Do you ever get overwhelmed?

It’s not that any single task on your to-do list is particularly arduous but that the mountain of accumulated tasks feels insurmountable. The cumulative effect of everything in front of you gives you a generalized sense of anxiety, exhaustion, or dread.

I’ve been there this week. I’m returning from a hiatus and trying to prepare for my upcoming sessions while working through a four-week backlog of emails. I realized this was triggering overwhelm when I noticed the post-it notes in front of me fluttering in the breeze caused by my giant sighs. I’ve also noticed that I’m talking to myself and starting sentences with “Ok…” to reassure myself that I can get on top of this mound of work.

The good news is that I know myself well enough at 50 to know what works and what doesn’t when I’m in this state. I also know that what works for me is very specific to my personality. And very different from what might work for you and your personality.

And thus came the inspiration to create this personalized guide to your own private hell of overwhelm. I hope it’s helpful.

What does your stress look like?

I remember learning in lifeguard training that some people who are drowning slip quietly beneath the water while others splash frantically and expend their energy in a vain attempt to stay afloat. Well, the same holds with overwhelming workloads, different people have their own self-destructive ways of reacting, and unless you can pull yourself out of yours, you’re in trouble.

Which of these descriptions sounds like your behavior when you’re overwhelmed?


When you get overwhelmed, do you whip yourself into a froth, pacing, twitching, doing random tasks? If you keep jumping up, moving around, tinkering, you might be someone who gets more active, almost manic, when you’re overwhelmed. Unfortunately, being more active does not mean you’re getting more done. Often, it means your starting a bunch of stuff and finishing nothing. It’s also unlikely that you’re doing the most important things and instead just attacking whatever gets in your path.

The antidote for this frenetic version of overwhelm is to lift your eyes to the horizon and think about what matters most and why. Then, based on your answers to those questions, you’ll be able to promote 10-20% of your to-do list to the top, deprioritize 50%, and remove the rest. Checking off the 10-20% will create forward momentum and have you feeling noticeably better. Prioritized to-do lists are your friends.


Here’s an entirely different profile.

When you get overwhelmed, do you turn to processes, rules, and organization? If you get stuck bemoaning how unfair your workload is or searching for the origins of what feels like random assignments, you might be someone who craves predictability and gets principled when you’re overwhelmed. But, unfortunately, the fact that you shouldn’t have to deal with the nature or volume of work you’re facing doesn’t change the fact that you need to.

The antidote for this rigid form of overwhelm that has you feeling like a victim is to change your language from “what should I be doing” to “what could I be doing?” Selecting the two or three tasks and prioritizing those that will reduce risk will make you feel like order will eventually prevail over chaos.


Person being agitated and complaining to a colleagueOr how about this one?

When you get overwhelmed, do you emote about your feelings to anyone within earshot? If you long for someone to validate just how ridiculous your workload is, you might be someone who thinks it’s a competition to see who has it worst. But, unfortunately, while you’re busy telling everyone how hard done by you are, your list of tasks is growing, and your list of allies is shrinking.

The antidote for this social contagion approach to overwhelm is to switch the nature of your competition away from “who has the most to do” to “who got the most done.” Changing your scorecard will allow you to satisfy your competitive spirit with something constructive. Giving yourself a figurative (or literal) gold star for your accomplishments will have you back to feeling like a winner in no time.


One more.

When you get overwhelmed, do you collapse on the couch feeling like you can’t even sit upright? If you become sad and pessimistic when there’s too much to cope with, you might be someone who takes overwhelm personally and as a sign that you don’t have what it takes.

The antidote for this self-inflicted wound form of overwhelm is to take a modest task you feel you can manage and just do it. Instead of boiling the ocean, just heat one bucket. You need to overcome your inertia by getting something going.

Strategies to Feel Less Overwhelmed

While we each have our dominant version of what our stress looks like and the associated techniques for alleviating it, many of us also have a secondary aspect of our personality that we can call on to help us dig out of a hole. For example, I’m the type who gets deflated when I’m overwhelmed. As a result, I will suffer in solitude. But I also know I’m a social person, so I use that to my advantage.

Here are some secondary strategies you can use to feel less overwhelmed. Which one works for you?

Talk it Out

For the social type, phone a friend and talk it through. Likely, the other person won’t need to say a word, and just their presence, support, and smile will be all you need to feel more connected and confident. You can even ask the person to jot down a few notes as you’re talking to help you separate the priority tasks you need to address and highlight the ones that you can strike from your list.

Shake it Off

For the active type, grab your phone, put in some headphones, and get outside. Walk. Fast. The movement will help you process the scrambled thoughts in your head. Open a note on your phone and use voice dictation to document everything you think of. When you get home, you’ll be better positioned to think about what’s most important on the list and what can wait. Turn the prioritized list into a checklist and start crossing things off.

Clean it Up

For the orderly type, build a system. Make files on your desktop, draw a giant chart of everything you need to do and stick it on the wall, use Pareto time blocks, and just do something to show your to-do list who’s boss. Once you have the system, work it. Break everything down and use a timer and a tracking system to make the chunks of work more manageable. Even a daunting workload will be more doable once you’ve organized it into submission.

Make it Count

For the creative type, make it inspiring. If your version of inspiring is to make things sleek, pretty, or visual, grab a notebook and some markers and turn your list into a work of art. In contrast, if your notion of inspiring is more about substance than style, connect your tasks to a higher-order concept that you find more strategic, purposeful, or innovative. If you’re “redefining the identity of your company,” you might be more energized about tackling the workload than if you’re “changing the copy and stock images on the website.”

Feeling overwhelmed is, well…overwhelming! But it doesn’t have to be long-lived, and it doesn’t have to drag you under. Know what type of overwhelm you tend to suffer, and try these primary and secondary approaches to getting your head back above the water.

Let me know your tricks for dealing with overwhelm.

Further Reading

How Do I Talk Someone Off the Ledge?

Enough about Workload, the Problem is Thoughtload

8 Ways to Feel Less Overwhelmed by Your Workload

Video: 1 Yes and 3 Less (Why Deprioritizing is as Important as Prioritizing) 

Other Voices: 5 Mistakes We Make When We’re Overwhelmed– Alice Boyes in Harvard Business Review