Overwhelmed? Set time boundaries

To-do list as long as your arm? Head about to explode? In the fourth part of a series of pieces on feeling overwhelmed in our lives, Oliver Burkeman gives us the lowdown on how to change the way we think about everything we're trying to fit in


Overwhelmed? Set time boundaries

All too often, tips and tricks for fighting ‘overwhelm’ seem to hinder, not help. Even worse, time-use research indicates that we’re not busier than we used to be, on average. We have plenty of spare time, researchers say – so why doesn’t it feel that way? All this suggests that feeling overwhelmed is not a simple question of having too much to do, but a tricky psychological trap.

So, here is the best current thinking on finding your way out – and reclaiming some breathing – space to enjoy life again.

Set time boundaries

One major cause of feeling constantly rushed in our lives, according to Brigid Schulte, author of the recent book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time (Bloomsbury, £12.99), isn’t having too much to do – it’s having too many different kinds of things to do, and doing them all jumbled up, with no sense of focus or completion.

No wonder working parents feel so worn down: it’s not just that they’re busy, but that their minds can rarely focus on one thing alone.

Technology makes things worse, bringing work email into your bedroom, and your Facebook friends into meetings at work.

Where possible, set boundaries: leave work at a fixed time, schedule an hour for chores on Sunday, then three hours of family time. You’ll no longer be distracted by guilty thoughts that, whatever you’re doing, you should be doing something else.

It also helps if you’re realistic about your to-do lists. Kate Walton, who runs WorkStew.com, abandoned electronic calendars because they gave a false sense of time: ‘I found they fed my ambitions – I could make endlessly long to-do lists – but ultimately, they set me up for failure because I could never complete even half of what I hoped to achieve each day.’ Now she limits her list to just two or three big items per day.

Photograph: iStock

More inspiration:

Read It's time to stop the glorification of busy by Jules Mitchell on LifeLabs