There’s one thing you know: You want to stop feeling overwhelmed at work. But when it comes to actually making that happen, it seems impossible.
Your to-do list is miles long.
Your inbox is jam-packed.
Your schedule is full of meetings.
Your phone won’t stop ringing.
You’re spread thin, feeling overworked and running yourself ragged.
You’re teetering on the edge of burnout.
You aren’t alone. A YouGov poll for The Huffington Post revealed that a whopping 58% of workers feel at least sometimes overwhelmed by their work.
Only a very small percentage of respondents (9% to be exact) said they absolutely never feel overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, this constant stress can have some pretty dire effects—unless you nip it in the bud. How can you do that?
We’re diving into everything you need to know about how to stop overworking, how to avoid feeling tired all of the time, and how to cope with being overwhelmed.
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The bad news: What happens when you overwhelm yourself
Everybody knows that feeling overwhelmed isn’t a fun emotion.
There are never enough hours in the day, and staring down everything you need to get done can quickly leave you feeling panicked and short of breath.
But aside from needing to deal with that standard stress reaction, what else happens when you get overwhelmed?
Why is this frazzled feeling so bad for you?
Here’s the thing: Feeling spread thin every now and then is normal. We all have our days where things seem to pile up.
But if this feeling of being overworked has become a predictable pillar of every single workday, you’re facing a larger problem.
Why? Well, if you keep that snowball rolling, you’ll soon be dealing with chronic stress—which has all sorts of not-so-desirable impacts on your work and your attitude.
“The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body,” according to a fact sheet for the American Psychological Association. “You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example.”
However, in addition to sending your mood into a steady nosedive, chronic stress can also have some pretty severe consequences for your overall physical health.
That same fact sheet explains that stress can lead to things like disease and depression, just to name a couple.
Needless to say, you don’t want to make stress a continuing piece of your work life.
But for many of us, the temptation to give into our busy schedules and continue piling our plates full can be tough to resist.
The lure of “busy”: Why we’re all overwhelmed at work
Let’s face it—hearing that stress is bad for us isn’t exactly news. We all know that it’s better to feel level-headed and on top of things.
Yet for whatever reason, we continue to put ourselves in situations that cause us to feel totally overwhelmed.
We’ve all glorified the concept of “busy.”
We wear our frantic schedules and packed inboxes like badges of honor.
We don’t feel needed and important unless we have 80 different commitments tugging on our sleeve at one time.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” explained Tim Kreider in his essay for The New York Times.
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” wrote Kreider. He continued:
The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
Put simply, it’s important to remember that busy doesn’t always equal productive. And, even further, a certain amount of time to rest, reflect, and recharge is necessary in order to achieve your peak productivity and work quality.
Makes sense, right?
But if you’re thinking, “Well, that’s all easier said than done!” we can’t blame you.
So with all of this in mind, let’s dive into some tips you can use to ease the burden of all of your work commitments and kick that overwhelmed feeling to the curb.
How to avoid being overwhelmed: 5 key tips to help you slay the “busy” dragon
1. Identify the root cause
Let’s start with the basics. It’s easy to say that you’re feeling overwhelmed for no reason. But we’re willing to make a bet that isn’t the case.
There’s a root cause to your emotion—you just need to take the time to find it.
Give yourself some quiet time to step back and evaluate your work life to identify those trouble spots that might be contributing to your frazzled emotional state.
- Do you just have too many commitments on your plate?
- Is there one commitment in particular that’s stressing you out?
- Is email distracting you from your other work too much?
- Do you feel like you don’t have enough support to get your work done?
Those issues barely scratch the surface—there are plenty of things that could be contributing to the fact that you feel swamped and buried.
The important thing is to take the time to figure out exactly what those things are so you can move through the rest of these tips with that much-needed clarity.
2. Use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix
Yes, this concept of an Eisenhower Decision Matrix feels highly complicated and academic. But rest assured, it’s actually an incredibly simple and effective tool for sorting through your to-do list when you feel like it’s trying to suffocate you.
It starts with creating a square and then dividing that into four different quadrants.
You’ll label the left side of the square with “important” and “not important” and the top side of the square with “urgent” and “not urgent.”
After doing so, you’ll end up with something that looks like this:
Now you have an organized system for categorizing and ranking all of those different tasks that are cluttering up your to-do list.
For example, if that report that you’ve been procrastinating is due tomorrow and highly important, you’ll want to put it in the #1 square.
But cleaning through your inbox?
That’s a menial task that isn’t important or time-pressing, meaning you can relegate it to #4.
What happens when you have all of your to-dos assigned to quadrants? Now you have a clear view of what you actually need to tackle that day:
- The tasks in #1: Those are your highest priority, meaning they’re the things you should get started on immediately.
- The tasks in #2: Those are important, but they don’t need to be done right this minute. Set a plan to tackle them in a timely fashion so you don’t end up in this stressful crunch again.
- The tasks in #3: They need to get done, but they’re not so important that you need to do them yourself. See if there’s a way you can delegate them—whether it’s to another member of your team or to some sort of tech tool that could automate that task.
- The tasks in #4: Those carry no importance for you right now. Just eliminate them from your to-do list entirely until you’re feeling a little more on top of everything.
See how much that helps?
Chances are, you’ve cut out a significant portion of your previously overwhelming to-do list and are now able to zone in on the things that absolutely need to get done.
3. Step away for a minute
When your to-do list is as long as your arm, it’s tempting to force yourself to stay seated at your desk and crank through everything—even when you feel unfocused and unmotivated.
But in the long run, it might be better to just step away and give yourself a short break.
Whether you go for a quick walk around the block or head to the break room for a mid-day snack (or, let’s be honest, another cup of coffee), giving yourself a physical and mental break from that stressful environment will help you reset and return with some renewed focus.
And if you think spending a few moments away from the every beck and call of your to-do list will destroy your productivity?
Studies show that brief distractions actually serve to give your focus and productivity levels a boost.
4. Ask for help
We’ve already briefly touched on the concept of asking for help in terms of delegating non-important tasks to others.
But sometimes you need to go a step further and truly throw yourself on the mercy of people you work with to see if you can lighten your load a bit.
Could one of your colleagues in your same department finish up that presentation if you don’t have the time?
Is there an intern or a direct report who could take on some of your tasks so that you can focus on the bigger stuff?
When you’re feeling particularly stretched thin, sometimes your smartest move is to get more cooks in the kitchen and enlist the help of others.
As long as it doesn’t become a repeated habit (you can’t constantly rely on others to get your work done) and you’re willing to return the favor when necessary, there’s nothing wrong with asking others to step in.
While you’re at it, if feeling overwhelmed has become a constant in your work life, it might also be a good time to have a chat with your boss about achieving a more realistic workload.
Get in touch to ask for a meeting when you two could sit down and talk about your responsibilities.
This conversation doesn’t need need to involve a ton of complaining—instead, just make it clear that you’ve been feeling buried under your work and that you want to make sure you have the time and mental resources to do a good job with everything.
Hopefully, you and your manager can come up with a plan of attack to mitigate those stressed feelings and achieve a better sense of work-life balance moving forward.
5. Learn to say “no”
While your supervisor should be able to step in and help you sort through your responsibilities so you aren’t buried under unrealistic demands anymore, ultimately, stopping those overwhelmed feelings at work starts and ends with you.
What does that mean?
Well, there’s one key word that you need to practice saying over and over again: NO.
We all have the tendency to be people-pleasers—particularly in our work lives.
Agreeing to spearhead that new project will get you on your manager’s good side.
Attending that networking event will give your reputation a boost.
Taking on that last-minute assignment will prove that you’re a dependable team player.
Those things all might be true.
However, you need to step back and realize the impact that this has on your overall workload and attitude. Before you know it, you’ll have piled your plate so full that there’s absolutely no possible way that you’ll be able to get it all done.
So as counterintuitive as it might feel to turn something down, you need to learn to evaluate your own priorities and then separate the wheat from the chaff.
Remember, you don’t need to say yes to absolutely everything—that’s a surefire way to stress yourself out.
Ready to give it a try?
Of course, talk and action are two totally different things when it comes to eliminating your stress and overwhelmed feelings at work.
The secret to success is actually implementing these tips in the office. Give them a try and then continue to evaluate and tweak from there, and you’re sure to notice that you feel less frazzled and more focused!