The secret to not being overwhelmed

March 2, 2014 | 49 comments

One of the turning points in my life was an email I received from Fr. Joseph Langford, MC back in 2009. He was close friends with Mother Teresa, and she worked with him to found her order of priests.

I had the privilege of getting to know Fr. Langford because I was working with him on a website project, and one day when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, I decided to seek his advice.

I note that this was taken while we were re-organizing the house. (If you interpret that to mean that my house looks much better at the end of a typical day,  I thank you for your charity.)

I note that this was taken while we were re-organizing the house. (If you interpret that to mean that the living room looks much better at the end of a typical day, I thank you for your charity.)

It occurred to me that Mother Teresa must have had more demands on her time than she could ever even come close to addressing — and considering the type of work she did, serving the poorest of the poor all over the world, she must have often felt daunted by how many important things needed to be done compared to how little she could do.

So I asked Fr. Langford: What did Mother Teresa do when it seemed that there was more work than she could possibly handle?

His response was simple and wise, and it marked a turning point in my life. In his reply to my email, he wrote:

The [work she could not get to] she did not think twice about, nor should you or I, since God is not asking you to do what He does not give you the time (or health, or resources) to do. So be at peace.

Fr. Langford also mentioned in the email that he had recently been diagnosed with blood and bone cancer. He knew he didn’t have much longer to live, and his words were potent with the kind of wisdom you can only get when you’re face-to-face with the reality that our time on this earth is quite limited.

Fr. Langford passed away only a few months after he sent that email, but his brief message changed the way I approach life. Immediately I began to seek solace in the idea that God only asks me to do what he gives me time to do, that I should not feel burdened my unfinished tasks that I truly did not have the ability to get to.

And it helped. A lot. But, as it usually goes with me, it wasn’t quite that simple.

In all the years since then, something has nagged at me about the concept. There was a sense that Mother Teresa’s lesson hadn’t quite clicked with me the way it should. I felt like I had mostly put it into practice, yet I still felt unsettled about what I was and wasn’t getting done — I didn’t feel that soul-quenching peace you get when you’re exactly in line with what God wants you to be doing.

A little Scriptural inspiration for when life feels tough.

A little Scriptural inspiration for when life feels tough.

It was only a few weeks ago, when my to-do list exploded like never before, that I finally understood why.

At the end of one week in the beginning of February, I looked at my to-do list and laughed. There were 17 items written down that I had designed as essential things that had to get done. Many of them involved deadlines that would make me look bad to other people if I didn’t hit them. It was really important stuff.

Of the 17 must-do, super-important items, I had done three. THREE!

And the most surprising part? I felt at peace about it. When the day drew to a close that Friday, I didn’t stay up until some insane hour, frantically working to cross off a few more items. I didn’t snap at the kids or miss time to chat with Joe because I was stressed and frustrated. I felt happy, free, and even took some extra time to dig into a favorite novel that night.

It occurred to me the next morning that it seemed like I was finally beginning to live Mother Teresa’s advice that I’d tried so hard to implement for so long. But why now? What was the difference?

It took me a while to spot what had changed, but when I realized what it was, it all made sense:

I finally had space in my schedule. Thanks to some babysitting help and a couple of tweaks to our routine, I had a few hours per week — predictable time that I could count on and plan around — where I could do nothing but think and pray and get my priorities in order.

Once had that, everything changed.

Suddenly I was okay with only getting 3 out of 17 critical things done that week, because I was confident that those were the three most important things for me to be putting my energy into. I had had sufficient prayer time to “put on the mind of Christ, ” so I was fairly sure that I was putting first things first.

Before, I might get 12 out of 17 things done, but I would still be plagued by a feeling of uneasiness, because I had been going through my day unmoored from God’s guidance. I was jumping from one thing to the next, feeling like I was trying to sort through an avalanche, and at the end of the day I would wonder if maybe the five things I didn’t do were the only ones that really mattered.

But when I finally had the time to prayerfully prioritize my approach to each day, it was so much easier to keep my life in balance. I could finally say with a shrug:

“Well, Lord, I guess that long list of things I didn’t do today isn’t that important. You could have either given me more time or put those things at the top of the list if they mattered in your plan, but since you didn’t, I’ll forget about them for tonight and go read a book in bed.”

When you look at Mother Teresa’s daily schedule, you see an extraordinary amount of time for prayer and reflection. I used to wonder why she didn’t cut some of that to do more work since she was so busy, but now it all makes sense. The more demands you have on your time, the more time you’re going to need to connect with God so that you can receive his guidance as you make the extremely difficult choices about how you use your time.

I talk about survival mode a lot, but I don’t think I ever had a clear definition of what that term really means. Now I do:

If you don’t have at least a few blocks of time per week that are both predictable and uninterrupted, where you can prayerfully get your priorities in order, you are in survival mode.

That’s okay — we’re all there sometimes. Some of us spend years there, in fact. But it’s important to recognize that you’re in this state so that you won’t beat yourself up if it feels like things aren’t going well, and so that you can enact some strategies to make your life easier. And once you accept the fact that you’re in survival mode, you can take an honest look at how you got there and what you might be able to change to make things better.

Shaun the Sheep overdose.

Shaun the Sheep overdose.

For me, it’s a constant ebb and flow into and out of survival mode. This week, for example, with my surprise trip coming up and my poorly timed blogging commitments, I have had little balance. I’m overwhelmed and our house has been operating in survival mode (my apologies to Netflix for the bandwidth usage, which I fear reaches into some kind of red-zone when the Fulwilers have weeks like these). Next week will be a “re-entry” week once I return from my trip, so it promises to be crazy too. I did feel led to do the trip and to stick with my writing commitments, so I have peace about how crazy-busy I am — but I know that this kind of thing should only be short-term.

Now that I understand the secret to not being overwhelmed, I know what the goal is:

I need to tackle everything in front of me and not waste energy stressing about being temporarily overcommitted. Then, as soon as I can, I need to dig my way out of this deluge of commitments and get back to a routine where I have regular space to decompress and ask God what I’m supposed to be doing right now.

Once I have clarity, I should do those things to the best of my ability. And — guess what! — there are going to be way, way too many of them for me to handle. So when it’s time to rest, I need to call to mind Fr. Langford’s wise words and peacefully, confidently hand my long list of unfinished tasks back over to God.

We survived 7 posts in 7 days! Congratulations to everyone who joined in!ย 


  1. Barb

    This is of course great advice for workaholics like yourself :-), but what about lazy people like me?

    If my to do list is undone, it’s not usually because I was overcommitted, but because I wasted a lot of time (perhaps reading blogs . . .) when I should have been getting things done.

    BTW, I’m a long time reader but a rare commenter.

    • tia

      Barb, I feel ya. I have just one kid, who is in 9-5 daycare (with another on the way), and I work from home from 6am to 2 or 3pm. I have no commute and can eat what’s in the house, so I probably save about 2 to 3 hours from my day that typical work-away-from-home people must expend. Yet I waste a lot of time mindlessly surfing the Internet or doing things to procrastinate, and many things on my to-do list languish for months. I feel like laziness, not over scheduling per se, is a bigger problem.

      Even then though, I think Jen’s advice is really helpful. I find that laziness and procrastination are often a consequence of (and cause of) not having enough downtime to spend in quiet reflection or prayer, goal-setting and priority-making. And it may simply be that the ability to spend time fruitfully is like a muscle that must be exercised, and mine is pretty flabby right now. So setting aside some time for prayer will help me slowly build up that muscle, if that makes sense.

      • Jen

        I think this is insightful. When I LESS to do, I am actually usually MORE swamped. I think its because I don’t *have to* get myself in gear and organize, prioritize, and goal-set. When I’m just mildly-overwhelmed, though, things around the house are usually running their best.. there’s just enough stress in me that I know I have to organize and stay on-top-of-things… but not so much going on that its impossible to do so. I would prefer being mildly-swamped to having “too much free time.” Then I get lazy and start surfing it away online and letting the laundry accumulate because “I’ll get to it in just a minute…”

      • Lesley

        Tia, so true and I can completely relate to your routine, but I never really connected the internet distractions with not giving myself time to get in tune with God. I just blamed it on being so overwhelmed that I had to distract myself. Great insight thanks!

  2. Cynthia

    I teared up at the priestโ€™s message to you. What wise words he had. Thank you for this post, I needed to hear this today ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Emily B

    Simple. Wise. Profound.
    thank you

    p.s. be sure to eat good pizza in Chicago…maybe Lou Malnati’s

  4. Sherri

    Thank you soooo much for this! As I sit at my second job, worrying about how I can get the laundry put away after I pick up my four kids from their dad’s house and still have quality time to spend with them and their older brother, and get everybody ready for the week…

    I am one of those worriers and always on the go. I felt peaceful as I was reading your blog. I think I will print it out for those times when both jobs and kids and dealing with their dad seems to be too much to handle. I pray a lot but it is mostly while I’m doing something else and on the move. I need to remember to stop to breathe ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Strahlen

      Hi Sherri,

      I’m a single mom of five boys. I know how crazy life can be and wish you peace. I’ll add you and your children to my prayers tonight. God Bless…

  5. Amy

    Thank you for this! I especially love the link to St. Andrew’s Q & A as I am always wondering about prayer and how to do it. I must say I am very glad that you and I use different online sources for our videos, because with all the sickness we had around here this week we’ve been burning up the Amazon Prime. Something catastrophic may have happened if we were overloading the same source ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope you have a great time in Chicago and stay warm!

  6. Eva

    As an introvert with 4 little children ( yes, I know all you Catholics are going. ‘4 kids? You’re so cute…’) who is a high school school teacher 3 days a week with a big round trip to collect the boys after work I often feel like I’m on a hamster wheel of despair. I adore a tidy house but it hasn’t happened for about 10 years so my memories are hazy. Part of my introvert nature is after working, where I literally have conversations with 200 different people each day ( 5 classes,25 students , extra people added in) I have to spend my days off staring off into space and cuddling and playing with my toddler. Which means that there isn’t a lot of time for extras but it’s how I survive during those times when I’ve been up at 5 am every morning and rushing around like a crazy person from then on it.

    And my word for the year is Peace, so I’m finding a way ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Julia

    A good reminder today in light of today’s gospel:

    “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” Matthew 6:24-34

    Thanks for encouraging us to post every day this week! It was a lot of work but worth it. Enjoyed reading all the new blogs as well–kept me busy during the “Stomach Bug of ’14” in my house…

    • Jeni

      I needed that verse (always but) especially tonight. I have a highly stressful day pending tomorrow. Highly stressful. Pray, hope and don’t worry though — right??

      <3 jeni

      • Julia

        Prayers are with you! Hope you can keep your worry in the hands of God!

  8. LeAnna

    So true. I find when I’m in Survival Mode (and I’ve been there too recently of late) my day goes best when I stop panicking about The List and start my morning by asking God to help me get through the things that are necessary for the day. I’m not very good at being flexible with my plan for the day, so this always requires that I learn to follow the promptings of the day, rather than my plan for it. By praying for guidance, it at least gets my head in the right thinking-space for this.

  9. Amanda

    Such a gift he was to you (and now to us!)! Simply beautiful. All of it.

  10. Sarah

    Okay… gosh. I really appreciate this post and it hits on so much of how I feel to be operating these days- constantly “putting out fires.” Your bolded definition of what “survival” really spoke to me and gave me something to strive for. I have too many days that I just “lived through”, but don’t feel like I did much of substance. And, granted there does need to be the grace where I am with my 3 and 1 year olds but this post really did help me to get a new frame of mind within it all. Appreciate it!

  11. sarah mc

    This is awesome, and so true!! I live in and out of survival mode all the time, too, it seems – perpetually overcommitted, with more things piling on to my plate all the time.
    Learning to take a deep breath and tell myself not to worry about the things that won’t get done today is still hard sometimes. Always good to know I’m not the only one… ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Rebecca

    I have nothing profound to say about this; the only response I have is: I hear you on the Netflix. (Have your children discoved Pingu?)

  13. Jeni

    “The more demands you have on your time, the more time youโ€™re going to need to connect with God so that you can receive his guidance as you make the extremely difficult choices about how you use your time.”

    Definitely. For Lent, rather than giving up something material, I’m offering up my time to be with God. I have attempted to carve out three blocks of time a day in my highly over scheduled, overworked busy mom day and a few hours a week for exercise (which is just so not like me).

    I hope and pray I can stick with it–because I REALLY need to stick with it. Hoping and praying for a fruitful Lent. <3

    (and I only cheated just a little on my 7 in 7)

  14. Loren

    Prudence is indeed a great virtue in that it penetrates even faith, hope and love. We are often Scripturally reminded to tithe 10% of our first fruits to our generous Lord. Is it too much to tithe 10% of the 24hrs to the God of time? Even the poorest of the poor have time and there is a reason why time goes before talents and treasure. Thank you Jennifer for this necessary post. Peace!

  15. Jane Costagliola

    Thank you so much for this topic. I feel so overwhelmed some times that I can not accomplish everything I think I;m suppose to. Now I understand that I am only completing what the Lord wants me to. I will try to no longer stress over all the unfinished tasks.

  16. Strahlen

    Thanks for this post. The thing which first drew my attention was the “messy” room photo! As the mom of five boys, I LOVE to see the PINK thrown all over. I think it looks absolutely beautiful just the way it is! Don’t change a thing!

    I have to admit, I skimmed through the post (but am not stressing about not taking the time to read it as carefully as I’d like. It’s part of my pledge to not being overwhelmed ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

    I am a single mom of five boys. My husband left suddenly when I got pregnant with the last little guy (who has turned out to be the greatest treasure!) Today I will leave for work at 11 and not get home until after 9:30 (That doesn’t include working on my blog which I begin at 5 every morning) and I need to be reminded to slow down and prioritize sometimes.

    I try to spend a bit of time each day reading the Bible and reflecting on the Rosary. I found it is so necessary to center myself and keep my priorities straight.

    Part of that keeping my priorities straight however means focusing at least some time on my children, and since my two littlest are tearing each other apart right now, I’m guessing tending to them should be priority #1 so I’ll just thank you again and go break them up ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Lynne

    Your scorpion tile (is that a tile?) is too perfect.

    I made the crock pot stew with oven roasted vegetables and it got RAVE reviews from the entire household. I like this cookbook’s layout (weekly by season) and the shopping lists. I’ll have to try some of its other recipes. I’m also enjoying the other food books you mentioned. Thank you!

    haha–you see I have no problem letting the laundry lie whilst I read the day away

  18. Catherine Boucher

    Per usual, I love everything about this post–beginning to end. I adore your writing because it is SO REAL and encouraging!

    Since you posted back in January about Mother Teresa’s daily schedule and A Mother’s Rule of Life, you inspired us to create our own Family Rule of Life. I’m nearly through the “5 P’s,” and your 7 Posts challenge inspired me to tackle some of it in the hopes of having it ready to roll out by Ash Wednesday.

    Your quote from Fr. Langford is definitely going to be incorporated into our Family Rule and come to my morning prayer time as I look over my daily to-do list. There is so much that can be done in the course of a day, but I need to regularly take that to-do list to God to find out what He wants me to do that day.

    (Here’s my latest post in Our Family Rule series in case some of the readers want some structure to model their own:

  19. Elizabeth

    Thank you Jen! You reach so many people through your blogs! So many times, like today, I read one and think, “this one speaks to me.” From some of your funnier blogs, I know its not always easy to get one out but it is always very much appreciated! :o)

  20. Tanya

    Wow… I just recently found your blog and I am loving it!! Your post today really hits home with me. I am constantly in “survival mode” and am just – in the last few months – starting to grasp why and how I can get out of it. And your recent post about healthy eating really hit home as well. I very much enjoy your back story and all the content. Thanks for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Lynn

    This was such a great post! Mother Teresa is and has been a constant inspiration mentor in my life. Her simplicity is unfailingly calming and soothing to me.

    This line was the best… ” the more demands you have on your time, the more you’re going to need to connect with God.” So so true.

    God bless on your trip and safekeeping on your way there and back home again to your beautiful family.

  22. Lindsay Kozitza

    I am a mom of 7 ages 8 1/2 years and under. I have been in survival mode for years. Sometimes are better than others though. I think God multiplies our time and he can also divide it. Some days (when I do things in the order they are supposed to be in) I am in a fairly good mood with my husband and children, but then there are days like today. The toddle is constantly in to things, the baby wants to nurse non-stop I’m on the internet and the kids are watching movies… forget school and the other stuff… sometimes a mama just needs to be lazy and think of it as God’s task at hand for us. Now I have to go switch the laundry.

  23. Anna

    Thank you for posting this. I needed it today”

  24. Connie Rossini

    I can really relate to this, Jen, as I finish my book on trusting God. Since I’m homeschooling 3 kids and potty training a fourth while writing a book, I’ve really had to put trust and prioritizing into practice. After school ends each afternoon, I have my writing time. I am currently bribing my kids (yes, with money) not to disturb me. I’ve had to cut out most of my activities on the internet not directly related to my book. Good thing I love writing!

    God is in control of our schedules, as everything else. If He thinks I don’t need to get something done, it should be okay with me too.

  25. Mary

    Thanks for this, it was providentially timed for me. My time is going to be much more tightly scheduled starting in just a couple of weeks, and I’m feeling the need to claim that prayer time as more important than anything else on the “absolutely must do” list. I’ve been told that when you are generous with your time to God, he multiplies what you give him so that you can accomplish what he wills you to do. Guess I’ll be testing that claim for myself!

  26. Sarah

    Thank you for posting that! What a blessing that post was to me. I have overcommitted like a fool this year, and have been really wrestling with the purpose in it all. Your answer was perfect. I can finish up these commitments and then step back, recharge, and refocus. Any new commitments next year can be the result of prayer and God’s priorities for me and my family.

  27. Michelle

    Its time for bed and I’m getting this feeling that I am yet to do most of the things I am supposed to do. This post is a solution to me. I just have to go to bed now and enjoy my short night rest. There is no point thinking twice on things I can’t do now.


  28. Bethany

    Wow. I missed this when it was posted, which makes me laugh because I was spending most of that day having a breakdown about how overwhelmed and inadequate I feel. Thanks for this.

  29. el-e-e

    This is brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  30. TheReluctantWidow

    You have no idea how much freedom this post is giving me. I have read the post twice to be sure that I really soak in the wisdom of Blessed Mother Teresa and Fr. Langford. I often find myself overwhelmed with the responsibility of being an only parent. I can’t possibly get done on my own, everything that I *think* needs to get done. And so I end up paralyzed in inaction. Then NOTHING gets done. Taking one thing at a time, focusing on just that, and letting the rest go at the end of the day chalking it up to not being important because God did not give me the time for it. That is freedom!

    Also, I have had a very difficult time praying over the last 20 months, more so lately out of a lack of ability to focus than an unwillingness to do so. I am glad Lent is beginning. I going to make prayer a focus of each morning. I will include petitions for focus on what’s important to complete each day.

    Thank you, thank you!

  31. Lynne

    So this comment totally doesn’t belong on this page, but I’m reading The Perfect Health Diet and lo! a reader quote from none other than the M.C. Hammer-pants wearing Jennifer Fulweiler! How cool! It made me wonder, though: do you feel any pressure–now that you’ve gone on record as a testimonial in a book–about actually sticking with this way of eating, or about failing to maintain your weight? I dunno; maybe it’s just my life, but as soon as I say “this is great and it worked for me!” then it all goes down like a mudslide. Anyway, it was a neat surprise moment. And the book is inspiring me to let go of my fears and *eat a sweet potato*. Or some *rice with butter*. I could like this.

  32. Michelle

    Amazing post. You have learned, even if not perfected, what it takes some of us (me) decades of parenting to discover. Bless you and thank you Jen.

  33. Sheila R.

    Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed it feels like I’m just spinning in circles and getting nowhere! I’m going to try very hard to keep this post in mind next time I feel like that…so in other words tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll be remembering your post! And just in case I forget I’ll be pinning this to remind myself later…cause I know how scatter brained I can get! Thank you for sharing this!

  34. Erin

    Thanks for being so kind as to post pictures of your living room post toddler explosion. It’s so comforting to have visual confirmation that there are other messes in the world besides my own! I know this post is going to help me through some tough days ahead. Thanks for sharing.

  35. Gina

    This post–brilliant. I am practically brought to my knees in prayer this second, begging God to show me what is most important! Thank you so much for sharing your little gem of insight. It is going to help me immensely, as this Lent I am working on simplicity…but with a to-do list a mile high, 5 kids, homeschooling…you know how it is. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  36. priest's wife

    This is SO important- the advice from your friend…because we humans are never finished! Sometimes- you just have to let it go and go to sleep!

  37. Chris Edwards

    I wrote down what Father Langford said about how Mother Teresa handled the load. Very good advice. Father Langford’s book “Secret Fire” turned my life around when I was going through a major illness. I still use it as a meditation and prayer source. Every time I open it up something new and wonderful pops out.

  38. Regina S.

    The “Shaun the Sheep overdose” pic made me laugh, mainly because it reminds me of my kids. We are on the East Coast for our first winter and would not have survived without Jake and the Neverland Pirates. Otherwise, what a beautiful, insightful peace. Will definitely add your writing to my reader!

  39. Shannon

    I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this post. You actually made me see that the reason I try to “do it all” is not because I can’t prioritize and acknowledge that there are some things I can’t/won’t do, its because I don’t like the guilt that I feel when I don’t do it all. From now on I am going to make a more concerted effort to let go. Like a decision, once it is done it is done so learn from it but don’t dwell, just let go and move on. Best wishes, Shannon

  40. Kay

    Timely for me. I am 72, retired and trying to rid my house of “stuff” – overwhelming after living here for 47 years. Every morning I ask the Lord to show me what to tackle first – and he sometimes gives me things to do that I don’t expect. I am going to put this advice on a “sticky”
    note and put it where I will see it. Thank you again, Kay

  41. Angela

    I honestly believe that surrounding us with wise people who can give us direction will really help us immensely. We also have to remember, as you did to take their advice to heart, when it seems sound. I don’t necessarily struggle with not getting everything done on my to do list, but I do have trouble making sure the things I do are worthwhile. I do a lot of stuff that doesn’t matter and skip things that might be more helpful in the long run.

  42. Esther

    Clearly, God gave you the time to write something that would touch a lot of people. Just as you have done for me. So I thank God for giving you and Fr. Langford that time and opportunity to write about it, and I thank you for your willingness to post to strangers who really needed to read this.

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