Updated: Apr 3
How to set boundaries and prioritize more effectively
Feeling overwhelmed can have many different causes, such as work responsibilities, health concerns or relationship issues, to name just a few. Dealing with your feeling of overwhelm should always start with identifying the cause. However, there are two underlying causes that often play a major role: A lack of boundaries and/or a lack of priorities. Let's examine them closer.
Lack of boundaries
A lack of boundaries can cause you to accept additional tasks or commitments, whether it’s at work or in your private life, even though your plate is already full. If that’s the case, it’s time to learn to say No.
Learning to say no can be challenging depending on your personality. I know it wasn’t easy for me. I was always afraid I might disappoint someone, and that saying no could endanger, or even destroy, my relationship with that person. My need to please everyone often left me feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Over time, it started to have a negative impact on my mental wellbeing.
Setting boundaries means practicing self-respect and self-care.
Sometimes, you need to put yourself first - and not feel guilty about it. I like the analogy of an airplane’s safety instructions: In case of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first before you help others.
Helping others is wonderful and rewarding, but only if you’re in a state where you have the capacity and energy to do so. Think of the oxygen mask as your me-time, any form of self-care that helps you relax and recharge. Next time you’re saying "no" to someone, instead of feeling bad for not being able to help, feel good about doing something for yourself.
Lack of priorities
Despite your best efforts at setting boundaries, there are still times when there is more on your to-do list than you can actually handle. In that case, you need to prioritize.
At work, categorizing your tasks by importance and urgency is good practice. However, it might not be enough. You need to take prioritizing to the next level.
I used to create very structured and sophisticated to-do lists and use project management tools to get better organized. Yet I still felt overwhelmed most of the time. Until I realized it was because I could still see that long list of things I needed to get done every time I glanced at my to-do list.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Even though some tasks were labeled low-priority, I felt the urge to complete them anyway so I could check them off and make them disappear. What helped me was to completely remove these low-priority tasks from my sight. You know the saying “Out of sight, out of mind.”
If you are using a to-do list and still feel overwhelmed, try it. Only leave the things you absolutely need or want to get done, and that you actually can get done in the time you have. Put all the low-priority, low-importance, nice-to-have-but-not-really-crucial stuff on a second list. Only when you’re done with the first list, look at the second one. And maybe not even then. Because, if they didn’t make it on our first list, they might not be worth your time and energy at all. Or in the spirit of James Clear’s “complete or kill” mentality: “Either something is important enough to you to complete, or it’s time to kill it.”
Next time you feel overwhelmed, reflect to see if a lack of boundaries or a lack of priorities could be the cause.