How To Cope When You’re Overwhelmed And Have Too Much To Do

The day I found myself crumpled in a heap on the floor, paralyzed with overwhelm and anxiety, I knew I was in trouble.

I was juggling a full-time job and two part-time gigs that were becoming increasingly demanding as time went by, but I thought I could do it all.

Until I couldn’t.

It was then that I realized my dogged pursuit of a bigger paycheck wasn’t worth it — not if it came at the expense of my sanity, sleep and personal life.

I’d put myself in a position where I constantly had too much to do and needed to get to a place where I could keep earning a decent living without losing myself completely in my work.

HOW TO COPE WHEN YOU HAVE TOO MUCH TO DO

My (not entirely unexpected) meltdown called for smarter, more efficient ways of being productive.

After years of experimenting and refining how I worked, these are the strategies that have changed how I approach work and have been helping me get more done in less time :

1. FIGURE OUT YOUR PURPOSE AND MISSION

Regardless of whether you’re working at a full-time job, freelancing or both (like I did for a long time), you’ll need to figure out what your — or your company’s — mission (what you do) and purpose (why you do it) are.

If you’re often overwhelmed and have too much to do, here’s something to think about: Is the bulk of what you do every day just ‘busy’ work like writing reports, responding to emails and attending meetings, or ‘essential’ work that actually aligns with your mission and purpose, and helps you get results?

2. TAKE A STEP BACK

The old me would just hustle to get as much freelance work as possible, then pray that I’d be able to get it all done by working as many hours as I could outside of my full-time job (this meant early mornings, late evenings and full weekends) without passing out from exhaustion.

Bad move.

These days, I take a step back to consider if:

  • the project I’m considering taking on is contributing to my overall purpose and mission.
  • I’ll be able to give it 100% should I take it on.
  • I can finish it in time without the prolonged sacrifice of my wellbeing and personal life.

Constantly working at keeping myself out of financial distress has allowed me to focus on checking these three boxes, and lifted the pressure to take on as much work as possible, off my shoulders.

3. BREAK IT DOWN

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The bigger a project, the more overwhelmed you’re going to feel.

The simplest way to turn this overwhelm into productivity is to break your one, big to-do down into smaller ones that you can tackle and gradually check off solo or with the help of a team.

Breaking things down will map out the path you’ll need to take, in addition to all the stops you’ll need to make along the way to make your project a success.

4. WRITE IT ALL DOWN

A lot of my projects used to start out with me thinking I’ll remember everything that needs to be done.

Big mistake.

Somewhere along the way, I’d find that I’ve overestimated or worse, underestimated how much work is involved, throwing my timeline off the rails.

At other times, I’ll forget to do something crucial and find myself having to start all over again.

The cure for this haphazard way of working: Writing everything down, right down to the smallest minutiae of who, what, how, where and when.

The more detailed my brain dump, the less overwhelmed I feel and more confident I am about getting things done on time and getting them done right.

5. PRACTICE SAYING “NO”

This one is going to make the people-pleaser inside of you squirm, but it’s something that I learned must be done to keep your workload and sanity in check.

Obviously, doing this the wrong way isn’t going to win you any fans, so you’ll need to go about this diplomatically, but firmly.

A good place to start is to take a direct approach with a thank you followed by a “no, I won’t be able to do that right now”.

If you’d like some time to decide, ask if you can get back to them on a set deadline — this should give you enough time to figure out if you can (or even want to) fulfill the request.

Look at it this way: The more you practice saying “no”, the less likely others will see you as a ‘yes’ person and take advantage of you.

6. LEARN HOW TO PRIORITIZE

Until you develop the ability to tell the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important, you’ll always struggle with having too much to do, and not enough time to do them.

Here’s why: ‘Urgent’ is usually someone else’s agenda, not yours — that thing your boss wants now; the call your client wants to get on ASAP; the email that just came in with the word ‘URGENT’ plastered all over the subject line…well, you get the picture.

Meanwhile, the important stuff — the actual work that leads directly to the outcomes that you want, and need your deep, undivided attention — get lost in your daily fire-fighting routine.

The trick to cutting out the ‘urgent’ noise is to decide what you want to accomplish and prioritize everything you do around them.

Day to day, what’s worked really well for me has been to learn how to say “no” and focus on no more than three things that will help me get closer to having my big-picture goals accomplished.

Everything else gets tackled after.

7. DO A SPRINT

Andy Beales / Unsplash

I dread long, drawn-out timelines that seem to drag on forever.

Working this way tends to lead to work piling up because there are so many things going on simultaneously that don’t get done quickly enough.

This means one thing: A growing list of to-dos, and more feelings of overwhelm.

I prefer to work in scrum-inspired sprints — short, time-boxed periods where I work to finish specific parts of a project.

My timelines typically range from one to two weeks of intense working so I can get as much done as possible, followed by a short break of several days to a week, and another sprint.

Working this way takes a significant amount of overwhelm out of my workdays because it starts with breaking a huge project down into smaller chunks that I can tackle in each sprint.

8. LET GO OF YOUR NEED TO BE PERFECT

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do an impeccable job, but if working this way is skyrocketing your overwhelm by slowing you down or stopping you from starting, it’s hurting, not helping you.

After years of letting perfectionism hold back my progress, I’ve come to realize that deep down, it was simply an underlying fear of not being good enough that was triggering this debilitating outlook.

These days, I embrace the fact that getting things done imperfectly is way better than losing myself in analysis paralysis and not getting anything done at all.

9. SKIP THE MULTITASKING

One’s ability to multitask — the more, the better — is often worn like a corporate badge of honor.

But as researchers scrutinize the brain in multitasking mode, the clearer it’s become that trying to juggle too many things at once just doesn’t work.

Defined as “trying to perform two or more tasks concurrently” by the scientific journal Cerebrum, multitasking typically leads you to repeatedly switch between tasks or leave one task unfinished so you can work on another.

As efficient as it sounds, most of us tend to overestimate our ability to multitask, landing us in situations where we’ll inevitably have too much to do.

And when we actually do multitask, we almost always take longer to finish what we’re doing, and we tend to make more mistakes than when we focus only on one task.

If you want to get shit done while minimizing stress, the message is crystal clear: Stick to doing one thing at a time until you’re finished, then move on to the next.

10. DELEGATE WHENEVER POSSIBLE

If like me, you’re someone who’s always felt the need to do everything yourself, I’m going to give you a hard-earned piece of advice with as much love as possible: It’s time to change things.

It’s time to re-assign tasks that you’re not good at, hate doing (and as a result, tend to take up the most time), or that you just can’t handle because your plate is spilling over, to someone else.

If you work solo, consider building a roster of freelancers that you can depend on to get the job done and done well when things get hectic.

This way, you’ll be able to focus on moving forward, not feelings of stress and overwhelm that comes with constantly having too much to do.

IS WORK-LIFE BALANCE POSSIBLE?

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Meet the over-used, much-maligned concept that employers love to hate and employees are so desperate for: Work-life balance.

Make it a priority and you’ll likely risk not being considered for any kind of career progression; avoid making it a priority and you’ll likely put yourself at risk for career burn-out and worse still, any kind of positive progression in the other areas of your life.

So how do you build a rewarding career for yourself and reap the rewards of not spending all of it working?

From experience, I can tell you that there is no easy answer to this question, and it all boils down to what kind of work you want to do, how you want to do it and who you want to do the work with (or for).

For example: You’re not going to find much balance as a newspaper reporter, IT manager or surgeon.

‘Regular’ (and by regular I mean the standard 9-5) hours or workloads just don’t come with these roles.

You are, on the other hand, more likely to have control over one or both as a university professor, hair stylist or ophthalmologist.

You can’t always keep work-related stress at arms length, but you can deliberately design a career that brings you less of it.

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RESOURCES YOU MIGHT FIND HELPFUL

(Disclosure: These suggestions contain affiliate links, which means that I’ll earn a small commission if you decide to buy by clicking on these links. Buying won’t cost you anything extra, but it’ll allow this blog to earn money―thank you if use them! You can read my full affiliate disclosure here.)

Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways To Slow Down And Enjoy The Things That Really Matter by Elaine St. James I got my hands on this treasure over 15 years ago, way before simple living and minimalism became popular, and it was the first resource that introduced me to practical, everyday steps I could take to ‘un-complicate’ my life. I didn’t have enough life experience then to ‘get’ everything that St. James presents in this book, but when I revisit the pages of Simplify Your Life now, they make perfect sense. If you’re just starting out in your simple living journey and are exploring your possibilities, I highly recommend giving this a read first.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way To Banish Clutter Forever by Marie Kondo Being able to pay attention to the little things in your life starts with decluttering — not the easiest thing to do if your living (or even work) space is disorganised and drowning in stuff. This is my bible as far as tidying up my space and keeping it that way goes.

Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill This classic is so much more than what its title implies — it’s also a guide to taking control of the biggest driver behind everything you do and the reality you create for yourself: Your mind.

The Simple Living Guide When life feels overwhelming, this guide-and-workbook-in-one will help you gain clarity with your values, well-being, career, relationships and money.

The Good Morning Guide If your mornings are typically rushed, chaotic and stressful, I made this guide to help you start your day calm, sane and strong.

Tribe Of Mentors: Short Life Advice From The Best In The World by Timothy Ferriss Nothing beats having a mentor in your life who can personally guide you from day one. But not everyone does, and if (like me), you don’t, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from the best virtually or through books. Take what you need from the likes of Ray Dalio, Ben Stiller, Bear Grylls and more in this varied but comprehensive compilation of bite-sized advice on life, work and purpose from some of the best minds in the world.

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START FEELING CALMER, HAPPIER & HEALTHIER…NOW.

If you’re too busy surviving, chances are, you’re not thriving. You’re feeling tired, unhealthy, unmotivated and just plain worn-out from life. I created my FREE Daily Self-Care Ritual Workbook just for busy folks like you who want to take back their health, peace of mind and happiness. Get your very own copy of the workbook HERE. No spam. Just helpful, good-for-you stuff. Pinky swear.

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Feature image: Matthew Henry / Unsplash

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