“The Thought of Starting This Project Overwhelms Me”

Right now, my office is a mess. There’s a huge pile of things waiting to be filed. There are a few stacks of books that need to be sent out for PaperBackSwap. I have several pieces of correspondence that need addressing. The closet is overstuffed with all sorts of different things. The floor has a large number of boxes that need breaking down and storing (or disposing). My desk really needs to be cleaned up, too, with countless things that need to be dealt with sitting around.

Yet, whenever I look at the whole mess, I get the feeling described in the title of this post. Instead of dealing with it, I feel a bit overwhelmed – and I also feel like there are more urgent things pushing at me to get finished. Like writing this article, for instance.

So many of the projects that we feel overwhelmed a bit by are ones that fall into that “important but not urgent” category. Things like starting a good filing system, switching our accounts to a new bank, keeping in regular contact with old friends and key work associates – all of them are things we know we ought to be doing, but we put them aside.


Those things that are important but don’t feel urgent are the very things that are the keys to building the life that we want. It is the special person – the one on the path to success – who can put aside the countless “urgent but not important” things in life – like the new season of American Idol, the interrupting phone call, the latest social event in a long series of them – and replace them with the “important but not urgent” things.

Instead of going on and on with a lot more words, I’m going to stop this article right now and take my own advice. I’m going to go clean the entire office. Since this article is a nice, short one, why not take the few minutes you might have otherwise spent reading a longer article here and get a real start on that project that overwhelms you a bit.

See you later.

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  1. Vicky says:

    Good advice.


  2. Shannon says:

    Most importantly will this help reduce shelter costs?!

  3. Tori says:

    I really liked the end of this post.

  4. Sandy says:

    Viewing an episode of “Hoarders” is also good for the inspiration to tidy up an area!

  5. Maureen says:

    Alternatively, you could work on a task that overwhelms you for 15 minutes a day. While many people would procrastinate an ‘overwhelming’ task, most people can stomach devoting a short chunk of time to it. This is one of Flylady’s strategies. And it works!

  6. Bobbi says:

    “Important, not urgent” – the best advice I learned from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Thanks for the reminder. I’m weary and “whelmed-over” by the urgent and willing to spend the time to do the important. Good luck to both of us.

  7. Anne KD says:

    Thanks! Time for me to finally make a timeline on planning and buying the things needed for my garden this year. Looking at the seed catalog is a bit overwhelming- I want to grow everything- but it doesn’t help me in figuring out the budget for starting the garden. I need to do the legwork for that.

    @Maureen- I don’t do Flylady now, but the 15 minutes thing has stuck through the years!

  8. Josh says:

    Great advice! If I wasn’t at work right now I would go do something productive!

  9. Matt says:

    I think they say 1 minute of idling is the same as turning an engine on, not a few seconds. Otherwise, good :)

  10. Kristen says:

    Similar to the folks who are suggesting 15 minutes daily, when I start to feel overwhelmed by something (usually my Inbox), I just make it a point to have things improve daily. This also helps to create long term habits. In the case of my inbox I just make it my goal to dispense with more emails than the number that arrive in a given session of checking my mail.

  11. PetMom says:

    Very timely! I try to follow that time management principle: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at time!” It works, but I think I’m trying to eat an entire herd. Love your blog and your book!

  12. Marle says:

    Get a roomba. It’ll make sure you always keep the floor uncluttered, and once the floor is at least uncluttered (and vacuumed!) the stuff on top of desks and tables looks a lot less overwhelming.

    Basically, the roomba would make cleaning the room (at least the floor) urgent, and then you’d do it while it’s still easy. I think maybe the key to doing the important but not urgent things is to make them urgent. Like I’ve been thinking of switching banks for years, but just finally did, after my bank made it urgent by charging me $160 in overdraft fees after deciding it over-reimbursed me for fraud charges in October and it was taking the money out *now* without any warning. On second thought, maybe making important things urgent isn’t the best plan.

  13. Tara says:

    Hooray!! Best article ever.

  14. Little House says:

    Great advice. I’m now going to empty that dishwasher! Someone mentioned a roomba in one of the comments, and I love mine. But, it doesn’t file papers, it only sweeps up your floors. :)

  15. Michele says:

    I agree with #14 on “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I read this book for certification in Youth Ministry Studies (along with “First Things First”) and let me tell you, if you apply the principles taught in these two books, you will be much happier, effective and have a much more organized outlook on life. And, your desk/office looks much better, too :)

  16. KC says:

    I tackle overwhelming tasks in smaller tasks. I set up a timetable. Today I’ll…send the paperbacks off the PaperbackSwap. Tomorrow I’ll go through the pile of correspondance on my desk. Next day I’ll tackle the closet. Etc. Usually what happens is I get rolling and I end up getting more done than I was expecting too. But if I get busy or something else comes up I don’t beat myself up as long as I got the original task accomplished.

  17. tbone says:

    just cleaned my desk. feels great :)

  18. Rachel says:

    Right now I am overwhelmed with helping my mother through an illness, still undiagnosed, and just keeping up with the daily do’s, dishes, laundry, some dinner on the table. I am giving myself permission to still do what I enjoy, surfing the net,reading, watching a movie. If I go into “gotta do it all today” mode, I would lose it. It will still be there.

  19. Benjamin says:

    Thanks Trent! You caught me surfing the internet again!

    I suppose its time to get back to work so I don’t loose my day job. It doesn’t look like my personal finance blog cover all my bills (for the time being anyway)!

  20. anna says:

    Peter Walsh -frequently on Oprah, is a clutter expert. I know he recommends spending 15 minutes a day doing a sweep thru on your house. Take a trash bag and fill it with “trash” or “giveaways” once a day, it only takes 15 minutes and might not seem like much but after a week it will make a big difference. This principle can be applied to anything, spend 15 minutes filing papers, 15 minutes organizing clothes, etc. etc. It is enough to make you feel like you accomplished something but not enough to make you dread starting. I’ve even heard its a great tactic for working out, spend 15 minutes taking a walk around the block and you might discover you enjoy it so much you end up spending 30 minutes instead.

  21. Nicole H. says:

    Lately if I’ve been having that thought I break the task down until the baby task is almost laughably easy. For example, my house is a mess. I could say I need to clean my whole house, but that is overwhelming and not a goal I could achieve in a day. So I break it down to cleaning the bathroom. That will take me a while and be physically exhausting. Most days it’s overwhelming. So I break it down to cleaning the toilet. It takes about 5-10 minutes, which usually I can handle. If I ever can’t handle that, I would break it down further to cleaning the back of the toilet. The next day I would clean the seat, and the next day I would clean the bowl. After three days I’d have a relatively clean toilet.

  22. Carmen says:

    @ Nicole – After 3 days you’d need to start over with the toilet. ;) Bathrooms and kitchens in particular are so much easier to keep clean and tidy if tackled daily. I wipe surfaces and clean the mirror/sink/toilet in about 2-3 minutes most days. Then add a weekly top up in the shower cubicle/tiled areas. Bizarrely I do this because I really HATE cleaning dirty bathrooms/toilets and this way it never gets dreadworthy!

  23. Carmen says:

    Forgot to say this post is BRILLIANT!

  24. Nicki says:

    It’s so odd that you post this on the exact same day a coworker of mine had a similar experience. Completely overwhelmed, they turned to someone else and paid them to get the job done – a short, 30 minute project – which to the coworker in question had become the very definition of Things That Cannot Be Accomplished. I tell my six-year-old son, “Buck up, kiddo, and just do it,” which of course doesn’t work so well just yet, but I hope the message is there, and I hope it’s sinking in. Doing the things we let pile up or fear are not so scary or overwhelming when they Just Get Done.

  25. Amy says:

    One of the things I get behind on is too many blog posts in my reader. Trent can help himself and me stay caught up by posting less often! :)

    I am planning an international move and just found out this will happen in six weeks. The thought of getting ‘it’ all done by then is overwhelming on its own, but I’m plodding through by writing it all down so I don’t forget any tasks and just try to tackle a couple a day so I am making progress.

  26. deRuiter says:

    #8 Josh, thank you for this very amusing comment! Trent, the mistake is to decide to clean the entire office today. It’s called “biting off more than you can chew.” Make a quick list of all the jobs in the office: 1. Pack and send out paperback swap books, which makes some room. 2. Answer the letters, you’ll feel better. 3. Break down and dispose of the boxes, don’t just shuffle them off to another spot. 4., 5., 6., etc. THEN START AT THE TOP OF THE LIST. Do one or two things on list, I’d tackle the firtst three, get them done today, and then go do other things not involving the office. Do more on list tomorrow. It’s like a person who says, “I’m going to lose 100 pounds.” and never does because the goal is too big. Start small, plan, execute, “I’m going to cut down to 1400 calories a day for one week.” The second approach is more likely to be successful.

  27. Dawn says:

    Trent – love this post. I struggle with this myself. I want to check it all off, often regardless of import. Prioritize and get to it!

  28. Kelly says:

    I know the feeling! It can be so overwhelming to look at a large project and get bogged down by the thoughts of how long it will take. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received was via a fortune cookie. I have it taped to my monitor.

    It says, “You’ll accomplish more if you start now.”

    It works for everything, from organizing to getting in shape. Just start!

  29. Gayle says:

    Glad to know I’m not the only person in this boat! I accept that I have paper issues. Is there a Twelve Step Program – maybe a reality show in here somewhere…?

    I have the ability to walk past something that really needs to be done, be annoyed about it, then move on and instantly stop thinking about it until I see is again! Hmmm…

    For some reason though, writing things down in a numbered list format, breaks that pattern. It seems really dumb, but it works – maybe shifts me into my left brain from my dithering right brain – I don’t know, it just works!

    I have a clipboard with a yellow pad, a favorite pen and I just start in one spot and go around the room, writing down what needs to be done. I make my list very detailed, because that is how my perfectionistic, anal-retentive mind works! ;)

    I can make side notes about something I need to get – maybe a portable file box, or another project that needs to be tackled (get the kid’s school papers out of the file cabinet so I have room for the files stacked on top – for heaven’s sake the kids are in their 30′s!!!).

    The list means I can stop or start as time allows and not have to re-think what needs to be done. The planning is accomplished and gives me a road map to follow. A kitchen timer set for 15 minutes is a big help, too. And no pouting allowed!

  30. Steffie says:

    Rewards for getting something done are helpful to give you motivation. Not of course buying something ! Clean for 15 minutes, take a 5 minute rest. Get a cool drink. Start again. If you feel overwhelmed or about to melt down, go into the bathroom and wash your hands and face. It is a calming thing my mom told us to do when we were little. I don’t know why but it usually works, probably something about washing the bad stuff away and coming out refreshed.

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