We’ve all had days where it feels like there are a million things to do but no clear place to start. In most cases, all we need is a few deep breaths and some serious prioritization.
Unfortunately, burnout makes it hard to focus and make smart decisions about how to spend your time.
Instead of feeling motivated to push forward, burnout amplifies your feelings of being overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion. It’s frustrating. But you don’t have to feel powerless.
By learning to recognize when you’re overwhelmed, you can start to take back control of your time and rebuild your focus, energy, and motivation.
How to recognize when you’re overwhelmed and need help
It’s not always easy to recognize the difference between normal workday stress and being overwhelmed.
A constantly buzzing phone and non-stop emails might be normal for you. But throw in a couple of unexpected projects, an awkward conversation with your manager, or a change in priorities and suddenly you become overwhelmed.
We all deal with stress during the workday. But it’s this steady and persistent accumulation of stress that leads us to feel overwhelmed and shut down completely. Unfortunately, our modern workplace makes it easier than ever to tip from under control to feeling overwhelmed.
The lack of boundaries around communication, a massive increase in collaboration, and sky-high expectations (yet with fewer resources, time and support), make it easier than ever to let work take over your life. But more than just feeling stressed, Dr. Marla W. Deibler, director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, explains that feeling truly overwhelmed causes a number of serious issues:
- Intense emotional responses such as anxiety, anger or irritability.
- Negative thought processes such as worrying, self-doubt, feeling out of control, or even helplessness.
- Physical reactions such as a fast heartbeat, sweating, tingling, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
When you start to notice these signs, it’s time to make a change. Start with a few deep breaths, go for a quick walk, and then follow this short plan.
Step 1: Break the cycle of overwhelming feelings by acknowledging and shifting them
Feeling overwhelmed makes it impossible to think about anything else. You feel waves of expectations crashing down on you and freeze up.
However, the last thing you should try to do is shove those feelings aside and press on. Instead, psychologists agree it’s more powerful to accept and try to shift your thoughts.
For example, let’s say you’re facing an overwhelming to-do list and you keep thinking “I’ll never be able to do all this!” As Dr. Deibler explains, this isn’t a result of feeling overwhelmed, but the cause of it.
Instead of thinking this way, Dr. Deibler says we should acknowledge that our list is unrealistic and counterproductive and then try to approach the problem from a more positive perspective.
For example, look at your to-do list and think:
- “I might not get everything done today, but if I delegate the tasks that don’t suit my title and role, I’ll likely get it done.”
- “It seems overwhelming right now, but if I break each task down into smaller parts it will become more doable.”
Step 2: Hit pause on your workday and take stock of what really needs to be done
Now that you’ve slowed your racing mind, it’s time to take stock of what got you there in the first place. Stop what you’re doing and write down everything that feels like you have to do it:
- What urgent issues do you have to address?
- What specific projects are you responsible for and currently working on?
- Are there things you feel like you should be doing but you’ve been putting off?
- What tasks are particularly stressing you out?
This is called your master list. This list should cover everything from unanswered emails to specific tasks and projects. It’s most likely too much for any one person to do. So it’s time to prioritize and get rid of what shouldn’t be there in the first place.
One of the most common prioritization techniques is the Urgent/Important matrix (aka the Eisenhower Box)—a 2X2 box that helps you categorize your tasks.
Yet while this is a good approach, it doesn’t always help when you’re burnt out. Burnout makes it hard to honestly say whether a task is urgent or not. You lose perspective and feel as if everything needs to be done now.
Instead, author Shawn Blanc suggests a different approach. Rather than list tasks as Urgent and Important, Shawn breaks up his box by motivation and accountability.
Procrastination, stress, and motivation aren’t logical; they’re driven by emotional responses. You can feel overwhelmed and stressed even without an overloaded to-do list. By prioritizing your work this way, you start to understand which ones are emotionally draining and need to be deleted or delegated.
Step 3: Pick one thing to focus on today and delegate the rest
Look at your list of prioritized tasks and pick just one thing to work on today.
This won’t be easy. Your natural inclination will be to make a big list of your most important tasks to complete today. But that’s just a shortcut back to feeling overwhelmed. Instead, choose just one.
A group of Harvard researchers recently concluded that making progress on meaningful work is “the single most important factor in boosting your emotions, motivations, and perceptions during a workday.”
They called this the “Progress Principle.” Yet what’s so amazing about it, is that you can get the same benefit no matter the size of the task you complete. As author Liz Fosslein explains in The New York Times:
“Even tiny units of progress, like sending an email you’ve been meaning to write forever, can contribute to a sense of accomplishment, which can boost your overall motivation”
Look at your list and find the one thing that will either:
- Reduce your stress levels (i.e. a task you’ve been putting off for ages but that can be completed quickly.)
- Make clear progress on a meaningful task (tip: make sure you can cross this off at the end of the day. If needed, break a large task down into more manageable “mini-milestones”.)
For everything else, follow the 3 Ds: Delegate, delete, or delay.
Step 4: Use a time management strategy to set realistic expectations and reward yourself for hitting them
To focus on this one important task, you need the right routines, strategies, and tools. There are numerous time management strategies that will help you properly schedule your day and build better routines to help you focus.
However, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, the goal is twofold: Make time for focused work (so you can see progress) and block distractions and interruptions.
Luckily, the solution for both of these issues is pretty much the same: time blocking.
Time blocking is the practice of scheduling everything you need to do each day. That means both focused work and distractions.
According to research, we’re just as likely to distract ourselves as get distracted by a coworker or notification. It’s why you’ll feel the urge to check emails or chat messages while working on important tasks.
But when you have time set aside for those “distracting” tasks, it makes it much easier to push those urges aside and stay focused.
And if you need added help blocking those external distractions, a tool like RescueTime can help.
Our FocusTime feature blocks distracting websites when you need to focus and can even automatically put your Android phone and Slack in do-not-disturb mode. This way you don’t have to worry about anything else taking away your attention.
Step 5: Minimize the disorganization in the rest of your life
Lastly, you don’t want to discount the small stuff that adds to feeling overwhelmed. According to Jamie Novak, the author of The Get Organized Answer Book:
“The average person wastes almost an hour a day searching for misplaced items like house keys, reading glasses and important pieces of paper.”
There are so many small changes you can make to help your day feel more organized and less overwhelming. Here are just a few sourced by Zen Habits founder Leo Babauta:
- Simplify your to-do list. Keep all your tasks in a central and easily updated location. Few things beat a pen and paper for this.
- Choose one tool and stick with it. There are tons of amazing productivity apps out there. But the best one is the one you’ll actually use.
- Do one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth. Stick to one thing at a time and really focus on it.
- A (good) place for everything, and everything in its place. Keep basic things you use on a regular basis in the same space—wallet, keys, notebooks, chargers, etc…
- Unapologetically take control of your time and priorities. Learn how to say no to your boss and colleagues, and have more conversations around expectations.
- Have less stuff. (Pretty self-explanatory).
It’s common to feel stressed. But you don’t have to let it overwhelm you.
Burnout is one of the most overwhelming things we can face in life. And it’s easy to always feel like you’re on the edge of slipping back into it.
However, if you learn to understand the signs of overwhelm and practice these steps, you’ll be able to take back control of your time and energy and stay focused instead of stressed out.
How do you keep yourself organized and not overwhelmed? Let us know in our short burnout survey.