Getting overwhelmed at work is a relatively common phenomenon these days. It’s especially likely to happen if you work in the startup industry, which tends to be very fast-paced and have minimal structure, but it is not rare by any means. Other people might describe the same feeling as anxiety, insecurity, or stress. It’s that feeling at the pit of your stomach when you’re worried about what’s coming at you and you have no idea how to tackle it, when you feel like you’re buried under a mountain of responsibilities and can’t see the way out. It’s not the best feeling to associate with your job.
If you find yourself feeling like this pretty often, it’s probably a good indication that you can improve your stress management in general. That’s definitely much easier said than done. Stress management is a skill that I could improve in dramatically myself. That said, these are some of the ways I try to work my way through it when it happens to me.
The worst thing about feeling overwhelmed is that it’s sometimes hard to identify exactly what’s causing it. So that’s the first question you have to ask yourself. What is the root cause? It’s usually down to one of the following:
1) There’s simply too much to do. This is the most common cause, in my experience. There’s never a lack of projects to work on or things that need to get done. They tip into the overwhelming territory when they all seem equally as important and equally as urgent, and there’s not enough time to get through even a fraction of them.
2) The weight of responsibility and potentially risky decisions. Responsibility is great, in many ways. It’s the only way to develop yourself and improve your skills in a lot of areas. Things usually only get done if someone feels responsible for them. The other side of that is that responsibility is stressful. In a lot of situations, the decisions you make might impact the people you work with, in a way that you don’t expect or that isn’t pleasant. Bearing that responsibility and knowing that you have to make a call and face the challenge yourself, can be a very stressful experience.
3) You or someone else whose opinion you care about, like your boss, has set very high expectations for yourself. Some people will use the line “I’m a perfectionist” to pretend they have no weaknesses but this is the case when high expectations stop you from being able to do your best work. If your goals are always unreachable, it’s easy to get paralysed. If you feel like someone else is setting completely unreasonable goals, just setting that goal can tip the scale too much in the other direction, where they become demotivating and unhelpful.
4) The environment that you work in is filled with distractions. It’s hard to notice exactly how much of a negative impact fragmented attention can have on your long-term well-being. If you work in an environment where you don’t or can’t set boundaries, it’s very easy to spend a whole day (or longer) jumping between different tasks without ever getting anything done.
Getting overwhelmed comes down to a lack of structure, prioritisation, and focus on your workday. Whichever one of these are the cause and irrespective of exactly how it manifests itself, the moment you get stuck on feeling overwhelmed is the moment you won’t be able to become productive and tackle the things you need to get done. It’s great to resolve the feeling at the root cause. For example, if you’re paralysed because of high expectations, you need to figure out a way to lower those expectations. That might not be very easy to achieve though. So these are some of the immediately applicable solutions that I’ve used when I’ve experienced the same. I usually go through these in order. Often the feeling will go away by itself by the end, or I’ll have successfully replaced it with some sense of accomplishment.
This has been by far the most effective technique in the shortest period of time. Even when your brain is running at a million miles an hour and you’re very stressed out, meditating will be easier than you think. You don’t have to meditate for very long and it isn’t about turning off your thoughts. It’s just about taking some time out to ground yourself and concentrate on something completely neutral, like your breath. Nothing breaks you out of that feeling faster than getting grounded and being present in the current moment. It’s an extremely effective way to gently push yourself into a mindset where you can think properly.
Feeling overwhelmed often controls your thoughts. Even when you know that there’s no point in looking at what you’re doing and thinking “there’s no way I can handle this,” you can’t quite stop yourself from doing that. Meditating is great because it interrupts that thought process a little bit. I’ve found it easier to convince myself to do it if I focus on a very short meditation, just for five minutes. It’s also easier if you do a guided meditation that gives you an actual task or something to focus on (for example, a body scan).
After meditating, you’ll hopefully be in a slightly calmer headspace and be better able to rationalise your way through your feelings. For example, if you recognise at this point that you’re stressed out because you’re running between too many different tasks and haven’t finished any of them, then you can start thinking about how you can change that. None of these has to be long-term changes at this point. You can come up with something very easy and set very short-term goals, for the next half hour or so. This is why taking the time to work your way through your stress, understand why you feel that way, and then present the other side to your own self can help.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you rationalise your way through something, it doesn’t end up completely going away. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed because you’re pretty sure your project is going badly and there’s no way to right the ship. No matter how much you explain to yourself that there’s no reason to feel bad about it, you probably will still feel bad. In these situations, the best way to move forward is usually to deep dive into the situation and it’s much better to do this in written form than to just think about it. Why is the project going badly? What are the aspects of it that haven’t gone as you expected? What can you and your team do to change these?
It’s much better to face the problem head-on and invest your brainpower in solving the problem, rather than to get stuck worrying about the outcome.
It might sound like a cop-out but if you’re ever feeling overwhelmed because of your workload, the only answer is to structure it. I’m the type of person who gets highly motivated by checklists, so I’ll just create a to-do list from scratch and write down everything that comes to mind at that moment. A certain amount of that stress is caused by thinking about the workload. The more time you spend thinking about it, the larger and less clear it gets. It becomes a weight that you’re carrying. Writing down what that workload involves makes it much easier to break it down, to visualise it, and to understand exactly how much time it will take you. When it becomes clear, it’s much easier to start working on it.
Structure is the secret to being effective in almost every avenue and area in your life. When you have a list, you can prioritise it. You can make a conscious decision to not work on some of those things. You can look at it and immediately recognise what’s really urgent and what would be nice to do but isn’t really essential right now. That’s a great way to stop feeling overwhelmed.
Now pick something to do and finish it. What exactly that thing is depends on your circumstances. If you’re getting stressed out because your expectations are too high, you can sit down and figure out why that is and what a more realistic goal could look like. If it’s because an external party is imposing those expectations on you, figure out what is doable and how you will communicate that to them. If it’s workload stress, pick the most urgent thing you need to do and finish it. If you’re overwhelmed by a particular task, break it down into smaller pieces and do the pieces that you can.
The idea is to face whatever it is that’s causing you to feel overwhelmed and solve at least one small aspect of it. Chances are, making progress there will already be enough to make you feel better. If it isn’t, it’ll have helped you to get started. Finishing something will give you enough of a sense of accomplishment that you’ve moved the needle a tiny bit in your favour. That’s everything that you need to do.
Hopefully, some of the above tips help you out the next time you sit at work and feel that pit in your stomach. These are all useful as a starting point, for one-off situations. It’s important to bear in mind that, if you find yourself having to deal with that stress on a regular basis, that you never have a period of time at work where you don’t feel overwhelmed, chronic stress is a larger problem. If that’s you, then no matter how much you focus on solving the immediate problem, you’ll likely need to think about a larger strategy for yourself. That’s a separate topic to handle at a different time.
Until then, remember that this is a normal response to stressful situations and there’s always something you can do to help, even if it’s very small.