How to Quit Being Overwhelmed for Good

03/20/2015 08:29 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015
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It's time we all stopped being so busy.

It's become a bit cultish, really. Or like a badge of honor. It has become unacceptable to be anything but busy. But beyond that, it has become an unfortunate way we keep from truly engaging with each other, and with the present moment.

I'm not suggesting we quit our jobs or shirk our responsibilities; what I am proposing is a shift in attitude that requires a few simple, meaningful changes.

Imagine that you had a lover, and every activity with him or her brought feelings of anxiety. You spent lots of time together, but you were always overwhelmed and looking ahead to the next time you would meet and wonder how that would be. When we are constantly wrapped up in a state of overwhelm, this is what we are doing to our lives.

If you want to fall in love with your life, treat it like someone you love.

The reality is, people in our lives come and go -- whether they are with us for two weeks or forty years. Our relationship with ourselves is from cradle to grave, so it's worth taking the time to make it a good one.

A few changes that will help:

1. Shift your language from "busy" to "full."
This is a simple, significant shift. Consider again the analogy of a loved one, or a vacation. We fill our loving relationships and happy times with activities that bring us joy. To have a life that's full is a gift, and it's vastly different than being "busy." A colleague at another magazine asked to interview me about stress management a few months ago. She began by saying, "I know you're really busy," to which I replied, "Nope! I'm not." If we look at the activities in our lives as filling them and adding richness to our experience, the frantic busy feelings often dissipate.

2. Let go of "should" and do what you want.
At first glance, this sounds indulgent, irresponsible, but take a closer look. If I want to be happy, healthy and in love with my life, I will choose to do the things that make it so. If I am making choices that are motivated by guilt, fear of others' opinions, fear or other negative associations, I might end up with a lot on my plate that I don't actually want or need to do. If you find yourself with a knot in your stomach every time you approach a certain activity, it's time to take a look at whether you actually want and need it in your life.

Sometimes our wants seem at odds with each other: I want to practice yoga, but I also want to stay in my nice warm bed. This is where being motivated by our true desires takes us a million miles further than doing things because we "should." I love my body, and I've found ways to move and take care of it that make me happy... if I only exercised because I thought I "should," it would probably be an activity I rushed through and tried to get it over with, never being fully present or enjoying it. Imagine if we treated time with our loved ones like that?

3. One window at a time.
I used to work with at least 20 windows open on my computer, and was proud of the frantic multitasking. Now I work with one open, or two at most if I am moving information from one spot to another. My productivity has skyrocketed since I made this change. I make fewer mistakes. And most importantly, I am calmer and less overwhelmed. I used to have a Post-it note on my bulletin board that said "Just This," as a reminder to just be present with the one thing currently going on. It took a while for me to actually internalize and practice it.

Now consider how we can apply this to other areas of life. When you are having a conversation with a person, put your smartphone away. Away! When you are washing the dishes, be fully present with the dishes. Buy a deliciously scented soap and make it more sensually enjoyable. If we wait until we are doing an activity that we believe deserves our full attention, we miss out on how wonderful we can make the simplest of activities by giving them our full attention. (P.S. I still don't want to do the dishes most of the time, but I like taking the time for a five-minute meditation that engages all of my senses, and then I end up with clean dishes.)

4. Ask for help.
Most people I know love to help others. Most people I know also hate to ask for help. Notice an easy fix here? If your life is full, too full, at a given moment to be enjoyable, and there are things that you cannot let go of, ask for help. When we ask each other for help, it is a magically awesome gift we are giving each other. We are being vulnerable, and we are also demonstrating that being vulnerable is a positive, acceptable thing to do. We are allowing others the opportunity to show us love. We are opening the door to a world where we are connected with others at a deeper level.

Maybe that sounds like a lofty way of looking at asking a friend to pick up your kids, or asking for help on a project, but at the most basic level, we are saying, "I have a need and I trust you enough to ask you to help me." That's pretty amazing stuff. When we start practicing this with simple things -- everyday things that aren't emotionally charged -- we make it easier to do when we need help with big things, or when we need to be vulnerable about big things. Asking other people for help isn't being a burden; it's part of making the world a better place.

If we let go of being constantly overwhelmed, we can begin to fill our lives with things we love, and fall in love with life a little more every single day.