When your brain is so crammed, so stressed…

A few weeks ago, my mom and dad flew into town. I love my parents with every cell and fiber of my heart — and I never get to see them enough. I’d been looking forward to their visit for months.

The plan was to have three days together — no work, no computer-time whatsoever, just free time to hike, talk, laugh, eat, be a family, and make memories.

My parents are not feeble, but they’re not spring chickens either. Who knows how many years we have left? I feel grateful for every day, every hour that we’re alive together on this earth. I never want to waste a moment.

But then, on the day they arrived with their suitcases and smiles, I’m ashamed to admit, I was in a terrible mood. Why? Because I was behind on several work-related projects. I had 157 unread emails. I had meetings I needed to prepare for, notes I needed to compile, things to double-check before I felt satisfied enough to send them off. I was so frustrated with myself for not being completely “on top” of my work.

Why did I put so much onto my plate? Why couldn’t I work faster and get everything done before they arrived? And how can I possibly enjoy a long weekend with my parents when I’m so behind on everything?! I am literally the worst person…

My brain felt so crammed, so stressed. I embraced my mom in the doorway, but I wasn’t really in the room. I was somewhere else. It felt like there was a noisy refrigerator whirring inside my mind — so many unfinished projects, so many unfulfilled commitments, so much shame and annoyance, all tugging at my attention.

My parents began unpacking their things. My laptop was open. And now what?

In the end, I decided, “Even though I’m behind on several things, I’m just going to hit ‘pause’ for three days and enjoy this time with my family. My work will still be waiting for me next week after they’ve gone home. If I don’t soak up this time with my mom and dad, I know I’ll regret it.”

So that’s what I did — and it was the right choice. I felt refreshed after their visit, ready to tackle all of my work-mountains with renewed determination.

It’s like my wise mom always says:

“When you think you can’t possibly afford to take a break, not even for one moment, that’s exactly when you need a break most of all.”

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about stress, mental noise, and how to survive when your brain feels absolutely stuffed to the gills.

This is what helps me:


I recently re-discovered Inbox Pause — I’d forgotten all about it! After installing Inbox Pause, you can hit the pause button to literally “pause” incoming emails. All of your emails get safely stored away, out of sight, and nothing will flow into your inbox until you hit “unpause.” A godsend.


A few months ago, during a sickening heatwave, I checked myself into a hotel for 2 nights to escape the 108 degree temperatures. I chose a hotel that was cheap, close by (just 20 minutes from my apartment), and most importantly, one that had air conditioning. I turned off my phone for several hours, dove into my projects, and basked in the glory of the frigid A/C. It was an incredibly productive getaway. Sometimes, in order to get things done, we have to pause the world — and get away from it all — even if “away” is just a few miles from home.


What is the most effective “productivity technique” in the world? I don’t think it’s a spreadsheet, a day planner, a time-batching system, or a smartphone app. I think… it’s forgiveness.

Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for saying “yes” to too many projects. Forgive yourself for getting behind on your emails. For needing an extension to finish that project. For being late, behind, backed up, crushed, buried, whatever your situation may be. Forgive yourself for missing that typo. For disappointing a colleague. For the foolish, irresponsible mistake you made. For whatever horrible “crime” you feel you’ve committed.

You did it. It happened. You learned. Now it’s over. And hopefully you won’t do that again. Meanwhile, punishing and pummeling yourself is not helping you to “work faster,” is it? Self-criticism is not fuel — it’s just a burden. It’s a heavy weight to carry, when your workload is already heavy enough.

Can you extend compassion to yourself, just as you’d extend compassion to a friend?

The sooner you forgive yourself, the lighter you’ll feel, the more space you’ll have in your brain, and the faster you can get on with your work — and get things done.

Walking and laughing with your mom and dad. Silencing your phone. Forgiveness. Fresh air. All very good ideas. Especially if there are five million things that you need to complete.

Work is important. Integrity is important. Punctuality and professionalism are important, too. And yet… I don’t remember the last 20 emails I wrote. What did they say? It just happened! And I don’t even know. But I will never forget the morning I spent with my parents in Laurelhurst Park, watching the once-in-a-lifetime Solar Eclipse, wearing our funny sunglasses, with our crumpled bag of cream-filled donuts and a quart of iced coffee spread out on the blanket… and I will never forget how it felt to see my parents holding hands after 33 years of marriage, how it felt to be together beneath the moon and the sun, awestruck as the morning became dusk, then morning again…

Sometimes, the world must wait… so that we can get on with our work.

Other times, work must wait… so that life can happen.