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Overwhelmed? Make a list of anxieties as questions, then forget them.

Occasionally I get myself to a point where I feel completely overwhelmed by a large number of things causing me anxiety.

When I’m in the midst of it, the feeling is like being mentally DDoS’d—I can’t even make progress on one of the things I’m anxious about because thoughts and worries about the others keep flooding in.

To deal with this, there’s an approach I have used for years which has really helped me. (The idea is partially inspired by GTD’s "brain dump" exercise.)

First, I have come to realize that a single anxiety can usually be expressed in the form of a question I don’t have the answers to. Usually there is a decision or some action that I should take associated with it.

So I open a blank document and start writing a list of individual questions and stop when I can’t think of anything else for more than a minute or two. By the time I’m done dumping, I may have 30 questions or more. I immediately feel better—it’s cathartic and grounding to simply have them expressed as sentences instead of nagging feelings.

From there, I do nothing with the list. I just say, "If there’s something else that I feel anxious about, I’ll come back and write it down on that list."

And I go to work on one thing that I feel I can make progress on. I keep the list, but I don’t intentionally go back to the list and use it as a reference at all. I just move forward.

What I find amazing is that typically when I revisit the list, I find a surprising percentage of the questions are completely answered.

I did this two weeks ago, and I have since completely resolved 8 out of 12 things, two I am making progress on, and the other two I have an idea of what I’ll do to work on them. But none of these items cause me anxiety now as I look at the list—they’re just some things I’m working on.

No, this doesn’t miraculously solve everything. But it’s still a pretty empowering process because it becomes a reminder that if I’m feeling this way, pushing through the feeling and making incremental, single-threaded progress is enough.

So, next time you feel overwhelmed by a huge number of thoughts, try this:

  1. Write those anxieties down in the form of a question—as many as you can think of.
  2. Pick one question you can do something to answer now and go to work on it.
  3. Leave the list alone and only more add to it when you feel overwhelmed.
  4. Come back to the list when you are feeling more peace and evaluate how many things you can remove from your list. Delete the things you’ve answered.

Hope this is helpful for you, too! Would love to hear what works for you when you’re feeling mentally DDoS’d.