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How to stay focused when everything feels stressful and overwhelming

If everything feels chaotic, you’re not alone. These five strategies can help, says this time management coach.

How to stay focused when everything feels stressful and overwhelming
[Photo: georgeclerk/Getty Images]

In the past two years, we’ve seen more disruption than we typically see in decades. As if the pandemic of 2020 wasn’t enough, we’re now dealing with inflation increasing at the highest rate in more than 40 years, empty shelves in grocery stores, plummeting stock market tickers, and gas prices more than double what they were in 2020. (How I miss the good old days of $2 per gallon.)

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In an attempt to slow down the runaway train of inflation, rising interest rates have put a squeeze on homebuyers with skyrocketing mortgage rates, and on employers, leading to news of a fresh wave of layoffs almost anytime you log into LinkedIn. Then there is the ongoing war in Ukraine and so many other situations big and small that can cloud our focus and distract our minds. No wonder sentiment was the lowest on record in June according to the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers consumer sentiment index.

In the midst of a chaotic present and an uncertain future, how do you stay productive and focus on what you can do, instead of getting consumed thinking about situations largely outside of your control? As a time management coach and as a human being who wrestles with these same questions in my day-to-day life, here are some of the best strategies I’ve found for continuing to get things done, and feel less overwhelmed:

Get It All Out on Paper

When you’re constantly feeling distracted, the root cause is often anxiety. To figure out what you’re actually concerned about, begin to write out a brain dump of everything on your mind. It could be big things like what will happen to the economy, or it could be day-to-day items like prepping for the busy start of the school year, or figuring out how to declutter the living room. Anything and everything that comes to your mind is fair game to write up.

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I find that sometimes it works best to write out my thoughts on literal paper and other times it is easier to just type it into a Word document. Do whatever feels easiest.

Take Action Where You Can

Once you’ve got everything written out, circle or highlight where you can take action. Anxiety about situations where you have some measure of control can fuel you to prepare for the future in a healthy way.

Come up with what you can do, such as reviewing your retirement goals, talking to neighborhood parents about carpooling on mornings you have early meetings, or planning an evening with your spouse to make progress on the living room. Then, add those to your task list or calendar, so that you can consistently progress. Making changes to improve your situation is a healthy and helpful way to use your nervous energy, instead of simply distracting yourself on your phone.

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Release What’s Outside Yourself

While there are plenty of situations where we can do something to change the outcome, there are some instances where we don’t have a lot of control. We just need to do our best in the moment and then respond to what happens as it occurs. For example, I recently found out that my husband’s company will be cutting 8,000 jobs. Also my parents are retired, so they’re especially susceptible to the impact of inflation and the downturn in the stock and bond market.

I can’t control these situations, but they do concern me, so I need to regularly release what’s on my mind so that I don’t wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. with my thoughts racing.

This is where practices like meditation, prayer, and journaling play such a critical role for all of us in getting calm, peaceful, centered, and able to focus in uncertain times. Every morning, I take time to be quiet, pray, and release my concerns, and if something comes up during the day that bothers me, I try to journal about it prior to lights out. Although I still don’t know what will happen to my husband’s job or with many other situations, I can honestly say I feel at peace and present in the moment.

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Take a Break From Input

The above strategies can’t change large-scale issues in our lives, but they can make us feel more calm, focused, and present. Unfortunately, many times we’re tempted to turn to activities that do the opposite—like scrolling endlessly on our phones. Instead of feeling what we’re feeling, taking action where we can, and releasing what we can’t control, we go in search of information to give us hope or numb us out. Unfortunately, social media typically only makes us more anxious and distracted.

If you’re noticing a pattern of feeling anxious so you check social media and then you leave feeling more distracted than before, I recommend you take a break from this coping mechanism. In my life, I try to limit looking at social media to about once a day, and then on the weekends, I typically take a social media hiatus. These breaks allow me to regain perspective on all that is still good in the world and to focus on being present to the here and now.

If you struggle in this area and need a little extra help to stay off your phone or distracting websites, you may want to enlist the help of a blocker (like Freedom.to) to disrupt the vicious distraction cycle.

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Go Into Every Day With a Plan

If you’ve done all of the above, you’re doing a good job of increasing your awareness of what not to do, but you’ll still end up distracted and wasting time if you’re not clear on what to do. That’s why I recommend you start every day with a plan. You could make that plan when you wrap up work the day before, prior to bed, or at the start of your workday.

The important thing is you have a plan, so that when you jump into the day, your mind knows where to focus and what you should be doing. And if at any point you start to feel anxious or tempted to get distracted, pause, take a few breaths, go on a walk, journal a bit, or do whatever you need to do to recenter and then come back to the plan.

No matter what is going on in the world, you can choose to stay focused, peaceful, and present in the now. With these strategies you can not only survive, but thrive, and enjoy the journey, come what may.

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