6 Strategies For When You Feel Overwhelmed at Work

Tips for when you're feeling overloaded.

Posted Feb 22, 2018

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Here are some strategies for when you're feeling overwhelmed by work. These are aimed at helping you feel more confident and settled, so that you're able to concentrate and focus better. 

These strategies can help in situations in which your motivation is too high (you feel mentally scattered because there is so much you want to be doing) or your motivation is too low (everything feels pointless, or you feel hopeless about achieving anything meaningful.)

None of these strategies will be right for every situation but by developing a toolkit of strategies, you'll always have one suitable strategy on hand. By having a variety of tools at your disposable you'll always have one that both feels doable and is likely to work in any given situation.

1. Finish something you started but didn't complete.

If I need to settle myself down or get my confidence back, I'll look for a task I started but didn't finish that I could get completed in under 30 minutes. If I'm feeling really exhausted, I'll look for something I can complete in 15 minutes.

How this helps: Will give you a feeling of being control.

2. Give your mind a chance to wander.

Sometimes to re-charge your creativity you need to give your mind a chance to wander and free associate. 

When you do this, problems that seemed difficult can instantly become clearer. I like this strategy when I'm having trouble prioritizing what should truly be my highest priority or when I'm overcomplicating solutions to problems.

Since I mostly work from home, I can run a personal errand or take a shower during the workday. Driving to the outlet mall or grocery store can really help me clear my head.

If you're in a corporate job, or a situation in which you don't have the flexibility to leave the premises, you can always pick an alternative, like finding a reason to wander to the other side of your campus, or doing a mindless but necessary task like photocopying a bunch of documents.

Tip: When using this strategy, I'll often listen to a podcast to help break the cycle of ruminating about work. If you like psychology topics, then the Happier podcast by Gretchen Rubin and Liz Craft is a good one. 

How this helps: Makes it easier to see the big picture and the easiest path forward whereas continuing to bang away thinking about issues often doesn't achieve that.

3. Do some work-related continuing education.

Sometimes we need to refill our mental and emotional tanks rather than keep producing output. If I'm feeling a bit scattered, I often like to do some work-related reading. I'm typically not very goal-directed in how I do this. I'll do things like scan through the table of contents of psychology journals and read some abstracts, or I'll check Google Scholar and look up the latest work from researchers I like.  Yesterday I read a few chapters of a colleague's book in bed. 

By not being too goal-directed, I allow more different types of connections to arise between what I'm working on and whatever I'm reading.

How this helps: Can help you feel like your mental ATM is getting deposits as well as withdrawals.

4. Make a brief list of what you're not going to work on.

When you have a lot of ideas, it's easy to feel guilty and anxious that you're not working on all of them. Sometimes you need to explicitly make a list of all the projects you're not going to start or work on while you're concentrating on your current highest priority.

How this helps: Makes it easier to focus and relieves guilt.

5.  Do whatever is important but anxiety-provoking, and then allow yourself to take a break.

It's easy to say that we should all work smarter rather than harder. Sometimes to break a cycle of non-smart overworking, you need to do one thing that feels very hard and then let yourself take a break. 

For me, this will often be a task that's psychologically hard but not objectively hard or time-consuming. For example, making a request I feel anxious about.

Tip: Sometimes just getting the ball rolling on an anxiety-provoking task is enough to help you feel less overwhelmed. You don't necessarily need to complete the task. You can always do the first step and leave it at that for today.

How this helps: Gets you into the mode of working smarter rather than harder and relieves nagging anxiety about tasks you haven't done.

6.  Do the minimum necessary to get a task done.

There are all sorts of occasions where I make tasks more complicated or difficult than they need to be. For example, I'll sit down to write an article and attempt to hit ten points when actually 5 points, or even 3, is fine.

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. Look for the simplest solution and take that road.

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