What to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed at work (even during a pandemic)

We’ve all experienced moments where we feel overwhelmed with work. But this past year–between dealing with the pandemic, working from home, and high levels of global uncertainty–’feeling overwhelmed’ has gone from a momentary annoyance to an incessant menace. 

Dealing with the feelings of being overwhelmed every day isn’t sustainable. And trying to just ‘push through’ only leads to something much worse: burnout

So what can you do? 

Feeling overwhelmed isn’t about not working hard or long enough. Instead, it’s a crisis of overcommitment, communication, and prioritization–all issues you can solve with a few strategies.

7 Steps to help you deal with feeling overwhelmed at work

There’s nothing worse than starting the day already dreading what needs to get done. But once you start feeling overwhelmed, it’s hard to get out of that state of mind. However, it’s not a lost cause. 

This 7-step plan will help you identify what’s making you feel overwhelmed and then work through your day in a way that reduces stress and gets you back on track.

How to stop feeling overwhelmed with work:

  1. Understand your triggers
  2. Step back and set boundaries
  3. Challenge your assumptions
  4. Prioritize the one thing you have to do today
  5. Push back against perfectionism
  6. Delegate and ask for help
  7. Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Step 1: Understand your triggers

Feeling overwhelmed at work is paralyzing. Instead of seeing a giant pile of responsibilities and tasks and feeling inspired to work through them, we end up stressed, confused, and at risk of burning out.  

And while it’s easy to blame this feeling on other people (like a meeting-obsessed boss or needy coworkers) there’s something more at play. 

In their book, Immunity to Change, Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey explain that we feel overwhelmed when the complexity of modern life surpasses our complexity of mind (i.e. our ability to handle that level of complexity). 

This means feeling overwhelmed has nothing to do with your capabilities.

Instead, it comes from failing to recognize the triggers that add complexity to your life. 

Feeling overwhelmed has nothing to do with your capabilities. Instead, it comes from failing to recognize the triggers that add complexity to your life.

Luckily, these triggers are pretty easy to spot. Take a second and ask yourself one question:

“What one or two things can you take off your plate that would alleviate 80% of the stress you’re feeling right now?” 

Is your boss piling on too much work? Are you spending too much time in meetings and feel like there isn’t enough time in the day? Do coworkers drop projects in your lap that you feel you can’t say ‘no’ to?

A tool like RescueTime shows you exactly where your time goes each day.

It’s a good idea to start by simply writing down everything you have to do.

Then, pay special attention to the tasks or projects you’ve been putting off each week. What’s causing you to procrastinate rather than get them off your list? Should you be setting smaller goals?

Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking we want to do things when we really don’t. But the more your gut tells you not to do something, the more likely you are to push it aside and let it become a source of stress and overwhelm.

Step 2: Step back and set boundaries

Your list of triggers will help you immediately get rid of tasks that are stressing you out. However, this doesn’t necessarily fix the underlying issue of how you got there in the first place.

As executive coach Rebecca Zucker writes in the Harvard Business Review:

“Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating.”

Fight the urge to jump back into tasks and take a short break to walk around instead. This should help knock your brain out of ‘survival mode’ so you can plan a proper strategy for coming back stronger than ever. 

The first thing you need to think about is the boundaries around your workload and time. 

This could mean setting a specific start and end time for the day. Or, saying no to the tasks and projects that push you beyond your comfort zone (most likely the ones you identified as triggers).

To keep you accountable, try setting up a time-blocked schedule. This is where you assign each ‘block’ of working time a specific type of task. For example, deep work (your most important projects), busy work (like email, chat, and meetings), and breaks. 

Here’s what that might look like:

This type of clearly defined schedule helps you connect your workload to the actual time you have each day (instead of overloading your schedule). 

This is also an opportunity to clearly define what work you’ll say no to in the future or set up if/then statements for dealing with tasks that otherwise overwhelm you. 

For example: If I get work emails after 5 pm, then I’ll leave them for tomorrow morning.

Step 3: Challenge your assumptions

At this point, you’re probably going to start hearing yourself repeat some of the same unproductive habits that caused you to feel overwhelmed in the first place. 

The Immunity to Change authors call these your ‘Big Assumptions’.

Here are a few examples:

“If I don’t do this myself, it won’t be good enough and the project will fail.” 

Or, “If I don’t answer every email right away, the project will get off track and we won’t be able to recover.”

These big assumptions are what cause you to take on too much work and overcomplicate your life. And while they feel real, they’re rarely 100% true. 

So ask yourself: what big assumptions are you making right now about your workload and expectations? Can you prove they’re true?

What big assumptions are you making right now about your workload and expectations? Can you prove they’re true?

Maybe the best thing you can do here is to talk to your coworkers and managers about these assumptions. Tell them what you’re working on, what’s stressing you out, and ask what they would do in your shoes. 

Sometimes simply saying these things aloud can help clarify what’s important and what can be dealt with in some other way. Unfortunately, 75% of people have never had a conversation with their team or manager about workplace expectations

If you’re worried about speaking to your boss about these issues, approach the conversation as being proactive about your workload. For example, you might say:

“I feel like I have a lot on my plate right now and would love your help figuring out the best way to tackle it all.”

This not only shows you’re concerned about the quality of your work. But also makes them aware they shouldn’t be asking more of you right now.

Step 4: Prioritize the one thing you have to do today

What comes next is the pivotal moment in your escape from feeling overwhelmed.

You most likely got into the situation you’re in now because it felt like most tasks carried equal importance. But they don’t.

And giving ‘reaching inbox zero’ the same priority as ‘finishing the presentation for tomorrow’ will only send you spiraling. 

Instead, you need to force yourself to prioritize your task list and then pick just one to complete. (If you need help, we’ve put together an in-depth guide to 9 strategies for prioritizing your workday).

This feels ridiculously small. And that’s the point. 

Action breeds more action. And thanks to something called The Progress Principle, crossing off even small items gives us a surge of motivation and confidence. The key here is to pick a task that is manageable and that you can clearly see that you’ve completed. 

According to Dr. Alice Boyles, the things that add stress to your day are most often tasks that aren’t objectively hard, but psychologically hard. Like writing an email you’ve been dreading or giving someone bad news.

Finishing a task you started but didn’t finish (or that you’ve been avoiding) is a great way to kickstart your confidence.

Step 5: Push back against perfectionism

At this point, you should have a challenging, yet manageable list of work to do and a clear path to get started. But you’re not out of the woods yet. 

Perfectionism is often what causes us to feel overwhelmed. The perfectionist complicates even the simplest task, leading to more work, more pressure, and more stress. 

As you work yourself out of feeling overwhelmed, maintain your perspective on what really needs to get done. Here are a few tips:

  • Know when good is ‘good enough’. Work in short intervals of 30–60 minutes. At the end of each, look at what you’ve accomplished and ask ‘is this enough?’
  • Accept the law of diminishing returns on your effort. Remember that at a certain point more work doesn’t equal better work. When you hit a wall, ask if you really need to push through, or if this is just a sign that it’s time to stop.
  • Ask for 30/90 feedback instead of waiting until you’re 100% done. Bring in other people to help at strategic moments. Ask for high-level feedback at 30% done and more specific comments at 90% done.
  • Do one thing at a time. As writer Kara Cutruzzula explains: “It’s hard (maybe impossible?) to be overwhelmed when you’re simply doing one thing at a time.”

Step 6: Delegate and ask for help

We all have more than one task to do each day. And dealing with your overloaded to-do list is an important part of this process. 

When you have a ton of ideas and goals, it’s easy to feel guilty about not working on them. 

This is where you need a not-to-do list

Look at your big list of work and triggers and write a list of everything you won’t do. These aren’t tasks you’re ignoring or throwing in the garbage, but rather ones that you can easily delegate. 

A recent study by Julian Birkinshaw of the London School of Business found that, on average, most knowledge workers spend 41% of their time on jobs they could easily pass off to others.

As author John C. Maxwell says,

“If something can be done 80% as well by someone else, delegate!”

But how do you know what you can and should delegate to others? And how do you go about doing it? 

Delegation is a skill that takes time to master and depends on the people you’re surrounded by. One method is to use writing coach Christopher Sowers’ Delegation Matrix:

Take the task you’d like to delegate and the person you’d like to give it to and see what quadrant they end up in. 

Are they capable and willing? Then go ahead and delegate. Are they less capable but willing? Pair them with someone else and help support them as they learn.

The goal here is to get rid of the sense that only you can do the work and recognize the support you have around you. Asking for help or delegating isn’t admitting defeat, it’s simply showing you know what work matters and where you should be spending your time.

Step 7: Don’t forget to take care of yourself

While this article is all about how to handle feeling overwhelmed at work, it’s important to recognize just how much our personal lives seep into our workday. 

It’s impossible to put up a mental barrier at work if you’re already feeling stressed and overwhelmed in your own life (like, say, during a pandemic). 

As you work through these steps, remember to take care of yourself. This means eating properly, taking breaks, getting outside, and socializing (safely) with people you care about. The fundamental element of productivity, focus, and time management is your happiness and health

Take time to take care of yourself and it will compound the results from all of these steps. 

Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t have to be a life sentence

Feeling overwhelmed with work is one of the worst things that can happen to us. Instead of feeling empowered by doing meaningful work, we end up drowning in our to-do lists.

But there is a way out. Just remember to take a step back, recognize what’s triggering your stress, and systematically work through what’s truly important to you.

Have you dealt with feeling overwhelmed at work? How did you get through? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

9 comments

  1. I’d also say recognising that sometimes its okay to completely step away and have an afternoon off. Sometimes pushing through and trying to work when your body and mind don’t want to just leads to you wasting time and not really completing anything anyway.

    I’m naturally someone who always wants to work and get things done today (not tomorrow), but every now and then its worth taking a pause.

    1. I completely agree Paul. I have the same issue with always wanting to push through and get things done. Yet, the results are rarely worth it. Taking a step back and using that time to reset is almost always a better option.

  2. A useful technique for de-escalating ever lengthening email chains involving ever more people (and ever more stress) is simply to reply to sender, instead of reply to all. Or, prune the recipient list down to a more justified size when replying. I’ve found this a useful technique over the years for preventing getting to the overwhelmed stage. If challenged on it, just provide a management BS speak reply about wanting to ensure a more focused discussion, blah blah etc.

    1. That sounds like a good approach! There’s always a fine line between making sure everyone has visibility into emails and overloading them with too much communication.

  3. Thank you so much for this information, I’m too been dealing with this same exact situations. I will prioritize my daily things to accomplish, and when I feel overwhelmed I’ll step back and take a break.

  4. Hi. Just read your very informative article. Wish I could have had my daughter read it prior to giving her job their two-week notice. As a college student, new wife and mother, the stress from her part/full-time job (bank) was making her life miserable. She’s rebound, though. Thanks for sharing!

  5. First, I focus deeply on one thing. Often the job is not resolved. When this happens, I once again stubbornly attack. If not again, I take a break as if that job never existed. Sometimes it is necessary to take a break for days. In the meantime, our brain is actually trying to figure out the solutions of that job in the background. Then when I take over, I see the shortcomings that I could not see before. And the job is solved. Two important points, first, push yourself enough then get enough rest. That is all.

    1. That’s a great point that we often forget, Mehmet. Sometimes the best “work” happens when we’re not actively focusing on a task at all. Thanks for sharing!

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