Take Back Your Time: How to Reduce Overwhelm in a Few Minutes a Day

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Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

Research shows that re-thinking how you use the small moments of extra time in your day might be better for you (and less expensive) than taking a big vacation.

Recently I spoke with Jenny, a client of mine who is a working mom, who said, “I need time for myself, but there isn’t enough time in the day.”


With two kids in school and a part time job, she felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and in need of a vacation – preferably a long one.

While a vacation would have been wonderful, what Jenny really needed was something a little different. It had to do with how Jenny filled her time.

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More isn’t always better

When we want to reduce overwhelm, it’s often tempting to adopt a “bigger is better” mentality.

But sometimes smaller is better. A taste of something delicious, like a dessert, is yummy. A few bites is just right, but too much leaves you feeling stuffed and uncomfortable.

Studies show that once people have the basics in life, it’s not so much big events that make people happy. For example Daniel Gilbert in, “The Science Behind the Smile,” says that “big” experiences tend to affect us for about three months, and then the exuberance fades.

The people that are happy in the long run aren’t the lottery winners. They’re people who have found ways to invite small, positive experiences into their lives every day, many times a day. People who savor the pauses are the ones who are the most able to reduce overwhelm, and who are most content.

Reduce Overwhelm a Moment at a Time

Jenny felt that if she could make a big change – maybe stop working, maybe work full time and hire help at home, maybe take a summer off – that she would feel recharged and refreshed.

It wasn’t possible. The “big picture” of Jenny’s life was set for the moment. “Big” solutions like changing jobs, hiring serious help, or going on a month-long meditation retreat usually aren’t very workable.

Rather than looking for looking how Jenny could take off a day, a weekend, or a month, we looked at how she used her free moments in every hour.

Take back your time, take back your life

Jenny observed a pattern: when she had a free moment, she called another parent to coordinate a school event. After the kids went to bed, she spent an hour working on a project for her job. On Saturday morning, she got up early to adjust her daughter’s bike and get groceries. While the kids were busy playing, she caught up on email. When she was on hold for a phone call, she made her shopping list.

Jenny’s overwhelm came from how she filled the “extra” moments in her life. But how she used those moments suggested a solution as well.

Create personal time

On a typical day Jenny couldn’t find an hour for herself, but she could find a few spaces of 5 minutes. She and I brainstormed what she could do in those moments that would give her a feeling of spaciousness and relaxation. We came up with several new anti-overwhelm habits for her to try and to evaluate.

She began to step outside several times a day for a few breaths of fresh air. She stopped working in the evenings, which took some negotiation with her employer. Instead, she used the time to read a novel that had been laying next to her bedside for almost a year. She relegated e-mail to the last hour of her workday, and negotiated some changes in the household routine.

In less than a month, Jenny started to feel the effects of these changes. As she learned to reduce overwhelm, she felt more relaxed and at peace. As a surprising side effect, she also felt more connected with her husband and children.

It can take less than a minute

If you build small, restful moments into your day, you’ll be on your way to feeling energized and refreshed. There are many ways to take back your time and reduce overwhelm. Below are three: create pauses in your day, add short bursts of novelty, and show gratitude. Each of the suggestions below can take place in less than a minute.

1. Pause. Short, frequent breaks are more refreshing than one long one. Every hour, give yourself a half-minute vacation by taking six slow, even breaths. These mini-breaks throughout the day will help you feel significantly more relaxed, focused, and energized. If you work at a computer, mini-breaks rest your eyes and help prevent repetitive stress syndrome as well.

2. Take a moment to do something interesting, unusual, or fun. Learn to say “hello” in Turkish, do 10 jumping jacks, write a silly limerick, or step outside to look at the stars. According to author Gretchen Craft Rubin, novelty reduces stress and increases well-being. Celebrate your curiosity, and make a point of doing something new each day.

3. Keep a one-line journal. With 30 seconds each day, you can write one line – something about as long as a “tweet”. Think back over your day and remember something that made you feel good – your son turning a cartwheel, the cat stretched out in the sun, smelling a rose, a compliment from a colleague, sipping a cup of tea. Research shows that gratitude helps reduce worry and promote restful sleep.

Small changes lead to big changes

If you’re looking for a way to reduce overwhelm, this is a powerful way to start. Anyone can learn to create take back the small moments in every day, use them to create a sense of relaxation and ease.

It’s the moments that count most, not the days or the years.

Jenny changed the way she filled her time by creating pauses in her days. She learned to savor each pause like a taste of her favorite dessert. She used her spare moments to take care of herself.

The difficult part is staying with the new strategies until they become new habits. If you do, within a few weeks you’ll start to notice a change in how you feel. The sense of overwhelm will fade and eventually disappear, as you change the way you think about time.

Keep Reading By Author Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
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