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6 Steps To Stop Feeling So Overwhelmed

How to dig out of an endlessly overwhelming schedule, before you burn out.

6 Steps To Stop Feeling So Overwhelmed
[Photo: Flickr user Aimanness Photography]

Becoming overwhelmed is a slow avalanche.

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At first, agreeing to an extra project or starting a new class feels exciting. Sure, one more deadline is doable. Then you end up with three more meetings a week on your calendar. Before long, the moments that used to be reprieve become stressful, too–your friend’s in town and wants to catch up over drinks, but you’ve got that yoga class you already paid for, so you’ll have to leave work by 6 p.m. even though you haven’t started what’s due in the morning, and your emails aren’t going to reply to themselves. Work quality slips. Sleep, what’s that?

You might even be reading this in procrastination, facing that sliding mountain of work without the energy to scale it. Here’s your six-step climbing plan:

1. Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are

If you feel like you are in an unspoken competition with coworkers over who got into the office earliest, stays the latest, and can answer after-hours emails the fastest, you’re already familiar with the “culture of busy.” Author Brigid Schulte told Fast Company, “In our workplace culture, we reward people who work all hours, are completely work-devoted, and don’t care if they have a life [outside of work].” When you’re overwhelmed, stopping the broken record of “I’m so busy” sets up the right mindset for the next steps:

2. Practice Your Saying No — A lot

Starting immediately, be clear about what is and isn’t reasonable for you to take on. Start a “saying no” triage. Rather than a cheerful “sure, I can take that project,” and gritting your teeth a little harder, be honest about your time and energy resources. When you’re unable to do a job well because you’re already over-committed, it’s better to say no now than to miss a deadline or present a half-baked effort.

3. Assess Your Priorities

Writer Kate Hamill nails the priority problem perfectly, for Freelancers Union:

Odds are, you’re obsessing over all of the things you have to do. But is every single one of them really necessary? All too often, we assign TOP-LEVEL RED BLARING PRIORITY to things that can be put off for a day, or a week, or ten days. Where in your life can you find a little give?

The panicky feeling that rises when you’re scrambling to address everything as equally urgent makes you freeze. The bathroom remodeling, the overdue status report, the side-projects you haven’t even started yet–some things can wait, while others truly can’t. Be realistic about which is which.

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4. Get Organized

After you’ve weeded the “must-do” from the “should-do” items, organize them into manageable chunks. Hamill suggests getting hyper-specific in your to-do list, and setting your own deadlines even when there’s not an official due-date looming.

No matter what your personal to-do list style (and we’ve recently experimented with a few), breaking big tasks down into their parts makes each step easier to tackle. And setting smarter deadlines, studies show, is linked to more motivation and meeting goals.

5. Ask For Help

So, you’ve determined to put the brakes on your runaway schedule, started turning down new opportunities (for now), and organized your life into bite-sized tasks. Now it’s time for something most of us who’ve gotten ourselves into this mess dread the most: Asking for help. Says Hamill:

Think of who can help you shoulder your burden for a bit – are you wrongly picturing yourself as an island? My friend, odds are there are people in your life (or in your circle) who may be able to help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others when you’re overwhelmed and stressed out. Make clear that you’ll be glad to return the favor in the future . . . it’s good karma, and you’ll be surprised how many people will be happy to lend a hand, an ear, or an eye.

Studies show that when you’re spiraling toward burnout, the best option is to outsource, find flexibility wherever possible, and ask for a hand. Referring new gigs to colleagues who’d appreciate the work, hiring a personal assistant, and subcontracting those small pieces of big projects–taking control of your life can be a network-building skill, too.

6. Give Up On Balance

Here’s a bonus step: Work-life balance is overrated. Striving to spend equal amounts of quality time on family, friends, and your career is overwhelming even to think about; in practice, it’s burnout. Rhythm is what you really want: An understanding that on some days, that awesome new collaborative work project is going to be at the top of your list. On other days, you can give yourself permission to nurture your social circle and family life.

As executive coach Scott Eblin writes, for Fast Company: “If you’re an executive, manager, or professional with a demanding job, you’re about as likely to find balance as you are to be a purple unicorn… Shifting from the mindset of balance to the mindset of rhythm allows you to take the pressure off yourself.” If you’re overwhelmed now, it won’t last forever–getting back to a comfortable yet challenging rhythm is your big-picture goal.

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About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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