Dealing with Being Overwhelmed Without Financial Missteps Compounding the Problem

I’ll be the first to admit that this time of the year leaves me feeling overwhelmed, and this year more than most.

For starters, the holiday season is something that often leaves me with a sense of too much to do and a sense of relief when it’s over that overshadows the joy I feel during the season. I think of the holidays as stressful, not joyous, with an overstuffed calendar and an overstuffed to-do list.

I also am affected somewhat by seasonal affective disorder, which usually kicks in right around Thanksgiving. I can combat it through a handful of routines, but it still affects me even when I do everything right. I started to get it in my late twenties, culminating with a couple of really rough winters until I figured out how to at least somewhat control it. Basically, it causes me to be rather tired and lethargic in the winter and sometimes a bit grumpy.

That’s the normal December stuff. This year has been extra special.

For starters, we had a home improvement project that ran long due to inclement weather that ended up pushing a lot of work into December. We hired contractors for a couple of specific things, but we had a narrow window between the contractors where we had to get some things done, so we spent some significant time this month handling home renovation stuff, and we still have a checklist of steps left undone.

On top of that, there was a health crisis in our family that absorbed a lot of attention and worry (don’t worry, everything’s more or less okay).

If you add all of that up, I’ve felt overwhelmed the last few weeks. Even though I’ve been blitzing through to-do lists and actually taking care of what I need to take care of, I still feel almost crushed by the enormous number of things still left undone.

This presents a few things worth talking about from a financial perspective.

First, there are definitely some costly ways I could de-stress and not feel overwhelmed in the short term. I could retreat into a hobby. I could retreat into a vice. I could retreat into retail therapy. There have been moments when all of those have seemed deeply appealing.

The truth is that they would mostly just cost me time and money. Retreating into a hobby would definitely cost me time and possibly money. Retreating into a vice would cost me a bunch of time and a bunch of money. Retreating into retail therapy would cost me some time and a bunch of money. None of those help get me through this challenging period. None of those remove the problems. They just simply delay them and make me not focus on them for a short period.

The thing is, if I just want to focus on something else for a short period, there are countless free ways to do that, ones that aren’t financially destructive. I could play a smartphone game. I could read a book (I’m in the midst of a big fat novel that I’ve barely touched in a few weeks, sadly).

Better yet, there are ways to retreat for a while that actually refresh me, make me feel genuinely better, and set me up to be able to handle the stresses of this current time. I could take a nap. I could get some intense exercise (seriously, my taekwondo classes have been a lifesaver the last few weeks). I could meditate. I could write in my journal. All of those things are incredibly good at clearing the mind rather than clouding it and they add a lot of clarity to what’s going on right now. I feel refreshed and renewed when I do those things.

Second, it is really easy to feel overwhelmed by a to-do list that’s too long, but part of that challenge is bad prioritization. This is a bit of a time management hack, but it’s something that’s kept me sane and able to focus on the task at hand without making a lot of costly mistakes.

Basically, at the start of each day, I’ve been doing a quick brainstorming session where I make a list of everything I’d ideally like to do today. This comes both from my ongoing to-do list manager (Omnifocus) and out of my head.

This paragraph only makes sense if you use Omnifocus or another task manager, so skip it if you don’t. What I do is tag everything that I want to do today with a “today” tag. Then, I have a perspective set up so that I can see everything tagged with “today.” I go through that list and tag everything with “priority 1” or “priority 2” or “priority 3.” I then switch to a perspective that requires both the “today” and “priority 1” tags and that’s my to-do list for the early part of the day. When it’s empty, I switch to the perspective that requires both the “today” and “priority 2” tags. When that’s done, I switch to the perspective that just has the “today” tag and try to clean it up.

Essentially, what I’m doing is thinking about all of the stuff I have to do, deciding what four or five truly important things need to be done today, and do those first. Everything else has been judged as less important, so I do those later in the day once I have the actual important things done.

See, part of the problem I always have with being overwhelmed is that I’ll end up going down a rabbit hole of relatively unimportant tasks while leaving genuinely important things undone. As the actual important things build up and the due dates come closer, I start to feel seriously stressed out and that’s when I end up making mistakes.

Third, delegating tasks to others is really useful, but it can turn into a crutch with a big financial cost. For example, there’s a local laundry service that offers delivery to your door. They leave a container (or containers… honestly, I haven’t used them yet, but a friend has) on your front step, you fill them up and send them a text, and they get them. Then, two days later or so, they leave your clothes folded and cleaned on your front step. It’s a sweet service that would save a lot of time – I just dump clothes in a container and leave it on my front step and two days later it’s all magically folded and cleaned! – but the cost is pretty steep, as you might expect.

There are things like food delivery or takeout. There are things like gift wrapping services. I could go on and on with examples of services that theoretically save you time at the cost of money.

The thing is, they’re all kind of deceptive in terms of how much time they save you. When I order food, we stand around talking about what we want, then someone has to order the food, then usually someone’s watching out the window for delivery, then we still have to eat and clean up. Alternatively, Sarah or I can whip out a meal pretty quickly – I can have a pasta meal on the table in fifteen minutes with zero help from anyone else – and the cost is a tiny fraction of ordering food. Our typical pasta meal feeds each person at our table for about $1.50 a head (by our math).

The laundry service is similar. The time they’re actually saving me is the time spent dumping clothes into the wash (a couple of minutes), transferring them to the dryer (a couple more minutes), and then folding them, which if it’s done as a group effort, takes five minutes.

The thing is, tasks like meal prep and laundry feel like they take longer than they actually do. Our minds inflate the time and effort required for lots of tasks, which can add to the sense of overwhelm.

My strategy? Keep it simple. As long as you have clothes to wear, let some dirty laundry wait until things aren’t so crazy. Make some super simple meals, like a pot of spaghetti or some simple sandwiches. Put off a lot of little tasks that are honestly urgent but not important, like vacuuming the floor. Don’t sweat “perfect” decoration or “perfectly” wrapped gifts – no one is going to notice or care if a corner isn’t folded well on a gift or if you don’t have great decorations everywhere. Just hang up a couple of important things and make sure the gifts are covered up.

Most important of all, don’t worry about the “perfect” gift for everyone. Just give someone a hug and tell them you love them. That alone will end up meaning more than any material thing you’ll probably give them this year. If someone says, “Merry Christmas,” gives me a hug, says “I’m so glad you’re here,” and puts a beverage in my hand, that’s going to mean more to me than any gift they could possibly give me, and I assume others feel much the same, so I try to pay that forward.

Here’s the key lesson: if you find yourself spending money this holiday season, stop yourself and think more carefully about it. Couldn’t you just prepare a really simple meal instead? Couldn’t you give a simple gift instead of something expensive, and just make sure to give that person a hug and tell them that you love them and you’re glad they’re there? Is the thing you’re worried about actually all that important?

Instead of stressing out this holiday season, just ask yourself if these tasks are really that important in the big scheme of things. Instead of the perfect meal, have something simple. Instead of the perfect gift, hug someone and tell them you love them. Instead of making the house perfectly clean, just tackle the big stuff. Don’t throw money at the problem as that’ll just make things worse in the long run.

And, if all else fails, go do some vigorous exercise, preferably outside, and then take a shower. You’ll feel a lot better.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.