Are you having difficulty focusing, trouble sleeping, or no success silencing the unrelenting anxious voice in your head? Are you struggling to get started in the morning or running out of energy long before the end of the workday? Or do you just catch yourself sighing, daydreaming, or looking at your phone for merciful distraction? You might be overwhelmed.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. A 2021 study by the American Psychological Association revealed that nearly 60% of adult workers are experiencing negative impacts of work-related stress, including cognitive weariness (36%), emotional exhaustion (32%), or lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%). And those numbers have increased by 38% since 2019.
It’s normal to be overwhelmed occasionally. The important thing is that you don’t get to a state of overwhelm too often or stay there too long. You need to protect yourself from burnout, which can have severe and lasting effects on your health and your career.
What’s Causing You to Feel Overwhelmed?
There are many possibilities for what might trigger that sense of being in over your head. So it’s no surprise that you feel overwhelmed if you’ve been put in a position with one of the following:
- Too many tasks: you’re juggling multiple different activities at once
- Too little time: you’re expected to deliver faster than is possible
- Too hard: you’re not capable or confident in your ability to deliver
- Not knowing where to start: you don’t know how to approach a task or whom to ask for help
- Worried about the stakes: you’re fretting about the impact of making a mistake
It’s also possible that your workload isn’t unreasonable but that you’re too tired, stressed, or disorganized to get on top of it. That doesn’t mean your issue is less important than someone whose workload is objectively unmanageable. What it means is that you might get less sympathy from your colleagues or boss, and you’ll need to be more self-sufficient in climbing out of the hole you find yourself in.
Steps to Reduce Overwhelm
I’ll leave the advice about negotiating your workload for another post and focus here on how to manage that horrible feeling of being overwhelmed. You can treat this list as a step-by-step and work through each step in order, or you can pick one or two that seem doable right now and use them to get some traction before you move on to others. Anything that helps you feel like you’ve made a dent in the problem (or reduced the dent it’s making in you) is good.
#1 Write it out
Thoughts swirling around in your head are nerve-wracking, not to mention distracting. Unfortunately, those distractions caused by your thoughtload make it harder to get through your workload, creating a vicious cycle of decreasing productivity and increasing overwhelm.
The other problem is that while your head is swimming in tasks and to-dos, you’ll often lose track of commitments that you should remember but have somehow disappeared because they’ve been crowded out.
Do yourself a favor and start writing things down. You’ll notice that getting your task list out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a digital document) will give you the first dose of relief. Start with one long, random to-do list and get everything you can think of on that list.
“Write it out” doesn’t just refer to your task list; it’s also an excellent strategy for diffusing your emotional reactions. If you like journaling or morning pages, go that route. If that doesn’t appeal to you, use an emotion wheel to name what you’re feeling. It’s amazing how naming an emotion can reduce its hold on you.
#2 Break it down
When you have to complete a large project, you might feel like you’re trying to summit Everest, but you don’t climb Everest in one go; you have multiple stops along the way, each with its unique challenges and rewards. Break your tasks down. How are you going to get to Base Camp? Think of getting to Base Camp as doing all the preparation required to begin your tasks (collecting information, getting input, etc.). Then figure out how you can divide the work into different milestones.
#3 Get it going
One of the best ways to cope with overwhelm is to get moving. Action is a great antidote to anxiety. If I’m feeling especially overwhelmed, I make a deal with myself that I only have to do a small piece of the work. For example, if I need to write an article, I make a deal that I only have to create a bullet-point outline, or I only need to write for 15 minutes. Inevitably, once I’ve got the outline, I can start filling it in without needing a break. Fifteen minutes almost always turns into 45. The secret is that I’m not afraid to start if I only have to accomplish something small. And started is half the battle.
#4 Spread it out
Trying to muscle your way through a massive assignment all at once will give your brain more evidence for why it’s right to feel overwhelmed. Instead of trying to boil the ocean, spread the work out. If I’m writing, I spread it out over a series of early mornings. I’d rather write each week’s post for a couple of hours on Saturday morning, and a couple of hours on Sunday than use four hours of Saturday and feel like I’ve lost half my day. The “spread it out” technique can help you capitalize on your circadian rhythms. While I like to write very early in the morning, I do invoicing at my natural lull around 3 pm. If I don’t get it all done in one day, I save it for another 3 pm slot rather than eating into a more productive time before dinner.
Another form of spreading it out is to enlist others to help you. Maybe they have unique skills and can make the task easier. Perhaps they can take some of the workload off of you. Either way, it’s worth looking for opportunities to spread your tasks to colleagues who might be able to help.
#5 Talk it through
If you’re an extrovert, one of the most helpful approaches when you are overwhelmed might be to talk through your workload with a trusted colleague. In many cases, the other person won’t need to say a thing, just their friendly smile or empathetic nods will be all you need to feel a little less isolated. In other situations, talking it through will yield a great question that unlocks a new approach or even a similar example you can use as a precedent or a template for your work.
#6 Give it bounds
Another way to reduce the hold that your workload has on you is to find different ways to impose boundaries. Setting time limits is the most obvious boundary. I’m a big fan of time-limiting tasks, such as limiting how long I’ll spend responding to emails. I ordered this nifty TimeTimer after a client showed me his “secret” for keeping his meetings on time.
It’s not just time that you can bound; you might also impose quality boundaries such as limiting yourself to including three months’ worth of data in your analysis or two primary research articles. You can also limit the scope of collaboration and determine that you’ll socialize the idea with four people rather than ten. If you’re feeling swamped, be deliberate about what parts of your task need to be done to industrial strength and which fall into the “good enough is good enough” category. Set the appropriate bounds and stick to them.
#7 Try it on
If your concern stems from a fear that you’re not doing it right or that failure will have dire consequences, you can reduce that sense of dread by vetting your work along the way. (As a baker, I think about tasting the batter before it goes in the oven… it’s relatively easy to adjust your batter and almost impossible to change it once it’s baked.)
#8 Tune it out
This last step is essential. Once you’ve made some headway on your project, give yourself time to rest. It’s not just your body and your eyes that need time away from your work; it’s your brain. Giving yourself time to consolidate the information you’ve taken will allow you to come back to your task with a fresh perspective.
You’ll have your own strategies to tune it out. In general, you can use three different types of barriers to enforce your boundaries and help you tune work out: physical, technological, and social. Use physical barriers to distance yourself from the work (get your computer or phone out of your line of sight, go into a different room, leave the building). Use technological barriers to reduce the pull of work (turning off notifications, using an app that doesn’t let you access certain things, having a separate device for work versus personal use). Finally, you can use social barriers (talking with friends or family, asking for help staying away from your device, planning fun activities that distract you from work).
Feeling overwhelmed is awful in itself. The cruel fact that feeling overwhelmed makes you less productive, which causes your workload to pile up, which increases your sense of being overwhelmed, is a double whammy of suckiness. I assure you that the most important thing to do is something, anything. Action reduces anxiety.
(As I was researching for this post, I found this article about burnout by Ginny Graves. I enjoyed it, and you might too.)