Get that mess out of your head!

by Bernadette Healy


In replying to a question I recently asked regarding workload issues, a wise old judge replied that ordered thinking and a sole focus on one thing at a time were the key ingredients. Although this may be well known to many if not most of you, it is nevertheless common to find that those suffering stress overload have lost sight of this pathway.  This is what happens when numerous worst-case scenarios are being generated as one runs backwards and forwards scanning the task stacks for possible future threat but never staying long amongst the stacks to actually work on them.  The longer one feels overwhelmed, the more difficult it becomes to settle down and focus on one thing.

The following is offered as a practical reminder of how to get back to the point where you can again focus on that one thing and make some headway:

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Get the mess out of your head
  3. Create Themes
  4. Own your own authority
  5. Interrogate your themes
  6. Accept your choice
  7. Focus on the chosen theme
  8. Be realistic and specific about gaps in your knowledge
  9. Take a break
  10. Start with number 1
  11. Park thoughts about other items or themes
  12. Keep Going
  13. Take charge of any avoidance patterns
  14. Re-visit your Theme numbering
  15. Keep going
  16. Acknowledge


  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Get the mess out of your head

When feeling stressed and overwhelmed it is common to also feel as if you cannot think as clearly as usual.  Anxiety often decreases the ability to order ones thinking even when one is at other times, quite systematic and logical. That is part of why anxiety can be so corrosive to your feelings of self-worth. Gaining a new perspective on your issues may feel impossible but practising a process which includes some sort of externalising will help to alleviate this feeling, creating a kind of ‘re-set’ towards the task challenges you currently face.

One way to start the re-set process, is to dump everything you have on your mind, down on paper.  Keep to a word or phrase for each concern or question and write it on individual pieces of paper.  Don’t worry about putting the thoughts in any particular order at this stage, allowing yourself instead, to accept the order in which they occur to you

  1. Create Themes

When you feel finished, put the pieces of paper out – perhaps on the floor or a large clear surface.  Stand back and consider what you have dumped.  Look for themes.  Write a name for each of the identified themes and do so on separate pieces of paper – perhaps using different coloured paper or markers and then put these on the floor also and move any related pieces of paper under those theme headings.   (It may work better for you to use a computer or a whiteboard. However the physical aspect of moving around and placing the paper and relating to the material in a concrete way, is beneficial in and of itself, particularly as an anxiety-reducing strategy)

  1. Own your own authority

At this point, particularly if your feelings of being overwhelmed have increased, stop and make a note of the personal attributes, qualifications and experience you bring to your current work situation.  This is to remind yourself of your authority, that is, that you have enough of what is required to handle the situation including the ability to know when a question or consultation will need to be sourced.  Remind yourself that you are enough to handle your current challenges.

  1. Interrogate your themes

Stand back again and look at the themes and the points under the themes.  Ask yourself which theme is the one with the most urgency right now?

  1. Accept your choice

Once you have made that choice, put the other themes and their related points plus any points that as yet do not belong to a particular theme, out of sight – and in a form that keeps them in the order that you have created to date.

  1. Focus on the chosen theme

Focusing only on your chosen theme, look at each piece of paper under the theme and ask yourself what is involved in this item?  List each related requirement or task.

Ask yourself which of the subheadings under your chosen theme needs to be tackled first? Second? Third? etc and number the subheadings accordingly

  1. Be realistic and specific about gaps in your knowledge

If a gap in necessary knowledge occurs to you – note it down using as specific a description as possible.

(Phrases such as: I am hopeless; I am always stuffing up; or I will never understand this– may get in the way for some at this point – they are examples of non-specific – and possibly automatic negative thoughts (NATS).  They are also examples of cognitive distortions – eg. Overgeneralizing – which can creep in to thinking in a way which may sabotage your efforts. Just let them come and go but don’t take any notice of them.)   Keep the notes about gaps in knowledge, short, non-personal and specific.  Put them to one side.

You now have the makings of a plan of attack.

  1. Take a break

Take a 5-10 minute break. Walk outside, stretch, listen to music, doodle – do something that requires a shift in attention and preferably uses a different part of the brain (going on the computer is not advisable but if you must, be mindful of its potential to increase your stress levels, for example, by being reminded of additional tasks, by becoming distracted by emails or by getting overly caught up in non-productive and time-consuming net-surfing!)

  1. Start with number 1
  • Look at your number 1 subheading (and the associated task points) and start working on these tasks and do so for 20mins (set a timer)
  • Break for 2 to 3 minutes and then do another 20 minute block [1]
  • Ensure that at least every 5 x 20 minute blocks that you give yourself a minimum 10 to 15 mins break.
  1. Park thoughts about other items or themes

If while working on one point, you become distracted by another item – quickly note down the item and your question or concern in a sentence or less and put this with the related theme.  Return to the point that you were working on before you became distracted.

  1. Keep Going

Stick to the area you have chosen until you have addressed each of the task points.  If you become aware of a missing piece of information or the need to consult someone ask yourself whether or not this is the optimum time to do so or could it be an avoidance strategy?

  1. Take charge of any avoidance patterns

Notice each time you feel the urge to move away from the task and how this manifests e.g. surfing the net / coffee /reading emails/ sending emails/ making a phone call / chatting etc.

Make a mental note to reflect on these urges at the end of the day, with a view to identifying (and then resisting) the patterns in your avoidance.

  1. Re-visit your Theme numbering

Once a Theme area is completed or as complete as possible, look at the remaining themes and see if the numbers you have allocated are still relevant – in light of what you have learnt while working on the theme chosen so far.  Make any adjustments necessary including re-organizing of points / allocation of points to new themes / noting down new questions and thoughts under appropriate headings.

  1. Keep going

Repeat the process for Theme no. 2 and beyond!

  1. Acknowledge

Ensure that during breaks – even the 2-3 minute – you stand up and move around and away from your desk.  Look out a window.  Remind yourself that you are doing the best that can be done by anyone, that is, you are giving your total concentration to one thing at a time and one which you have chosen to work on at that moment.  You are focusing.  You are approaching the task in a systematic manner.  You are quickly capturing relevant ideas and thoughts and putting them aside to be dealt with at the appropriate time.  You are learning to dismiss negativity.  You are beginning to notice any patterns regarding avoidance which is the first step towards change.  You are ok.


[1] The use of the timed 20 minute block is known as the Pomidoro Technique see