I have a bad habit of biting off more than I can chew. I don't know whether it's due more to a gross overestimation of my capacity to multitask, or an utter lack of comprehension of how many hours are in a day, but I've started many conversations with spiritual directors with the words, "Help! I'm totally overwhelmed!"
I've come to accept that I'll probably never cure this tendency once and for all. I recently got things back on track after a crazy start to Fall, but I'm sure that I'll find myself in over my head again at some point in the future (read: I'll be lucky to survive the holiday season). The one nice thing is that I have a lot of experience under my belt in the skill of digging oneself out of mountains of chaos, and have amassed an excellent collection of insights that I learned from from wise friends and advisors over the years. When I find myself in those inevitable seasons where I feel lost in a jungle of to-do lists and deadlines, these are the top strategies that always help me find my way out again:
1. Pray about it
This one seems so obvious that it shouldn't even need to be mentioned. However, probably as often as four out of five times, when I go to my spiritual director with complaints of being overwhelmed and he asks me if I've prayed about it, my answer is a sheepish "No." One of the side effects of being too maxed out is that we run around under a constant sense of urgency, feeling like there's no time to think, let alone to pray. I've found that taking the time to re-evaluate my life through the eyes of God is immeasurably helpful, and is sometimes even the only thing I need to do in order to get things back on a healthy, stable track.
2. Ruthlessly make time to get away
"...But I don't have time to pray!" is often my knee-jerk reaction when I'm reminded of this should-be-totally-obvious solution to my problems. If you're running from one thing to the next, barely getting through each day before you collapse into bed at the end of the night, you're not going to have the mental space you need to reflect on your situation in any meaningful capacity. Schedule time to get away, by yourself, without distractions. And 15 or 30 minutes isn't enough -- it'll probably take you that long just to get all the junk out of your head so that you can get to a calm and peaceful state of mind. If your life is anything like mine, finding even one or two hours of uninterrupted time to yourself might be a surprisingly difficult thing to do, but if you're overwhelmed you need to make it your highest priority. Cancel plans, call in sick, move things around in your calendar -- whatever you need to do to find the time to clear your head and think and pray about your situation.
3. Ask your spouse for blunt advice
A lot of times the people who are closest to us notice problems in our lives, but haven't said anything out of politeness or fear of causing an argument. Tell your spouse (or a trusted friend or family member) how you feel, and ask if he or she has any advice for you -- and make it clear that you're open to any thoughts, even if they might not be what you want to hear. (Also, an important tip based on lots of personal experience: If you begin the conversation with a 10-minute litany of everything that's bad in your life and immediately knock down any attempts at advice with excuses about why it wouldn't work, this conversation is probably not going to yield good results. After you've explained your situation, sit back and just listen.)
4. Re-think the term "have to"
I have to take the kids to that practice this afternoon. I have to host that big dinner party next month. I have to finish that guest post for a friend's blog by tomorrow. I have to make that ridiculously complicated recipe I put on the meal calendar for tonight in a moment of temporary insanity. These kinds of thoughts pave the path to Chaos Land -- and I've noticed that the more burned out I become, the more power those "have to" feelings have over me. While it's important to be reliable and stick to our commitments, there also comes a time to admit when we're in over our heads, and ask the people around us for mercy. I am surprised by what a warm, positive response I've gotten when I've had to contact folks and explain that I'm completely overwhelmed, and need to request a change in plans. We're always able to find a solution that works for everyone, and people often tell me that they too have been feeling overwhelmed and are now inspired to scale back their own commitments.
5. Distinguish "good stress" from "bad stress"
There have been times that I've felt pushed to my limit, and with the help of wise counselors I've determined that I'm right where God wants me, and I'm just going through a crunch time that will soon pass. There are other times, however, when I've come to realize that the feelings of stress and exhaustion that have been consuming me are signs that something is seriously off track. In the case of the former situations, when I take the time to consider where I am mentally and spiritually, I see that I'm experiencing "good stress": I still feel close to God, my relationship with my husband and children hasn't suffered, I am ultimately happy that my life is where it is -- I can even laugh at the craziness of my situation, even if my days are hard. The occasions of "bad stress" are completely different: My relationship with God and my family has suffered, I regularly feel resentful or angry, each night I feel a sense of dread of what the next day may bring, and I don't see anything amusing about any of it. Bad stress inevitably indicates that this is not just a normal phase that I need to grit my teeth and get through; it's a glaring red warning sign that something is wrong and needs to change.
6. Take an unflinching look at your biggest commitments
Financial advisors tell people experiencing money problems to look at their largest fixed expenses first: If your mortgage payment is way too high, clipping grocery coupons isn't going to do that much to turn your finances around. The same goes for our time commitments. If you're feeling completely maxed out, the problem is not likely to be that you're "wasting" 30 minutes watching your favorite show on Monday night. Look at the big areas of life like your job, your recurring social commitments, your daily household routine, the activities you have your kids involved in, etc., and with each one, carefully ask, "Am I doing what God wants me to be doing in this department?" -- and be open to wherever that question may lead you, even if the answer scares you.