Too much going on? Never enough time, too hard to keep track of everything, hanging on for dear life so it all doesn’t fly apart? The only way to not be overwhelmed is to let something slide and then…disaster! You are the only one who can keep this machine rolling so you can’t stop no matter what, right? You are not alone! Overwhelm has become such a part of our modern lives that it seems like there is no way out. Ok, now even I’m stressed out! Let’s just breathe for a second. I mean it literally. Put your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and take three very deep and slow breaths. Now let’s have a chat about lizards.

Affectionately known as the “lizard brain” the brain stem is our worst and best friend. Ever hear of “fight or flight?” Well, the lizard brain is in charge of this reaction. It sits at the base of our brain and is essentially the front line of defense for our lives. “Oh, no! A tiger is coming to eat me!” That would be a good use for the lizard brain, but unfortunately it gets a bit big for its britches and decides to make us afraid of things like public speaking, too. In a nutshell, a stimulus occurs and the brain stem goes into action with the amygdala and hippocampus to determine how to deal with the threat. (For convenience in this article I’ll refer to this whole group of brain clusters as “lizard brain”.) Fight, flight, or freeze. The trouble is that the lizard brain likes to be in charge and it isn’t that smart. It tells us that we need to be afraid and then effectively shuts off the flow to the SMART part of the brain to divert energy to the body to “git ready to run.” So, fear, anger, and similar emotions actually make us stupid.

“What is she talking about? What does this have to do with being overwhelmed by too much to do?” Well, I’ll tell you. When we face something that makes us stressed, like having too much to do, our lizard brain picks up on that and instantly, reflexively, takes over. Something that is perhaps only important in our mind makes our body react as if we are being chased by a tiger. We get cranky, or depressed, or we just sit and stare at the enormity of it all. We need to retrain our lizards to get on board the “I’m an intelligent person” train. How? There are a number of techniques that can help and I’m going to share just one really simple one today.

First off, make a list. A complete list of all that is on your mind: shopping; work; home; personal stuff; house stuff. All in one place. Now, you don’t need it on your mind anymore. It’s on the list – list has got your back. Now separate that list into “Important” versus “Urgent.” They are not the same! Important means these things really need to be done: feed your kids; go to work; pay a bill so they don’t turn off the lights. Urgent things are those things that pop up and DEMAND your attention right now, darn it! Laundry is piling up (only important if nothing to wear); kid calls and they forgot their class treat at home and you need to bring it to me now, mom; honey I need for you to mow the lawn right now because my boss is coming over and I don’t want to be embarrassed; I have to get the office party planned and it has to be the best party yet (see the “Perfectionism” post). You get the idea. Give yourself permission to demote “Urgents” to “Get to it when I cans or maybe not, even.” Step one complete.

Step two is to learn to head off having to go through Step one again. This requires a bit of resolve to keep that lizard brain in check, and allow your very smart brain parts to work. When you get that first little inkling of panic or worry take a breath and stop. Just let your lizard brain do its thing for a minute, and then set put that little lizard aside (it helps to visualize it because who wants to take advice from a lizard?) If this is a recurring thing that makes you panic and worry every single time, then more long-term solutions are in order. I will share some techniques in a future post, or please feel free to contact me privately if you just cannot wait.

In short, write it down, review it, and ignore the Urgents unless they are also Importants. And the next time someone demands something of you, either implicitly or explicitly, remember to put that lizard on the seat next to you and say, “Not important now, thanks.” You have the right to take back your time, so say no when you have to and trust that Important will get done. Urgent can wait.