Updated on 11.28.07

How To Deal With Demand Overload

Trent Hamm

Most of the time, I’m a pretty organized person who keeps up with the tasks thrown at me every day. Sometimes, though. the flood of demands on my time starts to spiral out of control.

Right now, for example, I’m buried under expanded and unexpected responsibilities. My son is going through a period of deep attachment to me and is also experiencing some strong separation anxiety, so I’m spending significant extra time with him, particularly in the morning. I’ve had a surfeit of tasks at my real job. I’ve conducted three lengthy interviews in the past week, and I’ve also been given the opportunity to try out my presenting skills (more on that in a day or two).

The end result is that I’m tired, and I feel like I have too much to do on my plate.

Thankfully, I have a toolbox of tricks to help me deal with this. Here’s how I’m handling it.

First, I list out everything I need to do and/or is weighing on my mind. Thankfully, thanks to my handy pocket notebook and “go” bag, this information is usually right at hand, but I usually make a big list of all of them on a piece of paper.

I then highlight only the ones that must be done immediately or are of deep, fundamental importance in my life. Right now, that’s keeping up with my writing requirements, doing a few specific job tasks, and ensuring that my son’s emotional health is okay.

After that, I just do the highlighted tasks and ignore the rest for now. Nothing else matters other than the highlighted tasks – the rest can literally fall off the face of the earth. My tasks are those highlighted – and nothing else.

Whenever something else comes up, I add it to the list instead of jumping up to do it immediately. The only exception to this is if it’s a personally devastating issue, meaning that if I don’t take action now, desperate things will happen. Everything else just goes on the list until the next go-round.

When the highlighted tasks are done, I go back and highlight a few more that are the most vital among the ones left, then do those. I just repeat this cycle over and over until things are back to normal.

I’ve found that more formal prioritizing ends up getting in the way of getting things done – and getting out of the hole that I find myself in. Some people use all sorts of prioritization schemes and multiple to-do lists, but every time I try something that complex, I find myself fighting against it and not getting real stuff accomplished.

Now, to do some research on separation anxiety and two year old boys…

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  1. Laura says:

    I have my planner with a to-do list with me. It’s crunch time as the end of the smeester (& end of school) approaches. I also make sure I take my full lunch, even if I finish eating in 10 minutes. I need the time to relax and have been known to nap in the car.

  2. Yup…having kids will do that to ya.

  3. Debbie says:

    Great idea. I do the same sorta thing with index cards. I write down one thing I need to do that is whirling around in my mind per card. Then I flip through my cards to pull out the must do’s. When I finish one task I rip and then toss the cards. I love ripping and tossing the cards.

    My friends laugh at me but this system works wonderfully for me and things do get done in a timely manner.

  4. 10KPortfolio says:

    I love using lists. I always have a small memo book with me to jot down ideas and anything else that comes my way.

  5. Heidi says:

    My niece went though a similar attachment thing shortly after her little sister arrived. It took about a year for her to get used to having a sibling (she LOVED her baby sister from the beginning – she took a lot of her frustration with the change out on her mom).

    I use my Outlook task list to manage my to-do’s. I am on several boards and have a second job, so I know what it feels like to have lots to juggle. I can’t imagine adding children to the mix.

  6. Helen says:

    great advice – I love your focussed version of the to-do list. One of the things I struggle with is the way life continually throws curve balls at me at the oddest moments – just when I think I’m in control, something happens to mess up my plans. So thanks for that tip!

    As for separation anxiety – IMHO small children are programmed to cling – think how very vulnerable they are. They are helpless when they are small. Why should it make any kind of sense for them to like being with strangers? I believe this re-emerges at times when they are starting to ‘come out of themselves’ and explore the world – they need to know that their safe base is there backing them up.

  7. Enric says:

    I am a colege student and I’ve been leading a very busy life (work, college projects, social projects, writing) for almost 5 years now. I like this post because it is a exact description of the way I manage demand overload. I guess this system emerges pretti instinctively in people who ever worked with technology of information or programming, hehe.

  8. limeade says:

    At least you proactively did something about the situation instead of just feeling overloaded and giving up or freezing up. Prioritizing and moving through things one at a time is the way to go.

  9. Chris says:

    I dig this idea. I swear I have ADD and when I get piled on, nothing gets done. I’ve tried lists, but I don’t use them properly. First, I usually don’t prioritize them. Second, I usually don’t go back to them after writing them! I guess I think I have it all down in the nogin; bad idea trying to rememberize.

    Thanks for the ideas Trent. I’m gonna take them for a ride. I’m already carrying a notebook everywhere.

  10. Daisy says:

    thanks a lot! that’s a wonderful idea. :D

    I know exactly how that feels (the busyness, not having a kid on tenterhooks since I’m still in college)! I haven’t even been sleeping lately because of everything I have to do (work commitments, school commitments, church commitments, lots of design and knitting jobs, speeches to write, etc.). I do have a planner but the whole list overwhelms me sometimes.

    seriously, very well-timed. I’m glad you’re keeping your head above water.

  11. B says:

    Just wanted to offer a positive word or two. Despite all the challenges I think you do a tremendous job! Yours is one of the few blogs I visit daily and think you always have wise, well considered opinions.

    From a former Nebraskan forty-something with two school-aged kids, balance is always a challenge but keep up the good work!

  12. Mom2boys says:

    Try “The Baby Book”, by Dr. William Sears and any other book by him. He advocates attachment parenting and I have found his strategies invaluable when having problems with my boys.
    -Not to worry though, it is completely normal and healthy.

    Thanks for the tips on the lists–this is exactly the same system I use! -And I am a mom of two and have my own business. It helps keep me sane.

    Thanks for your FANTASTIC site!

  13. I really like the way you incorporate the “mind sweep” idea from GTD. I find that to be a wonderfully cleaning activity. It sometimes has the benefit of showing me that a lot of the tasks I was worrying about just aren’t that important!

  14. susan says:

    Two year olds defy any law, any list, and any sane idea known to mankind, LOL
    I know-I have twins who are now college seniors.
    The separation anxiety is actually a good sign-he is realizing that he is NOT an appendage of Mum or Dad and that can be scarey at first.
    The other issue is that good ole sibling rivalry; kids growth is usually a spiral, not a straight line, as as such most kids take a few steps backwards before they move forward again.
    From a master list-maker from back in the day, just love him and he’ll be right. :)

  15. Dan says:

    “I’ve had a surfeit of tasks at my real job.”

    It’s great that you have a “Word of the Day” calendar, but if you want to be an author you should not use flowery words, it is bad style and seems pretentious. (also – I think you are using the wrong word – not all synonyms are directly interchangable. i.e. the man who got fat did not dilate – he expanded in all directions.)

    “Now, to do some research on separation anxiety and two year old boys…”

    It’s pretty much just an annoying phase. Just stop giving in to it – remember you are in charge.

    Giving in makes it last much longer, and no one wants to deal with that.

    If you want it to end faster, just make everything routine. Kids are most comfortable in routines.

    When you need to (or want to) leave – do it in the same way…and don’t be freaky and try to sneak out.

    In my house, every one gets a kiss on the forehead and a quick hug and then I am out the door. This is the same whether I am going out of town for a week or just to the store. My wife yells “bye” from the door. Both are equally effective – the kids know you are leaving – like you always do.

    After a few days the kid will catch on that you always come back – then it gets silly for another couple weeks. They will continue to throw fits, but apparently just for your benefit.

    Mine would totally freak out until the second the door closed then they would instantly be fine – like they were just saying “goodbye” in some weird 2 year old way.

  16. kim says:

    Separation anxiety is a real thing and although a kid will eventually be fine when they get over it, no matter what you do, spending extra time with them is a great tool for reassuring them, but should be done NOT when the time for leaving is at hand. At that point, always, always, always express great confidence in his ability to manage the seperation by being matter of fact and cheerful. Always express your pride for his bravery. For it is bravery for a child of that age to deal with separation.

    As for the word critic, surfeit is a perfectly fine word choice and never for a moment struck me as the least bit contrived. As you mentioned in your review of Stephen King’s “On Writing”, use the words that come to mind. I used to be questioned about the words I use when I speak and write. The explanation is simple…the more good books you read, the more good journalism you are exposed to, the more education you have, the more varied your set of friends and acquaintances, the more expansive your vocabulary becomes.

    I was raised by well-read and well-educated parents. They never spoke down to us, but assumed we would understand their normal mode of conversation. And we did. They read great literature to us and provided us with a great library of all kinds of wonderful books.

    Because of that, the natural vocabulary my brothers, my sister and I have is different than many. Yet I still find some whose ordinary conversation contains words, phrases and concepts I am unfamiliar with. Instead of berating them for conversation that is not normal to me, I seek to learn what they are talking about and expand both my knowledge and vocabulary in the process.

    Writing as you do, I’m sure you have to take more than your fair share of criticism, but put a spike in your wall and stack them there, just as King did his rejection letters. Criticism is only useful where it has some truth to it.

    I recently recieved a harsh review of a speech I made. Among all the reviews it is the only one I recall. At first I was angry, but when I thought about it I realized he had said what I already thought. The speech had not been particularly good. I had difficulty preparing the speech and had re-written it at least four times. I am experienced at speeches, and so I managed a passable job, but it was not a great work and he called me on it. He seemed to be the only person who recognized what I already knew–that it wasn’t a very good speech and wasn’t up to the standard I have set for myself. Realizing that, I wrote to thank him for his honest critique. My point is that the only time to pay attention to criticism is when there is truth there that reveals something to improve on. Otherwise, just remember that the only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing.

    Keep up the good work.

  17. Michelle says:

    Kim, I enjoyed your response. I hate when people criticize you for not dumbing things down for them instead of educating themselves. And I hate even more when people baby-talk to children, they have much more respect for you when you treat them with respect

  18. turbogeek says:


    He used ‘surfeit’ correctly. It is, technically, a noun based on its linguistic etimology, but functions in this use as an adjected subject to the prepositional object. If the word ‘excess’ works gramatically, so will ‘surfeit’. The word’s root is in middle French, which survives fully transliterated in more than this case into English modern usage. Consider:

    sur·feit –noun 1. excess; an excessive amount: ‘a surfeit of speechmaking’. —Synonyms 1. superabundance, superfluity. 5, 6. stuff, gorge. 6. fill.

    “surfeit.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 29 Nov. 2007.

  19. Andrew G says:

    Dan, The use of surfeit is correct. Personally, I find Trent’s willingness to use words that are not “ordinary” to be neither flowery nor pretentious. In fact, I rather enjoy reading material in which I come across words that I don’t usually encounter. The experience allows me to grow without having to read word lists or spend money on “word of the day” calendars.

    Trent, on separation anxiety, the cause can be difficult to discern but is important to the solution. My youngest son (11 months) “freaks out” when anybody in his “trust circle” leaves the room. My oldest son (24 months) never went through that but now throws a tantrum when we are transitioning away from an activity that he enjoyed. Depending upon the environment we’re operating in, we either utilize separation time-outs (sit here and you’re not allowed to move) which works quite well or we simply ignore his behavior. Knowing my luck, we’re probably scaring him for life somehow… but it seems to be working for the time being.

  20. Dan says:

    “Surfeit” = “too much”, not “too many”. As was pointed out – the base is from “surfaire” or “to overdo”.

    In his defense – around the blogsphere – this misuse of “surfeit” (a noun is a noun is a noun right?) is apparently common. “Irregardless” that doesn’t make it right. ;-)

    It does not mean exactly the same thing as “excess”. It is more specific – there is an excess because of too much of something not too many of something.

    Do you think Trent meant that he had “too much” tasks or “too many” tasks?

    Using words that are not “ordinary” is ok if they are used properly and make the meaning more clear to your audience. IMO, this use does neither.

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