As someone who has been battling “busy-ness” and a massive to do list since 1996, the quest for productivity has always been at the top of my list.

I’m the classic ADD, highly creative type and I don’t think in a linear way. If I don’t keep an organized hold on my to-dos and ideas, I become quickly overwhelmed and end up doing nothing, but feeling pressure to do something. 

Overwhelm is the #1 productivity killer. It shuts you down, makes you feel out of control, which only increases your stress levels which makes you fat, irritable and exhausted.

You just don’t get much done when you’re in that state of mind and what you do get done, is definitely not your best.

So how do you beat it?

I’ve done a ton of experimenting with productivity over the years. I feel like it’s something I will always be tweaking and trying to master, but I did learn a lot along the way.

I’ve found that no matter how many organizers I buy and how many times I lay out my work in a calendar, the below 6 tips are what I keep coming back to in order to kill overwhelm for myself.

#1 Clean Up Your Surroundings.

You may or may not realize it, but your physical space has a HUGE effect on your well being and stress level.

Being in a cluttered messy environment creates cluttered messy energy.

If you have trouble focusing on your work and you’re easily distracted, cleaning up, organizing your desk or where-evs your trying to work, will instantly make you feel less overwhelmed.

Those who know me may be laughing as they read this because when I was in fashion I was notorious for having the messiest desk in the office. It think it even became my signature after a while. That and my special order Starbucks latte.

When I’m in creative mode things get very messy for me. I don’t like to stop the flow to clean up because I’m in a groove and that feels good to me, but I can’t start out that way.

Each season before starting, I would try to make time to clear the decks. I would meticulously clean and organize everything. It would stay that way for approximately 3 days (give or take), but if I didn’t do it or for whatever reason couldn’t do it I would have a really hard time beginning the next project.

Looking at a mess shut down the flow of ideas and made my brain feel like it was going to explode. It made me not want to do anything. As soon as it was clean, it was like I turned on a faucet and ideas would pour out of me again.

And don’t think you’re exempt if you’re office is your laptop.

Today I work from home, but it still works the same way. My job doesn’t require much in the way of physical piles on my desk, but if I don’t organize all of my ideas and file what’s on laptop desktop the same thing will happen to my energy.

#2 Clean up your brain.

If your messy external work space can have this much of an effect on your productivity and well being, imagine the effect that your internal work space is having! Ie. Your brain.

You can only keep adding to your brain for so long. It can only hold so much before you start losing track or losing control. It also has nothing to do with memory, so for all of you out there saying, “This doesn’t apply to me… I can remember everything”, listen up.

When you use your brain for storage it throws off your perception of how much you actually need to do.

It’s not all neat and tidy in there. We tend to think in images more than words and if you don’t stay on top of it, it becomes a big, jumbled, overwhelming mess.

It will do the same thing to your stress levels as a messy desk, but since you can’t file and windex your brain, what I like to do is purge it. I call it a brain dump.

List everything out that’s floating around in there. EVERYTHING. Whether it has to do with your work or your personal life, it doesn’t matter. Tasks, projects, ideas, birthdays, appointments etc. If it’s floating around unattended to it could be potentially zapping your energy and causing unnecessary stress.

Once you get it all out of your head, you can then prioritize and organize as needed. (and you will feel better! I promise.)

Make sure you organize projects vs. tasks and the only things that should make it on to your calendar are appointments, deadlines and events. Once they’re on there, cross them off your list.

Things like organizing the storage unit or painting that old chair you’ve been thinking about for the past 20 years, cross those off and let them go. If it’s been on your to-do list for 3 months or more and you have not done it or attempted to do it, you need to say goodbye.

Trust me it’s liberating. If you can’t bare to see it go, make yourself a separate rainy day project list and move them there.

I purge as often as needed. Which is often because I’m an idea generator and it never stops. As soon as I start saying to myself, “Omg, I have so much to do.”, that’s my cue to dump it.

#3 The Post-it Rule.

It’s not uncommon (for me anyway) to get jacked up on coffee in the morning and start planning the day like I’m super woman, but in reality our brains function best with just a few things to do in short bursts of time.

Multi-tasking as a productivity tool is a myth.

Studies have shown over and over again that trying to work on more than one thing at once decreases productivity and actually increases the amount of time it takes to complete a task. It’s useless and it doesn’t feel good, so skip it.

But frequently looking at that massive to-do list is not good for your psyche either. Don’t do it more than once a week. I speak from experience.

From my master notebook, I make a list of what needs to get done that week on a separate single sheet of paper. This prevents me from having to go into the big list everyday, which only stimulates overwhelm.

I found that even staring at the weekly list can trigger stress, so I came up with something even more refined and I call it my Post-it rule.

It keeps my list tight and right and I feel accomplished and productive every single day.

The rule is that I pull from the weekly list only what NEEDS to get done that day to move me closer to my goals and I am not allowed to fill more than one Post-it. I’ve been doing this for a while now and I’ve found that depending on the size/length of the task, my sweet spot is 1-5 things max.

Being able to cross those off breeds feelings of accomplishment, which increase productivity and motivation.

That’s what you want. It’s a snow ball effect. It’s better to complete 1-5 things each day than it is to stare at a list, feel paralyzed and do nothing.

Don’t get nervous, your huge to-do list isn’t going anywhere. We’re just tricking your brain.

You can always add things if you finish ahead of time, but by keeping it focused you increase your chances of completing everything.

#4 Know The Intent Behind What You’re Doing.

If you have a deadline or if there are others involved waiting for whatever it is you’re working on, prioritizing becomes easy, but what if you work for yourself and have no deadline and no one to answer to?

Your list becomes just a big bundle of words.

I’ve always had a knack for prioritizing and when I dissected what I was actually doing, it became clear. I am the type of person that has to know the why behind everything. Because I look for the why behind even the most mundane task I always know exactly where it should go in my massive to do list.

If you don’t know why you’re doing something you can’t know if it’s a priority or not and chances are you’re wasting your time.

Get it? Easy peasy.

#5 Saying NO.

Not being able to say “no” is an epidemic in this country. It’s not just women either, I’ve witnessed many men stuck in this trap.

We feel guilty, like we are letting the other person down. Or that they won’t like us or we won’t get the promotion or the sale, but saying no is by FAR one of the easiest ways to cut down on your workload and beat overwhelm.

Look at it like this, saying no to one thing means saying yes to something else.

If you say no to drinks with your friends because you’ve been working like crazy and you need to rest, you’re saying yes to your health and well being.

If you say no to a project that you’re not 100% jiving with, you’re saying yes to space for projects that DO light your fire.

You’ll find that most people will be understanding. In fact, they tend to respect you more for being upfront and honest with them and for making yourself a priority. It also keeps you free and clear of resentment, which doesn’t feel good and brings down your energy.

Remember that trying to please everyone all of the time is the most direct route to misery.

#6 Stop Saying You Have So Much To Do!

Our words are SO powerful.

They evoke our thoughts, which evoke our emotions, which act like a magnet for attracting more of the same emotion.

If you constantly repeat to yourself that you’re so overwhelmed, you don’t have time and that you’re so stressed, you’re literally affirming the energy of those feelings and guess what? You get more of those feelings.

Choose your words and the emotion behind them carefully. If your’e feeling overwhelmed choose to tell yourself that your willing to find a new way of working.

Now it’s your turn.

Mastering productivity is a practice and I’m always looking for ways to make it even better.

What are some of your fave tips for keeping yourself out of overwhelm?

Tell me in the comments below!




  1. LizM

    So glad you put in the disclaimer for people you used to work with regarding messiness;)!
    Thanks for the tips-love them…I’m going to try the post-it tip for sure, Sue!

  2. Tova

    Hey Susan
    Great post and I love your tip on saying”no” That can be a hard one sometimes. My favorite productivity tip is when I really need to get something done I get OFF Facebook! That works magic! 😉

  3. Cathy

    Ah, the power of words. Have been watching mine a lot lately, so #6 hits home. Thanks for the reminders, Susan, as I clean my space, my heart and my brain to move into the New Year.

  4. Melanie

    Creating an inspiring work space is very important. I love the library because I have no distractions with my headphones and remove myself from other people’s agendas.

    I also find developing systems to easy your work load.

  5. Simone

    Love all these tips! Thanks for the brain dump reminder, I am long overdue for one of these! It really does help to get it all out on paper. And how bloody good are lists!?!

  6. Nat

    I recognize that notebook!!!

    I notice that when I’m procrastinating, I’ll often clean to stay busy… and also when my mind is clear + I’m inspired and productive, I’ll clean up and then work better.

    I keep reading that clutter is evil, but is it ALWAYS evil? Is there ever an instance in which clutter is benign?

    And I love brain dumps.

    Sweet ideas!

    1. Susan

      Thank Nat! I used to clean to procrastinate too, but I learned that it was just part of the process. And I made it so. The mess was adding to the procrastination.

      And clutter is only evil if you BELIEVE it is. Some people prefer clutter or more “stuff” around them, they are comfy with it. I can’t handle it. I’m a hardcore minimalist and clutter stresses me out. I think it overly stimulates my brain. (which is already pretty stimulated!) But when I am in the creative zone dishes pile up and I don’t notice them.

      So it really depends on what level you’re comfortable with and what messes up your own work flow.

  7. Dave Conrey

    Seriously great tips, Susan. I especially like the Post It idea. I have a personal rule called 3 Things, where I try to accomplish 3 things I’ve listed in a day, but I don’t write those three things on a single sheet, but usually in a random notebook, with other to-dos, that I have with me. The problem is that I sometimes don’t have the same list with me.

    Thanks for the tips. I’ll be implementing this week.

  8. Jocelyn

    LOVE this post! I’m pretty sure “I have so much to do!” and “Seriously, you don’t understand – I have so freaking much to do!!” are my catch phrases. Well that and, “I shouldn’t have eaten all of that.” 🙂

    I just missed an important deadline this week because I totally forgot about it while trying to accomplish a bunch of other things. I am going to implement these things straight away!

  9. carolina

    I love all these tips. One thing I’ve noticed that is overwhelming about the to-do list is not having actionable items.. I find it helps me feel in control just knowing what I need to do NEXT and knowing that my to-do list is up to date, so I don’t necessarily feel the pressure to do the items!

  10. Laura

    Here’s where I like multi-tasking …. Listening to seminars or audio books when I am walking outside or on the beach, or putting on my makeup and getting dressed because normally it would be silence as the other option … I might as well get smarter since my ears are not occupied haha 🙂

  11. lisa

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing how you tackle your tasks! Feeling overwhelmed when looking at the “monster” list is something I have noticed on myself many times and when I started picking three things only, it helped a lot. I still get distracted by new ideas or having light bulb moments on how to do other things that are somewhere else on the list and am easily tempted to go implement those instead of sticking to what I had planned on doing, ending the day not having finished either of them, but I am on my way 🙂


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