When you are overwhelmed at work, it creates a lot of different negative things for you. Overwhelming is very common. I recently heard Overwhelm described as “another word for the freeze response.” I love that explanation. Often when we feel overwhelmed, we look outward to the list of work and blame the work for it. Thinking of overwhelm as a physical response to a threat can put us back in control over how we manage it.
The Impact of Overwhelm
When you feel overwhelmed, you will often spend time.
- Frantically switch from one task to another and back again.
- Staring at your email inbox or to-do list and having no idea where to start.
What other people will experience when you are overwhelmed is:
- You don’t get back to emails.
- You deliver results but the quality is poor.
- Your energy is frantic and anxious.
- You miss deadlines or forget about commitments.
What to do when you are overwhelmed.
- Step back and look away from screens, inboxes, or to-do lists.
- Recognize that you are experiencing a neurological response like the freeze response.
- Take a minimum of five deep breaths. Count to five when you breathe in and five when you breathe out.
- Next, grab a piece of paper and a pencil, and answer the following questions:
- What tasks are you worrying about right now? Your brain will be very efficient at offering you what’s important. Stop when you have three things. If you HAVE to write down four, go ahead.
- Are these the things that are most worth making progress on?
- If so, then what is one thing you can do to move each task forward today? Those are your top priority actions to work on today.
- Do you have your top three or four actions?
- It’s true that it won’t get all of the tasks completed, but the alternative is what you are doing now.
- Tell your colleagues or manager the top things you will work on. Let people know you want to help them with other things, but you just can’t until those first things are completed. Ask for feedback about the priority you selected if you want to.
- When you start your work, slow down compared to your normal work pace. Do your absolute best NOT to rush. Rushing creates mistakes and degrades quality, and that contributes to more overwhelm. Slow and steady wins the race.
- Don’t say yes to any more tasks until you feel more relaxed about your most important items.
- Finally, celebrate every single task you complete. Say to yourself, “Hey, Self! Look at that, you made quality progress on that thing! Good job!”
Do you think that won’t help?
You might think slowing down and focusing on the top three activities won’t help with the overwhelm because your list is too long.
If you are like a lot of people I work with, what you are doing now is procrastinating, worrying, multi-tasking, frantically trying to accomplish many things at once, and making very little progress on any one of those things.
Won’t solid quality progress on three things be better than that?
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p.s. Knowing this technique for getting past overwhelm is a skill that will be valuable to you for a long time. I personally have used this technique two or three times over the last month. I don’t try to eliminate overwhelm. I just use it as a signal that I need to take a step back, slow down, and prioritize. When I do, I move the important things forward.