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How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work And Take Control

Written by Carl Pullein
Dedicated to helping people to achieve their maximum potential through better time management and productivity.
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Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed, and exhausted.

Is it normal to feel overwhelmed at work? Yes, feeling overwhelmed at work is completely normal and happens to a lot of people. Stress is the leading cause of feeling overwhelmed at work according to the APA. Countless research shows that this overload of stress can lead to many health complications such as hypertension, anxiety, and heart attacks.

However, there are ways to identify when you may be getting too overwhelmed by stress at work. In situations like these, it is best to nip it in the bud, before the stress starts to implicate your life. There are many ways to identify overwhelm before it reaches a state of concern.

How To Tell If You’re Overwhelmed At Work?

Although it is believed that overwhelm happens suddenly, there are many benign stages where it can easily be identified. Here are some signs to look out for:

Lack of Concentration

If you find yourself unable to concentrate at work, especially in meetings and briefings, then chances are you are beginning to feel overwhelmed. A lack of concentration can appear in the form of short attention spans and constant zoning out. To fix this, try and keep a memo pad or something to note down important details. Try and ground yourself during long meetings.

As Parkinson’s Law states,

“The man whose life is devoted to paperwork has lost the initiative. He is dealing with things that are brought to his notice, having ceased to notice anything for himself.”

Having Trouble Sleeping

You can have trouble sleeping even without working for longer hours if you are overwhelmed at work. The stress of the workplace can often linger on you till you get home.

Waking up frequently, constant discomfort in bed, feeling stressed, and being preoccupied with thoughts about the workplace are all signs of overwhelm.


Being Constantly Sick

If you start feeling sick during work, especially feeling nauseous, it is another sign of overwhelm. The body is not used to so much stress and can easily lose immunity because of it. This is why nausea, migraines, and other specific types of sicknesses during work hours are very common.

Feeling Like Mundane Tasks Are Too Much

In a workplace, everyone knows things they are good at and things they find hard. Another sign of overwhelm is that work that you find easy becomes too much as well. It can become difficult to complete any task or project when overwhelmed. This leads to a stage where you begin to procrastinate. Making checklists of work as achievable goals can help combat this.

As stated in chapter 10 of Parkinson’s Law,

“The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take. He becomes fussy about filing, keen on seeing that pencils are sharpened, eager to ensure that the windows are open (or shut) and apt to use two or three different-colored inks.”

Inability To Eat Well At Lunch

Overwhelm can often cause one to not feel hungry when it comes to having meals at the workplace. Skipping meals becomes a habit since most believe the remedy to big workloads is to work harder. They often do it at the expense of their own lunch. This can be avoided if lunch is treated as a break instead of just a time to eat. It can be used to unwind and do something recreational as well.

How Not to Be Overwhelmed at Work

Here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm, leaving you calmer, in control, and a lot less stressed at work.

1. Write Everything Down to Offload Your Mind

The first thing you can do when work feels overwhelming is to write everything down that is on your mind.

Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s occupying your thoughts.


For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind, write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind.”

The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will help you stop feeling overwhelmed at work. Writing things down can really change your life.

2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

Once you have emptied your head, go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.


Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability.

3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

Here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago to help when work feels overwhelming. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and we humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take[1]:

parkinsons law

    This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad. It’s more wishful thinking than bad judgment.

    We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage when we’re feeling overwhelmed at work. If you have estimated that to write five important emails will take ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

    Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is that you put yourself under a little time pressure, and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

    When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time, so it plays tricks on us, and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our team members to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.


    Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening, and we get more focused and more work done. This will help when work feels overwhelming.

    4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

    Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos to avoid getting overwhelmed at work. Schedule time for each task, especially high priority tasks, while also grouping together similar tasks. This will help relieve stress and anxiety in your daily work life.

    For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

    Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done, and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer, and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

    5. Make Decisions

    For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one[2]. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

    If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend, or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.


    If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss or a colleague and get advice.

    Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away and will only make you feel more overwhelmed at work. You need to make a decision to deal with it, and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved.

    I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed, and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend about the problem.

    He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem, and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I pay a smaller amount for a couple of months.

    This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

    The first was: don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second: there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.


    6. Take Some Form of Action

    Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we are feeling overwhelmed at work (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

    The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

    It also means that, rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible, and you can make decisions about what to do about them.

    Often, it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be that you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

    When work feels overwhelming, it’s not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work. It can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

    Bonus: Is It Okay to Tell Your Boss You’re Overwhelmed?

    Most people do not tell their boss when they are feeling overwhelmed because they feel as if their voice would fall on deaf ears. Some are afraid that they would be wasting time if they took a short break for themselves. It is imperative that you tell your boss if you’re feeling overwhelmed because it will affect your work performance.

    Offices that are built on mutual understanding between employees and their bosses prioritize the quality of work. It is difficult to produce the same quality of work with a tired mind, taking a break is better for your work than to continue working when overwhelmed.


    Here’re some tips on how to tell your boss that you’re overwhelmed:

    • Make a list of the tasks you have currently and note how much time it usually takes to complete them versus what is going on right now.
    • Schedule a meeting with your boss beforehand so you have ample time to explain the situation.
    • Instead of wording it as if you are blaming him/her, acknowledge it is because of your own inability due to feeling overwhelmed but be firm on the stance that it is normal.
    • Provide ideas or suggestions in which you can help have your workload lessened in case your boss asks for them.
    • Offer to help out whoever the work is given to in small ways here and there.

    The Bottom Line

    It’s easy to feel like you have too much on your plate, but there are things you do to make it more manageable.

    Make a decision, even if it’s just talking to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a rehttps://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/8-things-remember-when-you-are-overwhelmed.htmlsolution.

    When you follow these strategies, you can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.


    Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

    How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work And Take Control

    Overwhelm is a state caused by increasing demands and distractions, leading to feelings of anxiety and exhaustion.

    Feeling overwhelmed at work is normal and often caused by stress, leading to health complications.

    Signs of overwhelm include lack of concentration, difficulty sleeping, frequent illnesses, feeling tasks are too much, and inability to eat well at lunch.

    To manage overwhelm, Write Everything Down: Offload your mind by jotting down tasks and thoughts.

    Time Estimation: Estimate how long tasks will take to complete.

    Parkinson’s Law: Use it to your advantage by setting shorter deadlines for tasks.

    Calendar Utilization: Schedule tasks on your calendar, grouping similar ones.

    Make Decisions: Resolve non-task issues causing stress by making decisions.

    Take Action: Act on the identified sources of overwhelm, either seeking help or allocating focused time.


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