Outsmart Overwhelm

May is the 70th anniversary of Mental Health Month and merits time, reflection and action from each of us. In the spirit of the month, I’m re-posting this blog from two years ago on how I “Outsmart Overwhelm”. I hope my tips might help you get through those times in your live that are especially stressful or busy.

This has also been a year for me of supporting others I love with bigger mental health issues. I’ve seen the benefits of robust services and the challenges faced when resources are sub-optimal. If you’d like to join me in advocating for mental health, you’ll find a toolkit here.


I fall prey to feeling overwhelmed more than I’d like. The “to do” list is long and grows like a teenager in a growth spurt. At times there are so many tugs on my time that I can find myself paralyzed, seemingly unable to tackle even one of the hundreds of tasks facing me.

Most often these times are of my own making (although not all the time). All of these times of overwhelm induce anxiety, warp my perspective and render me far less effective than I desire.

As I consult and coach and teach, I know I am not alone. Many are overwhelmed by jobs that demand them to be available 24/7. It is not uncommon for one person to be doing the job of 3 others as organizations shrink and downsize. Family demands collude with work demands, causing those caught between them to feel inadequate at either.

One of my strengths on the Gallop Strength finder Profile is “maximizer”. While it is a strength, at times it is also my greatest liability. As such I straddle the fine line between getting a lot of important things done and making myself and others crazy by the sheer volume of things I am taking on.

Tactics to Outsmart Overwhelm

I’ve grown wiser about overcoming overwhelm after a lifetime of practice. As such, here are the tactics that I’ve found work:

Tactic One: Know that this too shall pass.

It always does. It will this time too. Remind yourself of this over and over and over again. Breathe. Put your head down and work. Repeat as needed.

Tactic Two: Create order in one small part of your life.

When all of your life seems spinning out of control, create one oasis of orderliness. Clean your desk. Organize your to-do list. Do the dishes and clean the sink. I’m not sure exactly why this works, but I do know that 20 minutes spent organizing out the piles of work on my desk, even when I know I should by using that time to actually work on the piles, helps.

Tactic Three: Prioritize short and long term.

When in serious overwhelm, know exactly what you need to do to get through the next hour, the next meeting, the next day. And get that done. Repeat over and over until you’re working on the things that need done two days out, and then three and then four. Note that this is a survival strategy and not a sustainable approach. If after a week, you are not lengthening your time horizon, more drastic action needs taken.

Tactic Four: Break long term goals and projects into action steps and schedule them.

At the beginning of any big thing, take time in the very beginning to block your calendar for the time you’ll need to get all the assorted and sundry tasks done. Put time on your calendar for the actual work, the inevitable meetings, the research needed. Add some extra time on your calendar because we all know that things take longer than expected. My rule on this tactic is that I can move the time blocks around on my calendar, from a Monday to a Tuesday (for example), but I can’t schedule over them or delete them.

Tactic Five: Get help.

Ask your boss to off load work that can be done by another. Use a virtual assistant service like Fiverr or Fancy Hands. Hire an intern. Hire someone to do outside of work tasks if this period of overwhelm is cutting into your personal time. No matter HOW you do it, do it!

Tactic Six: Solve the underlying problem.

Only you know that that is. It may mean a serious talk with your boss about workload, or it may be letting go of high maintenance clients or low margin work. It may be hiring an additional person. It may be saying no to requests that fall outside your top priorities.

Tactic Seven: Take care of yourself.

This is another counter-intuitive move. In overwhelm we tend to work longer and harder. Skip sleep, exercise and down time. As a short term strategy (think a day or two), this may be an option. As a long term strategy, it renders you less productive, less focused and even more frazzled. So sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Play. In fact I think I’ll take a nap now!

What tactics did I miss? What do you do to overcome overwhelm?

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