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Your brain has its limits.

Over 60 years ago, cognitive psychologist George Miller wrote a paper reporting that our brain’s capacity is 7 things, plus or minus 2. This single theory – The Magic Number Seven – is one of the most cited in psychology.

The problem is that most days, 7 isn’t nearly enough.

As you’re reading this, you might be thinking about another article you read, an email that upset you, where you need to be in an hour, the sticky note on your screen, or the cord on your desk that doesn’t have a home.

You have work to do, but your brain is already overwhelmed.

And there’s a problem with reaching our capacity.

When our attention is full, we miss out.

We stop noticing opportunities, like a better way to manage our email.

We stop thinking creatively, like how to create a win/win in a complicated relationship.

And we can experience a nagging feeling of anxiety or frustration, or just worn out.

As we all slide deeper into a digital world, our limits will get pushed even more. That’s why we all need an antidote to busy and overwhelmed.

As we all slide deeper into a digital world, we all need an antidote to busy and overwhelm. Click To Tweet

Here are 5 things you can do today to regain capacity and feel more in control. All of these take little time, but all can deliver significant results.

I know because I use them all to feel less overwhelmed. 

1. Organize your lists

“You have to use your mind to get things off your mind.” David Allen, Getting Things Done.

Most lists don’t work.

If you are like most people, you write things down as you think of them. It takes a lot of effort to prioritize tasks, so your list gets longer, and everything appears to have the same value.

Stop and have a quick look at your To-Do list. Does it have items like: “replace printer cartridge,” “finish the proposal,” and “outsource design work” all competing for your attention. Each item has a different value, but your list isn’t providing clues for where to start.

The quickest way to feel more organized – even reduce stress – is to organize all of your To-Do’s into three lists:

  • This week
  • This month
  • Someday

These three lists are the heart of my Plan Like A Pilot system (you can learn the system in my book Give Me A Break). Here’s how it works:

  • Work from “This week.”
    • A shortlist of priorities (all should be milestones that move projects forward or to completion) is your guide for the week. It’s also your measure of success.
  • Place upcoming work in “This month.”
    • Your holding zone; a place to park what is important but not immediately urgent.
  • Put all your random ideas, future projects, and follow-ups in “Someday.”

Once a week, you move anything urgent from Someday to This month. And you move urgent items from This month to This week. Finally, you organize the items in This week on your daily calendar.

2. Empty a drawer

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” John Maxwell

I’m not a big fan of Marie Kondo’s obsession with organizing every sock, but I am a big fan of reducing clutter.

Starting with one drawer.

We all have drawers that are junk collections. I have one under my desk with 10 years of old watches, pens, clips, batteries, expired credit cards, and who knows what else. I think in the last 3 years, the only 2 things I’ve used from that drawer are a highlighter pen and Exacto blade for opening boxes.

Do yourself a favour, pull up a garbage can, take 5 minutes, and clean out one drawer. It won’t solve all your problems, but it’s one piece of mental energy you have freed up.

3. Go for a walk

”An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” Henry David Thoreau

There is something magical about walking.

Many of the most acclaimed authors and thinkers in history, like Thoreau, Wordsworth, and Dickens, relied on walking for their health and inspiration.

Try taking a walk, unplugged—no podcasts or music, just you and your thoughts. If you want a more disciplined approach, focus on a problem at work or in a relationship, or just allow your thoughts to wander.

If you are near a park or forest, immerse yourself in the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. There are many proven health benefits from allowing your senses to get in tune with the natural environment, like reduced cortisol, increased happiness – even improved creative problem-solving.

Even better than going for a walk is to make a habit of going for a walk. Creating a ritual, like walking for 30 minutes every morning at 7:30, means you enjoy all the benefits without thinking about it.

4. Pick up a book

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss

Reading is good medicine for your brain – literally.

Brain scans show that reading increases brain connectivity, not only while you are reading but for days following. Other studies found that reading can also increase our ability to learn and experience empathy.

Best of all, reading is a commitment to single-tasking—spending time doing only one thing (not fussing about unfinished work or your bank balance).

When I’m travelling, I love the convenience of reading on Kindle. But, there’s nothing like sinking into a comfortable chair with a book in your hands.

If you’re feeling like the world is spinning a little too fast, pick up a book.

5. Finish one thing

“Starting is not most people’s problem, staying, continuing and finishing is.” Darren Hardy

In the “old days,” we had a phone, typewriter, and one-on-one conversations. Today we jump from a conference call on zoom to email flooded with unread messages, text message alerts, and Facebook notifications (to mention only a few distractions).

Suddenly, it’s 10:30, and you’ve been jumping from task to task and you feel overwhelmed. 

The antidote to distraction is to complete something; anything.

Here’s how.

Start with the two-minute rule to find easy wins: if a task takes less than two minutes, don’t add it to a list or write it on a sticky note—just do it.

Next, look for stalled projects, like that sales push you wanted to build or new software you were considering. Break that project down into a handful of 10-minute chunks and complete the first one.

It may sound too simple, but getting momentum toward your goal – no matter how small – is more important than having the exact route mapped out.

How to get started

The reality is that unless you live in a cave (without WIFI), it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Knowing how to move forward and reclaim mental space is a skill and a gift you can give yourself.

It doesn’t have to take a lot of time – like reading one chapter in a book or emptying one drawer – but it does take a conscious effort. The good news is that with this kind of effort always comes reward.

Enjoyed this article? Here are 3 more all about getting organized:

How to Get Organized and Take Charge of Your Business During COVID
The Busy Person’s 5-Step Guide to the Perfect Blog Post for SEO
How to Build Your Perfect Website Performance Dashboard in Just 5 Minutes