How to Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed at Work

You know what it feels like to be overwhelmed. If not, check your pulse. Sometimes we take on too much. We get behind. Other times we get overloaded by other’s agendas. We can easily find ourselves in over our heads, drowning in our task lists, and feeling completely overwhelmed. 

Overwhelmed at Work

I remember one week in which I felt particularly overwhelmed. I’d been leading the revisions our team was making to a week-long training course for leaders.

Sitting at my desk, my head was swimming with tasks that needed doing. They were random and disconnected. “Print the handouts. Gather the new videos. Update the evaluation form.”

I needed to get organized, but was too overwhelmed to think clearly. Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

How to Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed

When I feel overwhelmed at work, there is a simple 4 step process that helps me declutter my thinking and take productive action. I’m confident it will work for you too.

1. Capture Tasks 

What are the things that need doing? If you’re like me, these are fluttering around in your head already. They might sound like, “Get the department report from Debbie,” and, “Confirm Tuesday’s meeting with Mitch.”

Capture these individual tasks and projects. You can use your favorite to-do app or go old school with pen and paper. The point is to write it all down, everything! Likely you’ll find that some tasks have multiple steps while others are simple. Capture them all and add them to your to-do list.

David Allen defines multi-step tasks as projects. For example, “Get the department report from Debbie,” could be broken down into two steps: 1) Call Debbie to ask for the report and 2) Receive the report. Therefore, this is a project.

The tasks that only require one simple step are called what Allen calls “next actions.” An example of a next action is, “Send thank you email to Sarah.” It requires no added information or step.

For this (and all my task management needs) I use Wunderlist. You can scope out my task management process here.

2. Turn Projects into Next Actions

Usually it is the projects (rather than the simple tasks) that lead us to feel overwhelmed. “There are so many things to do. Where do I start?”

Take the projects and write down each of the next actions that you need to take.

If my project is to write (ahem) a blog post, some of my next actions would include:
  • Create a new blog post note in Evernote (where I do my writing)
  • Select the post topic
  • Collect resources for the topic
  • Create the headline image
  • Craft the headline
  • Write the rough draft

3. Choose Your Next Actions

Ask yourself, “What is the next logical step I can take?”

In writing a blog post, I can’t create the headline image before I write the headline. So, “craft the headline” has to come first.

For outlining a meeting agenda, you first need to 1) identify the topics to discuss and 2) determine the best logical flow, before you send out the agenda to the attendees.

You don’t have to plan out the project start to finish with every single action you need to take to complete it. That can be overwhelming. Plus, you may not know every step from where you are right now anyway.

As you take purposeful action, your next steps will become more clear to you.

Now, you have more clarity on what needs doing. I find this step grounds me in reality and helps me focus on what I can control. For some people, seeing a long list of next actions can create more anxiety. If this is you, hang in there for step 4.

4. Get Started

Finally, the part we’ve all be waiting for…get started. Do something. Take that next action.

This is where you turn all that anxiety and worry into momentum.

You’ll find that taking the first step gets you unstuck. Sometimes that’s all you can do; while in other situations, this one step will turn into a snowball of productive action. Before long it is lunch time and you’ve barely come up for air from all of the hard work you’ve been doing.

Gain Clarity and Control

We’ve all felt overwhelmed at some point in our lives. Maybe you feel like there’s more to do than you have time for. This seems to be the case in today’s culture of busyness. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, capture the tasks, turn projects into next actions, choose your next actions, and then get started. When you do, you’ll gain clarity and control, putting yourself in the driver’s seat.

Starting a project is often the toughest part. By putting this 4 step process to work, you can declutter your thinking and take productive action.

Question: What leads you to feel overwhelmed at work? Share your thoughts in the comments section below the post. 

Book: Getting Things Done by David Allen

Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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