We all get overwhelmed. How do we deal with it?

Overwhelmed describes how you feel when you are in a situation or emotional state where you have too much to deal with. More than that; you don’t know how to begin to get out from under all. of. the. things.

I used to feel overwhelmed a lot in my daily life. I want to share with you how I began to deal with it.

To accept that overwhelm happens to most of us, but not to normalise it.

Dealing with overwhelm: don’t accept it as inevitable

In this post I share strategies I use in order to deal with overwhelm.

I still have days and weeks where I do feel overwhelmed. This usually happens when too many factors collide to disrupt my intended plans and workflow.

Life happens. Workloads shift. Priorities change.

I don’t think this means we should accept being overwhelmed as part of our working life. We should resist thinking that being overwhelmed is something we need to learn to cope with.

We do need quick fix strategies that get us out of the initial funk sometimes. We also need to think more deeply about what is causing us to be overwhelmed in the first place.

What are the bigger factors? Which of those are within your control to change?

Often, there are more of these than you might think.

Quick fixes to deal with overwhelm

Most of us start the week/day with a ‘to do list’. Many of us have a series of lists running at one time.

I loved the ‘Pram in the Hallway’ project by Alice Instone back in 2016. Here, she was revisiting a Cyril Conway quote about the impact on ‘art’ of parenting, but highlighting the ‘mental load’ that women do through exhibiting their to-do lists.

However, how many of us write ‘done’ lists?

The ‘done’ list

I began writing a ‘done’ list last year when I was feeling lost; adrift. I was overwhelmed and recovering from burnout. My perspective was completely skewed.

I started writing them as a way to show myself that I wasn’t ‘lazy’ or ‘unproductive’.

I don’t think either of those things about myself now because I’m recovering well; but I’ve kept on the practice of the evening ‘done list’.

This is the best ‘quick fix’ I have found for those days where I just feel like my head is going to explode with all the ideas, unfinished tasks, things to do tomorrow etc.

I shared this practice on my Instagram stories feed last night and received some lovely responses – it seemed to resonate a lot and actually helped some people out. It certainly makes me calm down.

What is the ‘done’ list?

So what is a ‘done list’? Exactly what is sounds like.

Write down ALL of the things you have achieved in the day.

And I mean ALL of the things.

From time spent putting make up on – if that is your thing – to making breakfast – to tidying up – to running errands – to talking a break. Then add all the other tasks e.g. responding to X emails, preparing X projects. Even time on social media or online.

The done list begins to help you deal with overwhelm because it makes visible and tangible what what you have done. Especially on those days where it would be easy to think you have ‘achieved nothing’.

My done list brings me back into the realms of what I actually have accomplished in a day, rather than allowing myself to dwell on the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’.

The advantages of the done list are therefore two-fold; you begin to see all that you have in fact achieved AND you start to see why you might not be hitting everything that was on your ‘to do’ list for the day/week.

Sounds simple? It is. Try it. A gamechanger.

Longer term strategies to deal with overwhelm

If you start using the ‘done list’, you begin to see where your time is going.

This self-knowledge is very powerful.

You can see clearly whether your time is going on the things you actively plan into your time – on your to-do lists – or whether there are other energy and time sucks impacting on your ‘productivity’.

The life admin. The work admin. The online grocery shopping, meal planning, the washing of clothes and dishes.

The days when you have meetings that take 3 hours and leave you feeling like running off to a remote island afterwards. The times when you have to see clients or students. Where you want to fit in exercise, or have to do the school runs.

Basically all of the life and work admin that we need to do and often don’t actually properly take into count in terms of the time and energy it takes. This is always time away from the things we want/need to do (this is an interesting read on life admin if you want to dig deeper into this – although the author acknowledges it is written from a privileged perspective).

Surely, you are not asking me to add more to my to-do list?

Absolutely not.

I’m not advocating writing yourself ever longer and more tedious ‘to do’ lists – that is only going escalate overwhelm.

What I am suggesting is you learn to scale down the number of things you put on your daily list. Factor in what is already going on.

What is realistic for you? How many hours do you really have?

Be kinder to yourself. You might still have ‘too much’ to do, but you might start to feel less to blame for it.

Hmm. ‘Easy for you to say Vik, now that you are you’re own boss. What about us still working in organisations?’.

I hear you. I really do. One of the major factors in my own burnout was the lack of control over my own working day.

Dealing with overwhelm from overwork

Let me be honest. I’m not selling you a ‘time management’ technique. These are bullshit when your workload is being exponentially increased outwith your control. When you experience an accumulation, rather than re-allocation, of all. of. the. things to get done.

We can’t all quit our jobs. We shouldn’t have to, or even want to.

We can however, think more carefully about how we respond to these pressures.

Do we accept them?

When was the last time you said no – and meant it?

When was the last time you actually firmly set boundaries?

Really deal with overwhelm. Set your boundaries.

Boundary setting is the new cure all. Why? There is truth and power in it. Much like cutting out toxic people; difficult at first, but then we feel sweet relief and wonder why the hell we had not done it sooner. We need to begin to apply this to toxic working practices and cultures.

Easier said than done.

I have heard so many arguments as to why it is not possible to ‘just say no’. Especially in the context of higher education where experience shows us that when one person says ‘no’, the burden lands on someone else. Most often on someone with much less power. This guilt makes us susceptible to overwork.

Yet, if we continue saying ‘yes’, when we are feeling overwhelmed, then we are all – perhaps unwittingly – modelling unhealthy working practices.

Having to deal with overwhelm is common, but it shouldn’t be normalised

We often accept engrained patterns of organisational culture and behaviour. We don’t want to be the ‘difficult one’. This has particular repercussions for women who are expected to be compliant and ever helpful in their working lives.

It is understandable why we say yes to things we know we can’t possibly do.

But, what would happen if you start to say no to additional workloads and tasks?

What would happen if you ask someone to share the load at home?

I suggest spending some time reflecting on how well you set your boundaries.

Do you know them?

Do people around you know what your boundaries are?

What makes you afraid to put boundaries in place?

It’s relatively easy to start setting boundaries without being aggressive. Setting an out-of-office on your email that states when you check emails is one way. This builds in reasonable expectations about your time. It makes visible when you are available and when you are not.

Do you work hours different to the 9-5 norm? Then ensure that you make that clear to anyone contacting you. Then, I’d recommend reading this excellent post from Jo Hooper on why our 9-5 work culture is so outdated.

Once you start making these small moves, you may be able to scale up. Question what you can move to accommodate an additional task. Relax your perfectionism – yes, I’m looking at all of your reading this – on the things that are still important, but not crucial to be ‘exceptional’ at.

We must always be positive about our wins – the small and the big. The done list is helpful in allowing you to take stock of these each day. However, that is only a starting point.

Be ever mindful of the quagmire of advanced capitalism that makes overwork and overwhelm the new normal.

Do you think it is possible to change? Can you ever see yourself dealing with overwhelm?

Talk to me on Twitter & Instagram – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And if coaching is your thing, you can find out about my online one-to-one coaching sessions here

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