It’s not as bad as you think it is

When you’re overwhelmed, everything feels faster. Everything feels heavier. Unimportant things feel vital. And important things now feel like the end of the world.

We’ve all been there, and sometimes, it’s a legitimate feeling. Stressors are real. The stakes can be high, and our lives and jobs can hang in the balance. But if the overwhelmed feeling has become a constant companion, I would guess something was not adding up. Feeling that way every day is not sustainable. Grey hairs are supposed to come naturally, not prematurely.

If you’re a freelancer, and are always balancing multiple clients, you likely know how quickly this kind of feeling can sneak up on you. At first it’s almost kind of fun–balancing priorities, doing a couple hours of work for one project, then switching over to another. Maybe it even gives you a little bit of an adrenaline rush. But, the crash inevitably comes. All your tasks becomes too important, and all the deadlines land on the same day. Your vision gets narrow and things get scary. I’ve been there.

Of course, you can get overwhelmed in a traditional job, where you may be prevented from taking on multiple sets of responsibilities. In those jobs, it’s not you but the powers that be or the universe or whoever it may be, heaping on piles of work, to the point where you can barely breathe.

Those moments are real, and we’ve all felt them.

But there are two things at play that might affect how often we feel overwhelmed, and how intense the feeling might:

We don’t realize how capable we are

Deprioritize lead - crumbled paper by waste basket

Have you ever been in a position where something had to get done, you were the only who could do it, and you were running out of time? What happened? The thing got done, didn’t it? And who did it? You.

Or maybe someone called in sick at work and you had to step up and do their job? And it went fine? Maybe it even went better than fine? You may look back and wonder how you did it. But you did it, right?

If you’ve been in those situations, you know about the existence of “high gear”–that next level that we can hop into when necessary. Sometimes, the stress and pressure almost forces us into flow state. (There are certainly easier ways to bring about that level of focus, but we’ll talk about that later.)

The point is, we’ve all had to dig deep to get something done. We know it’s possible.

And it’s possible because we are smart, and adaptable, and capable.

As you stare at your horrible, scary pile of work, remember your power. Remember the times you did the things you weren’t supposed to be able to do. It’s cheesy, but it’s real. You’re capable of more than you think, always.

Our perspective shapes how we feel

I often find myself slipping into the same mindset when “stress time” seems like it’s starting.

“Whelp, there it goes. I crossed over into the ‘I’m so busy’ zone.” It’s as if I have an urge to put on my busy hat – the mental place I go to when things are looking scary before a deadline. Sometimes that busy hat throws me into that panic-induced flow state I talked about earlier. Other times, and far more often, it just acts as a grey hair producer. Not helpful. Not necessary.

But lines like “here we go, another busy time, time to be stressed to the max!”–these are all part of the lies we tell ourselves–the stories that make people go “ooh” and “that must have been difficult.” We tell these stories to make ourselves feel any number of ways: busy, important, and like we’re spending our time productively.

You’ve probably heard one of your often-harried friends (or yourself) say this about a day they’ve had:“I’ve literally been running around all day,” when in reality they just went to a doctor’s appointment and stopped for groceries on the way back. But it just feels kinda good to say it, you know?

Just because you’ve always thought that way does not mean that’s the only or even the best way to think.

Next time you’re “busy busy” and someone’s life isn’t on the line, try some new approaches. Try to actually work slower, instead of faster. Watch if you become more methodical and thoughtful, and less turbulent in your output. Try very hard to work on one thing for a long stretch, or until it’s completed, before switching to the next thing. Do things actually get done quicker than usual?

Basically, we need to abandon that cartoon image we have in our heads of furiously scribbling on papers flying around, sprinting across the college campus with our paper in our hands just before the due date. It’s compelling, and maybe sometimes a a little fun, and it can make us feel electric, but it doesn’t allow us to produce our best work. After all, those papers flying around are important and they’re getting out of order!

The real winners, and the admirable figures in our lives that seem to be able to take on more than anyone, are the ones that keep calm. They work steadily and with purpose. When more tasks get dropped in their laps, they consider them, adjust their plans, and put their heads back down. Let’s try to take a cue from their playbook.

Beyond this knowledge, here are three quick things you can use to kickstart your way out of overwhelmed paralysis:

Take one hour and sprint

Sometimes it’s as if there’s a layer of busy-work and administration work that sits on the top of your workflow, that you just have to skim off to get a clean understanding of your workload.Once you get those folders filed, or that mail taken to the post office, or just burn through a few easy to-do list items, some things will start to change. You should get a clearer view of what you’re working with, and hopefully you also get some momentum to start attacking the bigger tasks on your docket.

Break it down to its simplest parts

If you have five clients, make five piles. If each client has multiple projects, split these into multiple piles. It doesn’t matter if one “pile” consists of a single sticky note and another contains an entire filing cabinet. At least now, finally, they’re separate. And you can visually understand their differences.
Then, work one by one. You can start with the hardest (”eat the frog”) to make the rest of your day easier, or you can start with the easiest to build momentum. You’ve created a shape for your day and for your approach. That’s something you can work with.

Adjust your perspective

How does this work you’re doing matter in the grand scheme of things? How bad off would you be if something went wrong? If you stopped working or didn’t get it all finished?What are you working on right now, really?

How does it affect the trajectory of your life? Is it important to you? Does your success here say something about your worth or value as a person? (Long story short: it shouldn’t.) Or is it just another day at the office? Not nothing, but not everything?

Your perspective, in no uncertain terms, shapes your reality. If your reality feels oppressive or scary or causes anxiety (or even if it just feels monotonous), see if it’s possible to make an adjustment to the lens through which you view things.

And if all else fails, take it one step at a time. You’ll get there, and it will be fine.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.


    1. I thought so too! We can be way too hard on ourselves and our situations sometimes. Thanks for reading!

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