What to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed at work

It’s probably safe to say we’ve all felt overwhelmed at work at some point. Whether it’s from a meeting-obsessed boss, too much busywork, or colleagues constantly asking you to help them out, our default state has become ‘busy’. And while this is now commonplace, it’s not sustainable.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed with work, we end up stressed, confused, and at risk of burnout. Everything feels important and we don’t know which direction to start digging to get out of the hole we’ve found ourselves in.

There’s a fine line between “I’ve got everything under control” and “I’m in way over my head.” And sometimes, all it takes is one extra task on your already stretched to-do list to let the stress and weight of feeling overwhelmed take over.

So while learning to say no is one of the simplest ways to deal with feeling overwhelmed at work, what can you do when you’ve said yes for too long?

It all comes down to communication, prioritization, and delegation.

5 Steps for dealing with feeling overwhelmed at work

Step 1: Understand what triggers your feeling of being overwhelmed

It’s easy to blame others for how busy you are. And oftentimes it is other people’s fault. However, this isn’t always the case. To start dealing with feeling overwhelmed, you first need to shift your perspective from being the victim to being in control.

“Feeling overwhelmed is actually a stress response when we feel the demand on us outweighs our resources,”

Says Diana Dawson, a psychologist and owner of Working Career.

Start by asking what has become so demanding in your day-to-day. 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?

Simply writing down everything you have to do is a good place to start. Create a list of everything that’s expected of you this week. And 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?

Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking we want to do things when we really don’t. But our mood rarely lies. 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: Take a break and plan your strategy

With your list of expectations and triggers in hand, it’s time to start working through them, right? Not yet.

According to psychologist and author Gary Wood, stress actually closes off the more creative parts of our mind and can distort our perception of time. Which means diving into your looming list of jobs will only be detrimental to the end result. In other words, when we work when we’re stressed, tasks take longer and the work suffers.

Instead, you should take a break to regroup and strategize your plan of attack.

There are huge psychological and health benefits to taking a bit of time off. And so you really need to fight the urge to dive right back into your growing to-do list. Instead, take a 10-minute walk, eat something healthy, and get some fresh air. This should help knock your brain out of ‘survival mode’ so you can plan a proper way to deal with feeling overwhelmed.

This calm before the storm is also a good opportunity to bring other people in for advice and perspective.

If you’re worried about bringing these issues up with your boss then talk it out with a coworker. 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.

If you can talk with your boss, however, you can potentially be in a better position to take action. Approach the conversation from the perspective that you’re being proactive about your workload. For example, “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 3: Prioritize the 1 thing you have to do today

What comes next is the pivotal moment in making sure you go down the right path and not just back to feeling overwhelmed again.

You most likely got into the situation you’re in now because it felt like everything carried equal importance. Which is natural. In a lot of situations it’s hard or uncomfortable to set priorities. However, when you try to make progress on everything at once, you only end up thrashing and wasting your time.

Instead, you need to force yourself to prioritize tasks. One of the simplest ways to do this is to use what’s called the Ivy Lee method.

Here’s how author James Clear explains it:

  • At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  • Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance (If you’re unsure what this means, try using something like the Eisenhower Matrix).
  • When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
  • Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  • Repeat this process every working day.

Depending on the nature of your work, you’ll probably want to start with less than six tasks. In fact, even just prioritizing the single most important task to do each day is a good way start.

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.

When you start prioritizing your tasks, make sure you commit to one of these tasks per day. It might not seem like much, but dealing with easy, yet stressful work in a systematic way will quickly get rid of some of the stress that’s been hanging over you.

Step 4: Delegate and ask for help

Now, what about the rest of the jobs spilling off your to-do list?

Again, to come back from being overwhelmed, you need to fight the urge to just plow right back into your bad work habits. By its very nature, prioritizing work means certain things will be at the bottom of the list. In Eisenhower Matrix terms these are the tasks that are “less important and less urgent”. Or, as author John C. Maxwell says,

“If something can be done 80% as well by someone else, 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.

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:

Delegation Matrix

To use the matrix, take the task you think 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 the 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. So, before you get back into working through your overwhelming to-do list, ask what you can pass on to others – and what you can outright drop.

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 5: Singletask your way through your list

At this point, you should have a challenging, yet manageable list of work to do. But we’re not quite out of the woods yet. As social psychologist Dr. Alice Boyles explains:

“One of the biggest self-sabotaging thinking habits for anxious perfectionists is overcomplicating solutions to problems. You imagine that what’s necessary to move forward is something more complicated or difficult than is reality.”

As you work through your list of tasks, it’s important to stick to the simplest solutions so you can more onto what’s next. Start with a single task and then ask “what’s next?”

As writer Kara Cutruzzula wrote in a recent edition of her Brass Rings Daily newsletter, “It’s hard—maybe impossible?—to be overwhelmed when you’re simply doing one thing at a time.”

Working through your tasks in a systematic way like this builds confidence and puts you in control. Instead of worrying about the 478 things you need to do, you only have to think about what can be done now. And what comes next.


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 list.

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

Have you dealt with feeling overwhelmed at work? How did you get through? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

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

7 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!

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