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All About You: Feeling overwhelmed? De-stress your to-do list


EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Are the moments you’re experiencing today more or less important than the moments you’ll experience tomorrow?

It’s an odd question worth considering. Suppose the time you spend on your activities today is as valuable as that of tomorrow (or any time in the future). What value is there in letting your worries about the future corrupt your enjoyment of today? This is especially true if you’re overwhelmed because you can’t complete everything you hoped to do today.

Feeling overwhelmed is a common experience in our fast-paced world. Back in the “old days,” before technology became an integral – if not an essential – part of doing business, we didn’t have to respond right away to emails and text messages, allowing us to enjoy our present situation. And work didn’t follow us everywhere we went. Now, you and I can work all day and night if we wish (or feel we need to).

Have you ever written out a long list of what you have to get done, realize you won’t be able to tick off all of your to-do’s no matter how hard you work at it, and then give up? I’ve done this at times. It’s frustrating and harmful to our quality of life. Here are a few ways I’ve been able to handle feeling overwhelmed from having too much to do.

Limit your visible to-do list. I use popular software that lets me create a detailed date- and time-stamped to-do list with all kinds of features. Right now, my list includes 54 items – several of them overdue.

My to-do list grows like a weed, even when I have a productive week. It used to bother me. Now, however, I review the list and, on an index card, write five things I want to get done today and use that as my daily to-do list. If I get all five done, I go back to my to-do software and pick something else.

All I see throughout the day are the five items on my card. When I complete all five, I feel a slight surge of satisfaction. Your situation may require you to do certain things such as complete a report or conduct an inspection, but the technique still works. Include your “required” tasks on your card, and then if you can include something you need or want to do that isn’t forced on you by your position, fantastic. But avoid regularly viewing all the things you need or want to do if you have a long “undone” list.

It’s all in your head. “I’ve got so much to do!” This is a common expression that never helps you do better – but does make you feel worse. Feeling overwhelmed is a mindset, not a real event. When you understand and remind yourself that you’re the creator of your anxiety, it helps give you a better sense of control. On the other hand, acting out your negative emotions only stimulates more stress hormones and exacerbates your anxiety.

Hurrying is a common byproduct of feeling overwhelmed, yet it rarely quells your distress. When you start working faster than normal, you send signals to your brain that something is wrong. Instead of hurrying, try the opposite and take a break. Not all day, unless you can afford to do that, but pause in some way for a brief period. I’ll go and sit on my couch and count several breaths when I start fretting over my often-self-imposed heavy task load. Taking a walk helps, too.

It’s not that important. If you don’t get a report done on time, so what? It doesn’t mean you’re lazy or incompetent, and it’s not worth the anguish if you weren’t neglectful. (If you were neglectful, then use it as a lesson for future efforts.) Indeed, the task(s) you failed to complete will still be waiting for you tomorrow, unless you’ve hired gnomes to do your bidding.

For me, right now, because I’m completing my No. 1 task on today’s index card – writing this column – I’m taking a break.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps leaders inspire employees to care more about their safety and health so “nobody gets hurt.” He also has a long history of success getting safety leaders to increase their influence and make safety fun. For more than 35 years, Richard’s safety keynotes, training sessions, books and “Safety Stuff” e-zine have made a positive difference in the safety and health field. Learn more about how Richard can improve your employees’ safety performance at

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