Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy”

Tool #1: Get it out of Your Head: Write it Down

This is an edited excerpt from Ease: Strategies to Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy” by Eileen Chadnick. Reprinted with permission of author. All rights reserved. Ease is available from most major online book retailers. See more at

Estimated reading time: 3-4 minutes

“Too much to do and not enough time” is increasingly becoming the battle cry of work warriors in today’s “crazy busy” environment. Many of us have an exceptional capacity to handle large loads, but there can come a tipping point where we feel as if we’ve got too much to handle.

The Story at a Glance

When I coach people who appear frazzled and bogged down, I often ask the following question: “What’s your system for organizing yourself?” I’m not referring to any particular technology model or particular application. What I want to get at is how they keep track of the stuff they have to do (tasks, responsibilities, meetings, etc.). I’m curious if they lean towards keeping stuff in their heads (memory) or if they have structures to tangibly capture all their tasks. I might ask the following:

What kind of list(s) do you maintain to keep track of your to-dos?

How do you stay attuned to your immediate, upcoming, and longer-term priorities?

How often do you update and check your lists?

Can you see your lists at any time with ease, or are they somewhere filed away in your computer?

What do you do when ad hoc stuff comes in that isn’t on the list—how does that get captured?

What do you do when stuff doesn’t get done from your immediate list?


I am not a professional organizer by any means. But when working with busy people, I find it absolutely essential to explore their organizational habits when they are feeling bogged down by too much to do. While these kinds of questions might seem basic, I can’t tell you how often this kind of conversation reveals a gap in a client’s organizational habits. Usually, the more frazzled the person, the more gaps he or she has. What once worked to manage responsibilities might not be sufficient as the loads and pace ramp up.

Our brains love it when we make plans and get organized. It frees up our minds from heavy burdens and the discomfort of having too much to do; provides a sense of order amid the chaos that can come with today’s fast-paced, high-volume work lives; and keeps us focused.

There is actually some science associated with to-do lists and other organizational strategies. When we organize, focus, and prioritize, we access our higher-thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) and enjoy a release of a chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which can provide a calming effect on the brain. In the midst of a moment of stress due to increased workload, taking a moment to refresh your to-do lists can actually be a calming experience.

Additionally, there is an interesting concept known as the Zeigarnik effect,1 named after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. 2 In 1927, she discovered that people tend to remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

This means we have a tendency to dwell on (in our minds) our unfinished business. As our loads increase, without a visual form of our priorities, we tend to hold on and try to jam our task-oriented information into our short-term memory. Note the distinction between being mind full versus mindful. Trying to constantly remember what else you have to do—or worrying about it—can be energy consuming, distracting, and not a productive strategy. Have you ever been to a meeting and missed part of what was being said because you were worrying about the stuff already on your plate?

Our brains weigh about 2 per cent of the average person’s body weight, yet they use about 20 per cent of our energy and nutrients to function. Our higher-thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) has limited attention capacity to simultaneously process multiple thinking tasks. Trying to remember your to-dos is fine when you have moderate workloads, but when the ante is raised, you are wasting brainpower that can be used for other more-important thinking tasks. Remember Brad from chapter 1? He was fine with his remembering strategy until his workload and pressure increased, and then it all fell apart.

A cluttered, busy mind can also disrupt sleep. Having a system that captures your to-dos can help you focus on your tasks in the moment and alleviate monkey-mind-at-night syndrome.

So how do you balance keeping your to-dos at the top of your mind but out of your head?

The Advice

In short, the advice is to write your tasks down (in some form). Create and fine-tune structures that help you keep track of your stuff so that you can concentrate on what matters in the moment. Those who do not have appropriate organizational habits for their work and life loads find themselves more prone to experiencing chaos. Their increasing workloads trigger emotional threat responses, which further compromises the ability to think, perform, and function optimally.

While each individual might have his or her own specific approach, it is important to have something that provides a visual manifestation of all your to-dos. One simple to-do list likely won’t cut it. Regardless of what structure you choose, consider these qualities:

  • It is visual and not in your head. You can see it.
  • You can access it quickly and easily.
  • It is dynamic and flexible enough to accommodate the fluid nature of your to-dos.
  • It’s part of a routine, not ad hoc.
  • It’s simple and doesn’t add more work to your load.
  • It covers immediate, near-term (tomorrow and upcoming), and long-term priorities.
  • It covers different dimensions of your life (personal, work, and others).

Make It Work for You

There isn’t one way or a perfect way to record your responsibilities and to-dos. I’ve had clients who have customized this organizational tool to their style. One used a notebook (she loved paper) to draw up margins that reflected different parts of her work and life and for different time horizons (today, tomorrow, long-term). Another client used a whiteboard for the long-term to-dos. Others are finding technology applications that suit their preferences. This practice is not simply about having a system; it’s about having the right system for your needs at any given time.

 I confess: I am a “listaholic.” My system gives me peace of mind that I will remember what I have to do, and it keeps me on track in both the short term (daily) and the long term without compromising my ability to be attentive in the moment. I am rarely surprised to see a deadline arrive out of nowhere. My lists are strategic and deliberate.

Here is a list of reminders to help you create a system that works for you.

 Thirteen Ideas to Make This Work for You

  • Reflect and rate your current organizational methods. Rate their effectiveness on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest). Identify areas you can improve that are most important to you.

  • Make sure your list (or other structure) captures stuff that you need to keep an eye on immediately (today), tomorrow, and long term. A simple daily list won’t cut it.

  • Ensure a sense of priority is reflected. Consider a ranking system versus making an ad hoc, linear list. (I will say more about priorities in my discussion of the next tool.)
  • Create a routine or ritual. Doing this ad hoc isn’t going to work. Identify when you will do your daily, weekly, and long-term lists. For instance, I do my daily lists at the end of the day. It helps me complete the day and start fresh the next morning, knowing I have my priorities set.
  • Refresh your lists as often as necessary. For example, don’t limit yourself to a weekly refresh just because you label a list your weekly list. On busy days that feel chaotic, I find it extremely helpful to take a few minutes to refresh my weekly list (even in the middle of the week) so that I can refocus and see what I have to deal with.
  • Do a reality check. Your list is meant to help you, not deflate you at the end of the day. Pay attention to your expectations, and check in to see if you are being realistic with what you can accomplish in a given time frame.
  • Capture highlights only. Your lists are not meant to be project-management documents.
  • Ensure your system is easy, simple, and quick to do. None of this needs to be complex. You don’t want to add more work to your load. A daily list can take five minutes, and if you are regularly refreshing your weekly and long-term lists, then the refresh can be quick too.
  • Keep your list(s) close, accessible and easy to view and edit. Overwhelm anxiety can hit at any time. Having quick access and the ability to easily view or update can be calming and allow you to feel more in control.
  • Print out a copy of your list if it’s on your computer. I keep my typed-up weekly list right on my desk so that I can scribble updates on it as I go.
  • Organize the weekly list by topic, theme or category. Try not to do a hodgepodge or a running brain dump. The brain can handle larger loads if they are in categories.
  • Don’t forget the apples! This is an expression I use for ad hoc essentials that might not be work-oriented but are important. Remember, we are whole people. If picking up apples after work —or your spouse’s anniversary gift — is important, then note it. Don’t keep it in your head!
  • Do a ta-da list to celebrate what you accomplished each day. One of the downfalls of to-do lists is that they never end, and we tend to focus on what we haven’t yet done (the Zeigarnik effect), which, in itself, can be deflating. A ta-da list is a nice antidote to this and gives a wonderful boost of accomplishment. We will revisit this idea in our section on positivity.

The Pay-Off

Instead of “Bye-bye, thinking capacity,” you can say, “Hello, ease with more productivity, presence, and peace of mind!”


  • You will feel more in control by being more organized, relieving your sense of overwhelm and keeping your higher-thinking brain safe from an amygdala attack.
  • It will be easier to deal with what you can see versus knowing there’s a hairy furball of a mess of stuff to tackle somewhere.
  • Having a system will boost your productivity and encourage you to prioritize.
  • You will be less distracted and more present and mindful in the moment rather than mind full.
  • You might even sleep better.

About the Author: Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is Author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of ‘Crazy Busy’. She is a certified executive and leadership coach; a communications pro (20+ years of experience) and principal of Big Cheese Coaching and Chadnick Communications in Toronto. Eileen draws from the science of positivity, leadership, neuroscience, emotional intelligence – and Conversational Intelligence®(CIQ®) in her work as a coach, consultant, trusted advisor, and facilitator.