How to focusFeeling overwhelmed lately? Yeah, me too. A few days ago, a tweet jumped off the screen at me: “Right now we basically feel a constant mental DDoS attack.” Exactly.

In his OneZero post linked to that tweet, Eric Ravenscraft explained: “Some of the biggest events in 2020 have demanded more of our time, more direct action, and have been more emotionally taxing than we’re used to.” For sure.

Our collective and individual capacity to deal with just about everything is being stretched as far as it’ll go — and sometimes further. The result is distraction, low productivity, stress, anxiety, and often, guilt. We feel like we should be able to manage our lives and conduct business, but many days, we don’t seem to be able to handle either one.

We self-employed professionals often wear many different hats to begin with. As my father once said about his years as an engineering consultant, “You have to serve the clients, keep the books, and sweep the floor.” Add in caring for family members and your home, keeping on top of your personal finances, and looking after your body and spirit.

And now, you must also navigate a global pandemic, a worldwide recession, widespread social unrest, and a firehose of political news. It not only feels like a lot; it *is* a lot.

Much of what’s going on right now is out of your control. But there are elements you can control, and that can be the path to a higher level of productivity and a lower level of stress. Here are three interventions that can work.

1. Focus on what’s truly essential, rather than what seems most urgent.

How do you know what’s essential? Start at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Are you and your loved ones safe? Do you have a secure place to live? Is there enough food in your kitchen for the next week? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” these basic needs are where your focus needs to go. A discussion of needs inevitably leads to considering money. If you’re not earning enough from your business right now to keep your family securely housed and fed, then paying work must take priority.

In an emergency — and for many of you, this current time is an emergency — it’s okay to let go of what would be nice to do under ordinary circumstances. You don’t have to answer phone calls and emails that won’t lead to paying business. You don’t have to pay attention to social media that isn’t a source of clients for you. You don’t have to show up for Zoom happy hours or networking conversations just because someone invites you. You don’t even have to keep the house clean (up to a point).

When you allow them to, feelings of urgency can take over your day. But you get to choose your own priorities. Pause for a moment before you react or respond to what feels urgent. Is it really? If you’re not sure, wait an hour, and see if it still feels that way. If it’s something that will take you more than ten minutes to deal with, wait twenty-four hours instead of just one. Sometimes an urgent need disappears when it’s not addressed. Other times, someone else handles it first.

2. Make a 3-item to-do list every day, and take care of those items first.

In ordinary times, you may have a system for getting things done that works well for you. I have one of my own. But in this extraordinary time, your usual structures may have gone out the window. When you’re overwhelmed and distracted, one answer is to simplify.

The beauty of the 3-item to-do list is that you can impose your own order on the chaos around you. You get to select the items and define their scope. And when they are done, you can applaud your accomplishment instead of feeling like a loser. At the end of the day, make a new list for tomorrow.

From my list for today, I will write this blog post. Then I’ll compose and schedule my newsletter. When that’s done, I’ll pay this month’s bills. If that’s all I get done today, I’ll still have completed everything I set out to do. Hooray, me! I feel less stressed out already.

3. Ask for help.

In an interview with author Mia Birdsong, she declared: “Americans are allergic to asking for help.” I think the same is true of many Westerners. Mia pointed out how we believe that help is a thing we only get when we need it, when actually it’s something we can invite to create more ease in our lives.

Wondering how to reach more decision makers in your target market? Ask some colleagues if they could introduce you. Not sure how to best make your in-person services available online? Ask past clients what would work well for them. Wish you had more help with grocery shopping? Ask your partner, child, or a neighbor if they can assist.

Asking for help is not cheating. It’s a way to create more ease by tapping into the resources you already have. If you’re worried about being a burden to those you ask for help, let that go. Helping others makes humans feel better about themselves.

If you’ve been staggering under the weight of everything the world has thrown at you lately, “Forgive yourself for feeling scattered, unfocused, and paralyzed,” said freelance writer Haley Nahman. We’re all feeling it. Let’s lean on each other.

C.J. Hayden

C.J. Hayden, MCC, CPCC, is the author of the bestseller Get Clients Now!: A 28-Day Marketing Program for Professionals, Consultants, and Coaches, Since 1992, she's been helping self-employed professionals survive and thrive. C.J. is the author of five other business how-to-books, and has taught marketing at Mills College and John F. Kennedy University. Find out more about C.J.'s books and courses or attend one of her upcoming programs.

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