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Feeling Overwhelmed?

Photo: Akasha Rabut (flickr stream)

Have you ever found yourself in a scenario where you had multiple deadlines, a long list of unfinished tasks, past due bills coming in the mail because you had forgotten to pay them, a rented copy of The Office Season 4 DVD that was due 9 days ago, and family, friends, and bosses asking you to do more? What can we do to gain back control of these chaotic and stressful situations?

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly busier. Things are moving at a faster pace and we are forced to move right along with it. More is required out of the average person than ever before. The benefit of our advancing society is that we are able to reap abundantly more than our grandparents would’ve ever imagined was possible. The downside is that we are often overwhelmed by the number of things that we are responsible for and that are required of us.

Sometimes the feeling of being overwhelmed doesn’t come from the actual tasks and responsibilities we have but from the mental clutter that occupies our minds. For example, if you are at work and you start to mentally run through all of the things that need to get done once you leave the office; you need to get on the phone to reschedule a dentist appointment, pick up your kids from daycare, pay the electric bill, and then take your car to the auto shop, then you’ve already added to the pressure of those events by running them over and over in your head.

Another example would be a person who is nervous about giving a 15 minute presentation. The hours and hours spent anticipating and worrying for days beforehand adds to the stress level, which may inevitably cause the feeling of being overwhelmed.

So, how are we supposed to handle these overpowering situations? I believe that we start by asking ourselves some very important questions, then answering those questions honestly.

Personal Story: “How Did I Get Into This Mess?”

I thought I had my year all planned out. In mid December, I set my goals for 2009 and mapped out how I planned on accomplishing those goals. The plan outlined the action steps in order to accomplish my financial, physical, relationship, and spiritual goals. Then I looked at what projects I had committed to and saw that even though I was taking the lead role in two of them, I had good people around me that were more than capable of doing a great job, which in turn would make my job a breeze.

From there, I looked at the speaking engagements that were scheduled for the year and saw that I had plenty of time to prepare great presentations. I even hired an assistant just in case I needed additional help with my workload. I keyed all of that information into the organizer function on my Little Magic Device (my Blackberry), and pressed “save” with a smile. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I was sitting on a park bench by a lake.

“Life is good”, I thought to myself.

However, not even two months into the New Year I found that I already had more on my plate than I anticipated. My leadership projects where riddled with unexpected obstacles, I was working longer hours than I originally planned, and deadlines where closing in.

With all of the busyness that I was dealing with on my major projects, other important goals started to fall through the cracks. Instead of keeping a healthy diet and getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night, I frequented the drive-thru window and stayed up late trying to meet deadlines. Even my assistant was working late to complete tasks that I no longer had time to do.

How did I get into this mess?” I asked my Blackberry, expecting an answer.

Disgusted with the way I was handling the situation, I devised a plan to shake off the defeated feeling and regain control of my life. I knew that I had to snap out of the rut I was in. By becoming overwhelmed, I knew that I was not doing myself any favors.

I started by asking myself some important questions that needed honest answers. They were:

  • Did I anticipate the unexpected?
  • Have I agreed to do more than I am capable of?
  • Are the goals that I have set for myself clearly defined?
  • Am I mismanaging my time?
  • Am I doing things that are the responsibility of someone else?
  • Am I spending time on unimportant things?

Asking questions like these can help us see where the breakdown in life management has occurred. It is also beneficial to ask the people around to answer some of these questions about us. Once we’ve answered these questions, we can then tackle the horrendous feeling of being overpowered by our circumstances.


Overcoming the Feeling of Overwhelmed

Feeling like we are overwhelmed and actually being overwhelmed are basically the same thing. Some people have multiple projects that they cannot handle. Others may have one task to do that seems so large it appears overpowering. Either way, the person maintains a feeling that renders them feeble and thus unable to perform at their best.

Photo: Vanessa Ho (buy her prints here)

Before we can regain control of our lives, we have to learn to handle that overwhelming feeling. There are several ways to handle the crippling feeling of being overwhelmed, here are the best ways I’ve found to combat this terrible emotion.

1. Stop Everything

The world around us and almost every product and service in it is developed to keep us moving. We have smart-phones, drive-thru espresso, instant everything, and lightning fast internet connections. The marketing strategy behind all of these is the promise that your life will be easier and you’ll have more time for the important things.

Even with all of these advances that are supposed to make life easier, we are still busier than ever. Before we can take back control of our lives, we need to stop the life we are currently living for a moment and re-adjust ourselves. Don’t check another email, or take another phone call, or do anything else until we’ve stopped everything and re-examined our situation.

2. Prayer and Meditation

Meditation is conscious relaxation and is an extremely effective way to increase focus and address the problems that you may be dealing with. Clarity of vision is vital, regardless of what we are doing, or in which direction we are headed. Sitting quietly for 30 minutes in the morning or evening gives your mind and body a time to relax and relieve tension.

Whenever you feel the overwhelming tension, close your eyes for 5 minutes, and focus solely on your breath – then clear your mind and regroup.

3. Take Care of Your Body

You are only going to be as effective as your body allows you to be. As we get busier and busier, our sleeping habits and healthy diet seem to be the first casualties. Fast food saves time but is unhealthy. Sleeping fewer hours gives us more time in the day to complete our work but without a full night’s sleep we are less effective.

When we require more output from our minds and bodies, we should provide them with the proper fuel and support to perform at their best. This fuel and support should come in the form of plenty of rest and a healthy diet.

4. Make Time for Friends

One of the greatest blessings in my life is a close group of friends who I can contact at any time and say, “what are you doing? I’m having a rough week. Let’s meet up at Chili’s.” Spending time with friends and family who support you can be a great stress reliever.

I try to keep the details of my busy week out of the conversations with friends. These moments with your friends should be an escape from whatever is overwhelming you. Just be in that moment and let those problems and worries disappear for a time. The most important thing at that time should be enjoying the company of your friends.

5. Exercise

It is well known that exercise is a great stress reliever and has great health benefits. Exercise releases endorphins into your bloodstream. Endorphins are “the happy chemicals” that your body produces.

British researchers have found that just 7 minutes of vigorous exercise daily can be enough to prevent diabetes, by lowering blood sugar. Also, when you are active, you increase the blood flow to your brain which will increase your thinking and focus.


How to Re-Gain Control When Feeling Overwhelmed

Now that you are feeling better, it’s time to tackle your obstacles and regain control of your life.

1. Define What Is Important

Identifying the most important things in your life makes it easier to decide how to spend your time. Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has talked about defining your big rocks. At seminars, he would have someone come on stage and try to fill a jar with rocks of various sizes. The person would quickly find that the only way to get all of the rocks in the jar is to place the biggest rocks first. After the big rocks are in the jar, finding a way to fit the little rocks is easy.

Be careful that you are not spending most of your time on the little rocks. Find the 3 most important things you need to do in a day and then do those things first. Checking email may be important, but if it isn’t one of the most important tasks of your day, it should be considered a little rock.

2. Cut the Fat

The truth is we tend to fill our time with the seemingly important, and not the actually important. Cutting the fat means eliminating the unnecessary things in your life that take up your time and energy without giving much back.

Many tasks in our lives are urgent, but not important. What are some things in your life that take up much of your time, but are not very important, or don’t contribute much towards your wellbeing? Can you work on reducing or eliminating these activities?

3. Do Things Automatically

If you spend time thinking about due dates for bills, it is time for you to automate. Almost every bill you have can be paid automatically from your checking or credit account each month. You can also set automatic transfers each month into your savings account. By having things done automatically, you will save a lot of time by eliminating the manual action of that task, and doing so will free up the mental energy required to constantly remind yourself.

4. Delegating

If you fear giving up control, this is going to be the most difficult but the most necessary thing you have to do to gain back control of your life.

I had a problem with this the first time I hired an assistant because I knew how I wanted every task to be done and felt that I was the best person to do it. But once I learned how to delegate tasks to other people, I wondered why I waited so long to do it.

If your personal and professional life is filled with too many little rocks, then delegating those tasks might be the solution you need. If you are juggling your classes with a personal and professional life, then you might consider getting some help.

5. Saying No

One of the major mistakes I made was saying ‘yes’ to almost every project I was interested in, and even some I had no interest in but agreed to take part in for the learning experience.

After realizing my mistake, I began saying ‘no’ to any new projects that came along because I knew that I would not have the time to invest my best effort. Learning to say ‘no’ may be difficult to do, but it is necessary if you want to regain control of your life.

Whether the request is coming from your boss, spouse, child, or co-worker, if you are unable to handle any more tasks or jobs, you must refuse them.

A man is rich in proportion to
the number of things he can afford to let alone.

~ Henry David Thoreau

6. Reward Yourself

So you’ve completed your big rocks, gotten rid of all the unimportant tasks, passed some responsibilities on to others, and you’ve said ‘no’ more times this week than an angry two year old. This is where it all pays off.

Now that you’ve regained control of your life, do something for yourself as a reward for handling the obstacles. Now is your chance to finish that book you started reading, or the art project you didn’t have time for. Maybe you would enjoy trying a new restaurant or a walk in the park. Perhaps you just want to lie on the couch and watch a movie.

Go ahead, enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it. You deserve it!

** When you feel overwhelmed with work and life, what do you do to re-gain control and find balance again? Share your thoughts and story with us in the comment section. See you there!

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About the author

Ralph Jean-Paul is a personal development speaker and writer. He is a student of success and achievement and enjoys sharing his knowledge of the world with the intention of helping others realize their potential. Ralph is currently working in the financial industry for one of America's largest Banks. To read more of his articles or to contact Ralph please visit his website at

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49 thoughts on Feeling Overwhelmed?

  1. It’s so easy to keep on moving and have that turn into a struggle. We all think that everyone else is handling things better or doing more than we are, but it’s just not true.

    While automating things like paying bills is great, I constantly have to check in to make sure I’m not automatically making decisions that aren’t serving me well. IMHO, making deliberate, aware choices about what you do and what you don’t do is the real trick to avoiding overwhelm.

  2. Hey Mark,

    I was being provocative. (And a bit sarcastic.)

    Mostly referring to the people I’ve encountered that say men suck at multitasking while super-women can balance everything at once. There’s been some information that women are inherently better at it but still the consensus is usually it hinders rather then helps.

    Yes tho, in this case the sex really doesn’t matter.


  3. I like provocative and sarcastic thoughts!

    Lot’s of “super-mom” types of stories talk about how the mom holds it all together, and then when the dad has to take over for the day, all hell breaks loose and he can’t handle it. Right? Men must be inferior then.

    Of course, how often do we see the stories of the mother who gets to walk in the father’s shoes for a day. Hmmm. That would be interesting!

    Of course, any comparisons or one-upmanship between the sexes is just dumb. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses and some people can perform skill A better while their partner can perform skill B better.

    I appreciate that you have an open mind Nicole. BTW, if somebody puts down “multitasking” as a buzzword on their resume and send it to me, it will make for an interesting discussion at interview time when I explain to them how it’s actually a “negative”.

    “Oh. I see here that you do a lot of multitasking and you’re really good at it. Did you know that multitasking is a synonym for decreased productivity? So please explain how my company would benefit by hiring you to work below your true potential?”


  4. Hi Nicole & Mark,

    You guys crack me up! :)

    I’ve learned through my studies on relationships that men (masculine energy) are single focused, while women (feminine energy) have what is called “diffused awareness”.

    This is apparently wired in our genes from thousands of years ago, and has to do with survival. Going back to cave people days. A cave man’s job was to hunt deers to feed the family and to protect the physical safety of the cave, while a cave woman’s job was to spend her days in the meadow picking berries and fruits, and tending to the emotional needs of their cave. It was not that one job is superior than the other, but it was the most effective to operate and to stay alive.

    Cave Woman: In order to distinguish the poisonous berries from the good ones in the meadow, a cave woman used her diffused awareness to remember the details of her surroundings. She also needed to be aware at all times the emotional states of people in her household. So she must spread her attention on many things.

    Cave Men: in order to successfully hunt animals and survive, he needed to be exceptional at focusing all his attention on one thing. When he has a goal in mind, he is completely focused on it. “Hunt the deer! Hunt the deer! Hunt the deer!” The cave men is not so good at spreading his attention on many things, like the cave woman, and if he was, he wouldn’t be as successful hunting deers.

    Men (Masculine energy) are thus better at focusing on one thing at a time, for longer period of time than women (feminine energy). Women have masculine energy too, and vice-versa, but in general, men have more of this masculine energy than women. Women tend to get distracted more easily by the things in her environment, making itharder to focus on one thing for extended period of time. I found this to be true for myself, and the men in my life.

  5. This blog post has helped me soo much. I especially love the analogy about the rocks (big & small) with tasks (important & least important). Keep up the good posts!

  6. Good pointers. Personally, I found meditation particularly effective – much more than I would have thought. Its effects grow over time and can be truly transformative.

  7. Hey Tina!

    Thanks for clarifying. :)

    I have a feeling you’d find this piece interesting too (Article Here)

    If you haven’t read it already that is.

  8. great post. especially the point about saying no.

    we say yes for so many reasons: out of friendship, favor, generosity, guilt, desire, greed…

    its so hard to say no but the act proves so much more valuable when it creates outstanding results in your yes.

    often you don’t even need to say the word, simply deciding what you will and won’t do gets the universe to re-organize itself around you.

  9. Beautiful post.

    I’m a fan of timeboxes and quantities.

    When I get overwhelmed, I use timeboxes to chunk things down. I also use The Rule of 3.

    The Air Force (among others) uses checklists to avoid “Task-Saturation.”

  10. Amanda

    I was in need for a post like this one. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  11. ranranaman

    Thank you, Tina.
    This essay really help me a lot, as I’m trapped in a mess recently.
    I would like to practise these steps and regain control of my life!

  12. Hi Tina and Ralph,

    There are few things I have found to better change my state quicker when feeling overwhelmed than just sitting back, focusing on the breath and getting centered for a few minutes. Great advice. I wish I would have know that a few years back ;).

    Thanks so much and keep it coming,

  13. There’s already been alot of great comments, and your thoughts on this topic, so I must say you walked threw this really well, giving a great well thought out guide….. think if as a person, you can overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed, that alone makes you are stronger for it, and I know that once you get that feeling off your shoulders, it will feel like the world has been lifted off your shoulders. :)

  14. A great post. Feeling overwhelmed can often be the greatest choke hold on productivity and it’s a constant game with our ever increasing workloads.

    For me, one of the things I do is after I stop everything and take a break, I’ll write everything down on my plate. It might take a few minutes but once I can see everything on paper, I feel a greater sense of control. From a place of inner control, I am able to attack my workload and implement many of the steps you suggest.

  15. i love this!

    hack away the unessential! it’s an artform.. one that i am working on right now

  16. Very valuable thoughts. We need to learn to say no so we can give ourself the attention and respect we deserve.

  17. Great article for anyone feeling overwhelmed. The best advice from this post is STOP. Prioritze. Plan.

    Thanks for the clear concise advice.

  18. Love it!
    Thanks for the great post.
    Here’s to Clobbering Overwhelm!
    In balance,

  19. Hey Ralph, it sounds like we underwent the same situation this year. Like you, I planned my goals ahead for 2009, thought everything was going to be smooth sailing. For some reason or another, things got kind of out of hand mid-way. I’m in the process of getting everything back in shape after a period of rut. It’s great to relate to your experience on this. Thank you for your great post!

  20. VitalityEmilie

    These are fantastic tips. I love that you mentioned meditation, eating well, and working out. These should be the last things we ever let slide. They fuel the mind and body so that we can perform and feel better then ever. I also love the cut the fat section. When you really start to take a look at all the stuff we do in a day you realize how much time we waste on excess things, to-do’s, etc. Less is definitely more!

    When I came to the realization that I’d always have a lot to do every day, I somehow managed to drop the feeling of insanity about wanting to rush through everything. Instead of doing more, I decided to do less. I took more time for inner space. It’s funny that I ended up being more productive, creative, inspired and happier!

    I really wanted to reiterate these posts. Great! Thank you for the wonderful blog post!

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