Overwhelmed? Try these opening moves to start conquering your to-do list.



If you’re neck-deep in swamp water and still sinking, you probably have no greater ambition in that moment than to somehow stay afloat and keep breathing. Likewise, when figuratively swamped with work and responsibilities, it helps us to focus for a few moments on taking deep breaths before reassessing the situation. That’s because deep breathing help us calm down and regain composure and control.

Come up for air.

Taking slow, deep, breaths pushing air to the bottom of the lungs causing the belly to rise rather than the chest. Follow up with a long exhalation to signal the brain to calm down.

Of the many deep breathing techniques available, Eric Maisel’s Centering Sequence—a six-breath, six-thought, one-minute exercise—is designed to halt scattered or racing thoughts in preparation for giving one particular task complete focus. The six thoughts are pegged to the word CENTER:

  • Come to a complete stop.
  • Empty yourself of expectations.
  • Name your work.
  • Trust your resources.
  • Embrace the present moment.
  • Return with strength.

Following is your mental recitation. The parentheses indicate how each thought is to be divided between the inhale and exhale.

  1. (I am completely) (stopping)
  2. (I expect) (nothing)
  3. () ()
  4. (I trust) (my resources)
  5. (I embrace) (this moment)
  6. (I return) (with strength)

For No. 3, name the work you intend to fully focus on next. Examples: (I will start) (my report); (I am making) (that phone call); (I shall practice) (my speech).

Explaining the technique in his book, “Coaching the Artist Within,” Maisel includes as part of the process letting go of expectations and embracing the current moment because anxiety about outcomes often prevents people from getting started on projects.

In “High Performance Habits,” Brendan Burchard offers a two-part way to set intentions when transitioning from task to task throughout the day:

  • Release tension.
  • Set an intention.

Close your eyes and repeat the word “release” like a mantra. Mentally, leave behind what you were doing previously and create a clean slate. Then, picture in detail your intension for the next work or activity segment. Visualize what you will accomplish and prime yourself for how you’d like to feel during the process and upon completion. Repetition of this ritual throughout the day makes it feel safe to not worry or even think about any of your other responsibilities for the duration of the segment.

Build and Sustain Momentum.

Peter Bregman, author of “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done,” has a system for plowing through an overwhelming to-do list. First, capture all the to-do’s floating around in your head onto a piece of paper. Next, set a timer and spend 15 minutes completing as many of the quickest, easiest items as you can. It’s unlikely that these will be the most important tasks on your list, and that’s OK. The idea is to create momentum and a sense of accomplishment.

When the timer dings, choose the to-do item that’s your highest priority or biggest dread. Turn off your phone and email alerts. Focus on that task exclusively for 35 minutes. Then, take a timed 10-minute break. Stand up and stretch, top off your coffee, use the bathroom, peek at Facebook. When time is up, start the 15-35-10 sequence over again. If you’re trucking along during your 35 minutes of focused work when the timer dings, continue for another 35 minutes or however long you choose. But don’t spend more than 15 minutes at a time on the fast, easy stuff or take breaks longer than 10 minutes.

Segmenting work into timed periods makes dreaded tasks seem bearable and ensures important work receives your undivided attention.

These are just a few opening moves you can make when you’re overwhelmed with work, and once you’ve started, you’re sure to hit your stride.

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How do you prod yourself to start digging out when you feel completely buried? Share your methods in the comments.