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Three Steps to Overcoming Overwhelm

Everyone hates overwhelm–it leaves you feeling stressed out and often paralyzed (which just makes the overwhelm worse). But once you’re stuck in it, how do you get out and get to a point where you can start taking action again?

First off, grab a piece of paper or open a new document in a simple text editor (even a spreadsheet will work, since you can just type things & hit enter to be taken to a new cell in the same column).

Get it out of your head

The first thing you’re going to do is write down everything that you’re overwhelmed about in one column. Generally, one of two things will happen here:

  1. As you write down what’s freaking you out, it’ll start to defuse the fears, and you’ll see that there’s really not that much to be overwhelmed about
  2. Writing all of it down will make you feel worse because you’ll remember things that you had forgot about, or that you were shoving to the back of your mind

Either way, hang in there, because we’re going to fix it! But to fix it we need to get everything out of your head and onto paper (or in a readable format, at least) first. So do that, and then take a break for a few minutes–take 15 minutes or so to walk your dog, do some yoga, or just relax and play a few rounds of Words With Friends on your iPhone. Getting a little bit of perspective is important for the next part and doing one of those activities will help give you some space.

Look at things objectively

This is where a buddy system comes in hand, if you have an accountability buddy or someone else around who can provide perspective. But even if you don’t, you can still make some serious progress.

Go over each item that you listed in the first step and ask yourself:

  • Is this true?

    As in–is it quantifiably, objectively, provably true? For example, if you wrote down “I have too much to work on this week,” then figure out how much work you really have to do this week. Look at your workload and see what really needs to get done this week (prioritize ruthlessly!), and if you’re still feeling overwhelmed, figure out exactly how much work it is: how many assignments are due? How many hours is it going to take you?

  • Is this any different from last week or last month?

    Take a hard look to see if the circumstances are actually different, or if it’s just your perception of the circumstances that’s different. More often than not, it’s the second one, which is when you ask yourself…

  • Is there any other experience or circumstance affecting my viewpoint on this?

    For example, if you’re stressed out about work, is it because you’re feeling pressure to perform well because one of your friends or your significant other was criticizing your job last week? Since we’re not robots, we can’t compartmentalize our lives, and there’s going to be “bleed over” from other areas. Oftentimes, people get overwhelmed not because the reality is too much for them to handle, but because there are emotional situations going on that are stressing them out. However, they can’t deal with the emotional situation effectively or directly for some reason, so instead their brain turns that stress into overwhelm about entirely unrelated subjects.

After you’ve done this, you’ll likely have a much clearer grip on what the reality of the situation is, but there’s still one more step…

Take action

For everything on your list, you want to take one of three courses of action:

What can you do?

For example, if you realized that you actually do have more work to do this week than last week, what are you going to do to make sure that work gets done? Work an hour later in the evenings? Get up an hour earlier and work in the morning? Once you construct an action plan for dealing with the problem, you’ll feel infinitely better (and you’ll be able to solve the problem, of course).

What are you going to delete or push back?

Once you objectively go over your list of things that are overwhelming you, you’re likely to see that not all of them actually need to be done right this instant. There are some things that you might realize don’t really need to be done at all, and that are more busywork than anything else. Just delete those off your task list so that they aren’t taking up your mental space and energy any more. There are some tasks that fall into the “important but not urgent” category, and those can be pushed back to a week when you’re not feeling quite so crazy. Choose a new time for them, thinking about the other things you’ll have going on that week (hint: don’t push them back to a week where your mother in law is coming to visit), and rearrange accordingly.

What can you delegate?

There are some things that need to be done but that just aren’t important for you to do. But you’re in luck, because technology has made it much easier and more affordable to delegate the random-yet-must-get-done tasks off your to do list to someone else. Check out TaskRabbit for local tasks, or FancyHands for non-location-dependent tasks. And of course, there’s always Fiverr, Upwork, and oDesk, as well. For more on delegating and how it can make you more productive, check out the delights of delegation and 8 ways your assistant can make you more effective.

Now that you have a course of action and a cleaned up task list, you’re all ready to get set and get out of your overwhelm so that you can have a happier, more productive week. Go forth and work! 

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