How to Deal with Constantly Feeling Overwhelmed

By Rebecca Zucker
December 6, 2019

Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating.

Our work lives have become increasingly demanding, presenting us with ever more complex challenges at a near-relentless pace. Add in personal or family needs, and it’s easy to feel constantly overwhelmed.

Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating. While CEOs of trillion-dollar companies, like Apple’s Tim Cook, wake up at 3:45 a.m., most of us don’t have quite this level of responsibility.

The cognitive impact of feeling perpetually overwhelmed can range from mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, to a racing mind or an impaired ability to problem solve. When we have too many demands on our thinking over an extended period of time, cognitive fatigue can also happen, making us more prone to distractions and our thinking less agile. Any of these effects, alone, can make us less effective and leave us feeling even more overwhelmed. If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed, here are some key strategies to try:

PINPOINT THE PRIMARY SOURCE OF OVERWHELM. Ask yourself the question, “What one or two things, if taken off my plate, would alleviate 80 percent of the stress that I feel right now?” While you may still be responsible for these items and cannot actually take them off your plate, this question can help you identify a significant source of your stress. If it’s the sheer size of the task or project that is overwhelming you, break it down into more manageable components, ask for additional resources or renegotiate the deadline if you are able — or all of the above.

SET BOUNDARIES ON YOUR TIME AND WORKLOAD. This can include “time boxing” the hours you spend on a task or project, leaving the office by a certain time or saying no to specific types of work.

CHALLENGE YOUR PERFECTIONISM. Perfectionism can lead us to make tasks or projects bigger than they need to be, which can lead to procrastination and psychological distress. As things pile up, the sense of overwhelm grows, which can then lead to more procrastination and more overwhelm. Know when “good” is “good enough” by asking yourself, “What is the marginal benefit of spending more time on this task or project?” If the answer is very little, stop where you are and be done with it.

OUTSOURCE OR DELEGATE. Ask yourself, “What is the highest and best use of my time?” Activities that don’t fall within your answer can be taught and delegated to others. This can include managing selected projects, delegating attending certain meetings, having a team member conduct the initial interviews for an open position.

CHALLENGE YOUR ASSUMPTIONS. If feeling overwhelmed is an ongoing struggle, it is likely that you have assumptions that are keeping you stuck in unproductive behaviors. By identifying and debunking these beliefs over time, you can broaden your previously contracted view of the world, which in turn allows you to reduce your overwhelm and provide you with a greater sense of agency.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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