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Feeling Totally Overwhelmed At Work? Try These Methods

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Regardless of where you work, jobs can be stressful and it’s normal to be overwhelmed at work for short periods of time. It’s just the nature of employment that every job comes with its good and bad days. 

Unfortunately, over the past months, working adults have seen more bad days than usual, with global events turning our work lives upside down.

But being overwhelmed at work is not just a phenomenon caused by recent times. The daily stresses of a job and its constant demands have always been part of the work landscape, and they will be after.

So what should you do when you’re feeling totally overwhelmed at your job and don’t know what to do next?

First, let’s understand the what and why of feeling overwhelmed – the signs and causes of why your job makes you feel defeated daily. Then we’ll delve into how to stop being overwhelmed at work.

What does it mean to feel overwhelmed at work?

Feeling overwhelmed at work usually means you’re in over your head and either can’t keep up with all the demands or find yourself lacking the necessary skills to tackle your responsibilities. Feeling overwhelmed at work can also mean you don’t feel like you have support available to help you deal with the situation.

Consider all the demands that are placed on you every day.

You have deadlines to meet, projects to start, projects to finish, calls to answer, emails to reply to, team members to help, and on and on. 

And it doesn’t matter if you’re hourly or salary, blue-collar or white-collar, entry-level or C-Suite, or work from home or at the office or on the road, every job carries with it emotional, mental, physical, and social stress.

If you’re unable to maintain a healthy balance or sense of self within your professional life, it’s easy for one, two, or all four of the above stressors to cause you to lose engagement with your job.

When you feel overwhelmed at work, you’re trapped in a never-ending cycle of stress and confusion. You constantly operate with the sense that you’ll never get ahead and are always working from behind. 

It becomes increasingly difficult to focus. You struggle to manage your time, your emotions, and instead of moving forward with your tasks, you often feel paralyzed. Mental fatigue is the norm for you, and you regularly deal with creative block.

Managing Emotions at Work: 

Feeling overwhelmed at work isn’t just about the physical workload; it’s also deeply tied to our emotional state. Managing our emotions effectively can play a significant role in how we handle stress and pressure in professional settings: 

  • Compartmentalization Techniques
  • Deep Breathing and Relaxation
  • Acknowledging Emotions

Incorporating these strategies can help mitigate the emotional aspect of feeling overwhelmed, allowing you to approach your workload with a clearer more focused mindset.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Signs you’re overwhelmed at work

There is no single tell-tale sign that you’re overwhelmed at work. The signals vary from person to person and can prove very subtle, such as;

  •  Gradual loss of appetite. 
  • Or they come all at once in force, like sudden irritability or a wave of sleepless nights.
  • Of course, sometimes these things are the result of a bad day or having to work with a really difficult person. 

So how can you tell whether you’re feeling stressed due to unique circumstances that will soon change or because of the very nature of your job, which won’t change?

Here are some common signs that it’s your job that is causing you to constantly feel overwhelmed, and that you may need to make some kind of significant change. 

  1. You always feel helpless

You feel like you’ve lost control or like you have no direction in your professional life. Without a clear path, the sense of feeling trapped becomes really strong and overwhelming. When it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, you start to experience burnout, depression and anxiety. You have a constant sense of need to make a change but don’t know what that change is or how to do it. 

  1. Work is constantly on your mind

This is less about being a workaholic (there’s plenty of people who enjoy working a lot) and more about the job dominating your every waking (and sleeping) thought, especially if you try to avoid it. Even when you’re relaxing or hanging with friends and family, work keeps coming back to your mind.

  1. Sleep is difficult

When you feel overwhelmed at work, sleep becomes increasingly difficult. Your job stresses you to the point that you’re up at all hours with anxiety and dread about what the next day will bring. When you do fall asleep, the resulting shut-eye doesn’t do much for you, and you wake up feeling both tired and anxious.

  1. You’re always exhausted

Everyone becomes tired and worn out by their job from time to time. Usually, a day off or a weekend away is enough to recharge the batteries. But when you’re overwhelmed, you can’t escape your exhaustion and perform poorly at work, develop a short fuse, and lose your drive to succeed. And the more exhausted you are, the more overwhelmed you become.

  1. Your eating habits change

Over or undereating is common for people under a lot of stress. Anxiety about your career may result in a dramatic loss of appetite, or drive you to binge eating in an effort to self-medicate. 

  1. You get sick a lot

Being under a lot of stress and feeling overwhelmed can create significant health issues, including:

  • Headaches
  • Ulcers
  • Stomach or chest pains
  • Fatigue
  • General malaise

Anxiety about your professional life isn’t limited to emotional problems. It can manifest itself physically, leading to serious health issues. 

  1. You feel increasingly hostile and pessimistic

A bad mood amid a lousy day at the office is one thing. However, if your daily outlook on work (and life in general) casts a dark shadow over everything you do or everyone you interact with, it might be time to stop and assess what’s driving the negativity.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of signs that you’re overwhelmed at work, but it should at least give you a sense of what to watch out for. If you find yourself regularly experiencing any of these things on a regular basis, it’s probably time to step back and look at the big picture.

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Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

Why do I feel overwhelmed at work?

In order to overcome feelings of burnout and being overwhelmed, you need to know what’s causing you to feel that way in the first place.

There are many different things that can cause you to start feeling completely overwhelmed at work, including:

  • Feeling like you have too much to do, and not enough time to do it
  • Feeling you aren’t being paid fairly for all of the work that you
  • Saying yes to too many requests and stretching yourself thin
  • A supervisor who demands more than your job description
  • Not having the necessary skills or tools to do your job effectively
  • Multiple impending deadlines
  • Lack of sufficient support from your supervisor or coworkers
  • Unrealistic expectations from supervisors or the company culture. 
  • Lack of support from your team or company, leaving you to tackle big projects without necessary assistance. 
  • Conditions like social anxiety or ADHD can significantly impact how you handle stress. 
  • Personal life stressors can also seep into your professional life, making it harder to maintain focus.

It should also be noted that physical and mental disorders can contribute to feeling overwhelmed. For example, if you struggle with an anxiety disorder or depression, even simple tasks can seem intimidating, let alone challenging work tasks. If you believe you are experiencing something like this, it’s important to see a medical professional as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, the reason you’re feeling overwhelmed is unique to your circumstances, job, demands, etc. It can come solely from what’s happening in your job or it can be a combination of personal and professional reasons.

Understanding these factors can help you better navigate your feelings of overwhelm, allowing you to seek the appropriate support and resources.

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Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

How to stop feeling overwhelmed at work

Thankfully, being overwhelmed at work doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. There are concrete actions you can take to relieve the burden you’re feeling.

More than simply identifying the specifics of why you’re feeling overworked or underappreciated or at the edge of your capabilities, you must also take steps to correct your trajectory. 

Before we dive into the details, here’s a quick overview of the ten strategies you can employ to significantly reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed at work.

  1. Understanding the things that trigger feeling overwhelmed
  2. Unload everything in your mind
  3. Use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage
  4. Set appropriate boundaries
  5. Delegate and ask for help
  6. Limit Multitasking
  7. Set SMART Goals
  8. Use ‘Focus Music’ or Soundscapes
  9. Weekly Reflection and Planning Sessions
  10. Pause and Reassess

 1. Understand the things that trigger feeling overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t come from nowhere. Rather, specific things happen that trigger those feelings. Work environments vary widely, each presenting unique challenges and opportunities. Whether you’re navigating the autonomy of remote work, the dynamics of an hybrid or full time office setting, or the unpredictability of fieldwork, the pressure to manage your workload effectively remains a common thread. 

Maybe you feel overwhelmed when your boss makes a last-minute request. Maybe it’s when you look at your task list and realize there’s no way you’ll get everything done by the specified due dates. Or maybe it’s when you don’t make nearly as much progress in a day as you thought you would.

When you start to feel overwhelmed, ask yourself why. Be as concrete as possible. The more you can nail down the specific causes of your bad feelings, the more you can specifically address them.

When you start to understand your different triggers, you can then create coping strategies for when they occur in the future. For example, if you start to feel anxiety when you look at your task list, you can prioritize your most important tasks and then ask for help or delegate less important ones.

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2. Unload everything in your mind

Write down everything on your mind to help clear out whatever may be overwhelming you. This can include your daily schedule, tasks you need to complete, triggers you’re dealing with (or anticipating), or your thoughts on addressing your struggles.

What you’ll find is that writing everything down helps you map out your concerns and get clarity on what steps you need to take. Your daily schedule is easier to organize when on paper and not in your head. You can better prioritize tasks. And you are able to get a concrete understanding of what’s overwhelming you. That alone makes it less of a burden when you can “see” it coming. It’s something you can strategize for and not obsess over. 

You may want to consider adopting the habit of “morning pages”, a concept originally created by Julia Cameron to help artists overcome creative blocks. But as many people have discovered, it’s a powerful exercise that anyone can benefit from. Tim Ferriss calls it the “most cost-effective therapy I’ve ever found.”

The concept is simple. Fill three pages with longhand, stream of consciousness writing, first thing in the morning (ideally). Do you have to do three full pages? No, of course not. That’s just a guideline. It provides you with enough space to dump what’s rattling around in your brain without taking an excessive amount of time. 

3. Use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage

Named for British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law says that your work expands to fill up the time you allocate for its completion. In other words, if you give yourself a week to complete a task that should only take a couple of hours, you’ll unnecessarily draw out the task over a week.

Instead of procrastinating on tasks until the last minute, which typically leads to feeling overwhelmed, make deadlines work to your advantage.

Start by breaking larger projects into smaller tasks, each with its own time frame and deadline for completion. Then work hard to complete each task by the deadline you created. The more consistently you do this, the more progress you’ll make in a shorter amount of time. Instead of feeling anxious as tasks pile up and deadlines approach, you’ll steadily check off tasks.

4. Set appropriate boundaries

When overwhelmed at work, most people’s first instinct is to fight through it, double their efforts, or work longer hours. But if you’re nearing burnout, trying to push through will only compound the problems. You need to determine how you got to where you are in the first place. 

Step back and look at everything that’s contributing to your feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Where did those things come from? Did you say yes to unnecessary requests from your coworkers? Did you wait too long to start on a project or underestimate how long a task would take you? Do you regularly work outside of normal work hours, which has created the expectation that you’re always available to your boss or team members?

Once you’ve identified what has brought you to where you are, determine appropriate boundaries that you can set in place. This could be something as simple as not responding to emails or Slack chats after 5 pm. 

It’s important to note that you may have to have challenging conversations with your supervisor or coworkers when you put these boundaries into place. One way to frame these conversations is in terms of doing your best work. Explain that as much as you want to do everything, you end up being spread so thin that the quality of your work suffers. 

If your work culture expects you to always be connected and work long, crushing hours, it may be time to reevaluate whether you’re in a sustainable position for the long term. 

5. Delegate and ask for help

One of the fastest paths to feeling overwhelmed is being overloaded with too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it. If this is a familiar scenario, it’s time to delegate and ask for help in getting things done. 

Delegating is simple if you take the time to organize all of your responsibilities and sort them into the four quadrants of the Eisenhower Box:

  • Important and Urgent: Do it now.
  • Important but Not Urgent: Schedule a time to complete it (adhering to Parkinson’s Law while you’re at it).
  • Not Important but Urgent: Delegate it to someone capable of completing it.
  • Not Important and Not Urgent: Delete it.
Eisenhower Matrix

Focus on what’s essential, delegate lesser tasks, and get rid of those items that don’t matter and you need not be overwhelmed by.

6. Limit Multitasking

Multitasking, while often praised as a skill, can actually lead to decreased efficiency and lower-quality work. When you try to handle multiple tasks simultaneously, your focus is divided, leading to potential errors and a longer time to complete each task. 

Instead, try focusing on one task at a time. This approach allows you to devote your full attention and energy to the task at hand, increasing your efficiency and the quality of your work. 

By completing one task before moving on to the next, you’ll likely find that you accomplish more in the long run. This method can also reduce the mental load and stress that comes with juggling multiple responsibilities at once.

7. Set SMART Goals

Setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals can transform an overwhelming workload into a series of manageable tasks. 

By defining clear and realistic objectives, you give yourself a roadmap to follow, which can simplify complex projects and reduce anxiety. 

Measurable goals allow you to track your progress and stay motivated, while achievable goals ensure that you’re setting yourself up for success rather than frustration. Ensuring that your goals are relevant keeps your efforts aligned with your broader career objectives, and setting time-bound goals helps you manage your time effectively. 

This structured approach to goal setting can significantly decrease feelings of being overwhelmed and increase your overall productivity and job satisfaction.

8. Use ‘Focus Music’ or Soundscapes:

Listening to focus-enhancing soundtracks or nature soundscapes while working can significantly improve your concentration and productivity. These auditory environments can mask distracting background noise, creating a more conducive workspace, especially in noisy or shared environments. 

Soundtracks specifically designed for focus often feature steady rhythms or ambient sounds that promote a calm, concentrated state of mind. 

Nature soundscapes, like the sound of rain, ocean waves, or forest ambiance, can have a soothing effect, reducing stress and mental fatigue. This auditory backdrop can help create a sense of calm and focus, making it easier to stay on task and maintain productivity over longer periods.

9. Weekly Reflection and Planning Sessions:

Dedicating time at the end of each week for reflection and planning is a valuable practice for managing work stress. During these sessions, review the tasks that caused the most stress and analyze why they were challenging. 

This reflection can reveal patterns in your workload and identify areas where changes could be made, such as delegating tasks, adjusting deadlines, or altering your approach to certain types of work. 

Planning for the upcoming week with these insights can help you prioritize tasks more effectively, breaking down larger projects into smaller, manageable parts. 

This proactive approach not only prepares you for the week ahead but also helps in developing strategies to handle similar challenges in the future, ultimately leading to a more manageable and less stressful work experience.

10. Pause and Reassess:

When overwhelmed, it’s often beneficial to take a step back and reassess your situation. This pause can provide you with a fresh perspective, allowing you to identify the root causes of your stress. It can also be an opportunity to reevaluate your priorities and adjust your approach to your workload. 

Sometimes, a brief break from your tasks can lead to innovative solutions and more effective strategies for managing your time and resources. 

Additionally, this pause can serve as a much-needed mental break, reducing feelings of burnout and refreshing your mind. Regularly incorporating these moments of reflection into your work routine can lead to more sustainable work habits and improved well-being. 

Coffee and cookies for a work break
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Take some form of action – specifically take time for yourself

Take a break. Take a breath or at least a minute to stop and breathe. Take a moment to plan. Take lunch with a coworker to talk it through. Take a meeting with your supervisor to express your frustrations (professionally, of course). Take an entire night to sleep. Take a vacation.

Take some time for yourself.

The point is to take action to help get out from under the rut you may find yourself in. Taking a moment to distract yourself and evaluate your current situation allows you to see things more clearly.

Only then can you genuinely identify what’s overwhelming you at work and then take action to address it. 

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Take Back Your Life

Being overwhelmed at work isn’t just a professional issue. It can also negatively impact your personal life, your relationships, and your health. However, taking steps to understand where the burdens originate and then developing strategies to address them will get you back in control of your professional journey.

Ending Notes: Finding Your Path to a Balanced Work-Life

In the quest to take back control and reduce feelings of being overwhelmed at work, it’s not just about implementing strategies; it’s also about embracing tools that can facilitate these changes. One such tool is Freedom, a versatile application designed to help you focus and enhance productivity.

Use Freedom to block distracting websites and apps, schedule focused work sessions, set aside time for your weekly reflection and planning sessions. 

It’s about creating an environment where you can thrive, focus, and ultimately feel less overwhelmed.