good we are at multi-tasking, the truth of the matter is that we work more efficiently if we can concentrate on one thing for an extended period. Partly we will work more efficiently because we will spend a smaller proportion of time switching between tasks, and partly we will work more efficiently because our attention being focused on one task, and being able to deal with that one task will give us better emotional stability to assist us as we try to deal with all tasks.
Feeling overwhelmed by problems that are not life threatening is something different than literally being overwhelmed by e.g., a tidal wave or a horde of hostile soldiers. Although, perhaps even in such situations the best strategy to keep from being literally overwhelmed is to act as efficiently as possible to stem the onrushing flood.
Problems in our personal lives ought to be dealt with as a doctor in an emergency room does triage: which problems demand the most immediate attention?
So, here was my general plan for trying to manage feeling overwhelmed: first you take an overview of the situation: what problems do you have in the moment? Then you prioritize: how are you going to schedule and allocate time to each problem? And then, only once you have gotten an overview of the situation, and made a plan for how you will address the situation, only then will you take action on any specific problem.
I recommend this course of action as a general schema for dealing with large problems or complex problems. It is useful in that, when feeling overwhelmed, it gives one specific general steps to follow, and having a plan of action can help focus attention and calm one, rather than letting the negative emotional impact of the competing problems drag you down. And though it suggests specific steps to take (1. take an inventory of problems; 2. prioritize; 3. schedule; 4. act), it is not highly restrictive and is generalizable to all situations, with the possible exception of split-second decisions. We can adjust the effort we invest in each step to the situation at hand. If the issues that we face have to be handled in a matter of minutes (e.g., a quiz in class, or even a difficult question in an interview), we simply allocate less time to each task: in the quiz we might allocate one minute to looking at the questions and getting an idea of which ones will be hard and which easy, as well as which ones will be most valuable; in the interview we might take a few seconds to think through the different parts of the question and try to assess which are of greatest concern to the interviewer. If our time is short, then we keep our initial overview short, but we can still benefit from it.
By breaking down the combination of problems into a set of discrete steps, we most effectively respond to situations. And the same breaking down of the situation into separate parts and separate steps, and focusing on one step at a time, we can most effectively counter our emotional sense of being overwhelmed.
This is hardly news, right? The idea of planning first and acting second is hardly a surprise. But we have to remind ourselves of its value when we're feeling overwhelmed. And we have to remember that it is a behavior that can be carried out at different time scales.