7 Steps to Control the Chaos and Get Stuff Done

Apr 18, 2019 | Change, Stress

Have you been finding it hard to tackle all the things on your to-do list lately?

Or maybe you’re feeling so scattered that the only list is the one in your head that ends with, “I really should make a to-do list.”

Sometimes, even when we think we’ve got everything under control, life throws us a curve ball and suddenly our well-intentioned plans go out the window.

When we’ve got a lot of to-do’s swirling around in our mind – like a tornado of “should’s” and “have-to’s” – it’s hard to know where to start.

Plus it takes mental energy to keep them all in mind. Not doing all the things we’re supposed to do can be downright exhausting. 

How do we tackle the chaos?

Chaos in the brain

Often the thought of tackling the chaos can feel overwhelming as it begins to feel beyond our control.

And when things feel beyond our control, we get stressed.

Unfortunately, stress can start a negative spiral in our brains, making it harder to tackle that mounting to-do list. Research shows that stress chemicals impair the prefrontal cortex, a critical part of the brain needed for controlling our attention and behavior, making future plans and decisions.

If the stress of the mounting to-do list makes it harder to plan and get stuff done, are we doomed?

No. But we need to understand and be kind to ourselves when we’re not thinking, planning or performing well. Plus, getting angry or frustrated only increases the stress.

Instead of punishing ourselves, we need to give the brain what it wants.

What the brain wants

The brain is constantly trying to guide our behavior and actions. But without clarity and a plan, it will simply follow the path of least resistance.

What the brain wants us to do is to take action to reduce the chaos. In order to take action, the brain needs a goal, and a plan.

When we take action towards a goal, based on a plan, the brain taps into our sense of agency. In other words, the brain becomes aware that we are in control of our actions and affecting an outcome.

This feeling of agency or control helps to calm the chaos. When we recognize that we have a choice, we are no longer victims of circumstance.

Research has also shown that awareness of agency or control is tied to part of the brain’s reward system.

When you have a goal with a plan, and take action on it, you create a sense of accomplishment or pleasure for having reached your goal. Dopamine gets released and this activates the brain’s reward system.

How to control the chaos – 7 steps to get it done!

  1. Slow down. In order to see through the swirling chaos – like a snow globe that’s been shaken – you need to pause and slow down. If you are able to pause, slow down, and take some deep breaths, you will signal to the brain that you’re not in a stressful fight-or-flight situation.
  2. Write it down. Put all the swirling thoughts or to-do items to pen and paper. Once they’re on paper, you’ll free up the mental energy it takes to not forget them.
  3. Assess the items on your list. What’s most important and pressing? Can any be set aside or delegated? Maybe it’s just too much to take on that school bake sale or plan that charity event right now. Maybe someone else can do it this time. Be honest about what’s really important.
  4. Determine value. Once you’ve figured out what’s important, this is about clarifying why it’s important. Ask yourself why doing this really matters to you? The brain is much more likely to take action when it feels it’s working towards a value or reward that we care about. To get even clearer, you can rank the importance on a scale of 1-10.
  5. Create a plan. Once you’ve clarified the values, you can start prioritizing the list. From there, map out what needs to get done, and when.
  6. Break it into doable actions. Small actions are a good way to start because they’re doable, won’t overwhelm, and will still get the dopamine flowing to kick in the brain’s reward system. By taking action, not only will you build momentum, but the brain will recognize that it’s in control. And when you feel back in control, the stress and chaos can begin to calm down.
  7. Take breaks. Don’t burn out with doing-doing-doing. It takes energy to control our actions and behavior, and that energy can get depleted. Plus, when we allow ourselves some downtime, a different brain network kicks in to help us with insights and new understandings that might find a new perspective on some of the chaos.

Now that you understand what the brain needs, you can begin! With each little step, you can recognize that you’re taking back control of the chaos and breath a sigh of relief.

Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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