How to Stop Being Overwhelmed at Work

Most of us have felt overwhelmed at work at one point or another.

It might have been caused by something as minor as receiving one too many emails, or it could’ve been triggered by an abrupt change in expectations–like a surprise meeting or a deadline that got moved closer at the last minute.

Overwhelmed at Work

Something pushes you into a state of complete overwhelm, and you start to shut down. You’re stressed, you can’t think straight, and you certainly can’t focus on your work. Everything seems impossible. Even something as simple as drafting an email can feel like an insurmountable task.

But guess what. You’re not alone–and this can get easier.

Overwhelm is part of work

A Deloitte report concluded that hyperconnectivity was one of the leading culprits causing workers to feel overwhelmed. Many employees admitted that being constantly exposed to emails, notifications, and instant messages across several platforms doesn’t just put a damper on their productivity, it leaves them feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

This is especially true for employees who feel tethered to their jobs 24/7/365 through emails and messaging apps.

France was one of the first countries to recognize the negative effects hyperconnectivity has on mental health when they passed a law in 2017 restricting companies from messaging employees outside of working hours.

The report also mentions that:

  • 72% of workers struggle with finding relevant information in their company’s systems
  • 57% of workplace interruptions come from switching between standalone apps
  • Many employees become stressed because they’re expected to manage their own time and workload, without help from senior leaders

And all of this can lead to people feeling overwhelmed, especially when they’re racing against the clock to meet deadlines.

Another one of the biggest culprits causing people to feel overwhelmed at work seems to be sensory overload. Being bombarded with a constant stream of information throughout the day is overwhelming.

When you’re not checking emails and chats on your company’s messenger platform, you’re wading through an ocean of information on their servers while trying to find a document or memo. Or you’re switching between multiple platforms, like tools for scheduling tasks and managing assignments.

So how do we fix this?

Strategies to help you cope with being overwhelmed at work

Feeling overwhelmed can have a negative impact on your performance and productivity. It can throw you into a tailspin where you feel like it’s impossible to plan and execute your tasks. When you’re overwhelmed, you might also experience decision fatigue, which makes it difficult for you to make even the smallest of decisions.

As you already know, none of this is good for your performance or your mental health.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, are you ready for some good news?

You don’t have to spend each day of work fighting feelings of stress and overwhelm. Here are some tips on how you can prevent yourself from being overwhelmed at work.

Overcoming Overwhelm

1. Plan out your day

Good time and project management skills don’t come naturally to everyone. But just because you’re not the most organized person in the office doesn’t mean you can’t use a little planning to help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed at work.

Checklists are great for this. Simply write down a few goals you want to reach over the course of the day, and devote your time to completing the tasks on the list. This can help you avoid becoming sidetracked by other low-priority projects.

For example, if you know you need to generate a marketing report by the end of the day, you’ll probably be less likely to get sidetracked helping a coworker with an assignment that’s completely unrelated to you. Plus, it feels good to check an item off your to-do list.

There are a lot of benefits to using a checklist, but you need to keep it short and sweet. Just focus on the main goals you want to accomplish for the day, because looking at a mile-long list of tasks to complete can also be overwhelming.

2. Stop multitasking

Multitasking is just a fancy word for “doing too many things at once.” It’s also a surefire way to overload your senses and burn yourself out. On top of that, research suggests that multitasking doesn’t work. While you may feel like you’re powering through your to-do list when you multitask, consider the following:

  • You’re more likely to make careless mistakes when you devote your mental power to more than one task at a time.
  • You experience “mental downtime” when you shift from one task to another, and you can waste as much as 40% of your productive time from this.

But multitasking doesn’t just hurt your productivity. It can also lead to you becoming overwhelmed from juggling multiple tasks at once and having to remember important details for each of them.

What’s more, multitasking can even make it more difficult for you to ignore distractions, which can further increase your chances of sensory overload. In other words, just stick to one task at a time whenever possible.

3. Make a Kanban board

For a lot of people, nothing sends you into a state of overwhelm faster than losing track of time. And if you’re working a fast-paced job, it’s easy to do. You’re so preoccupied with a task that you completely forgot you have an assignment due at the end of the day. Boom! Instantly overwhelmed.

This is where Kanban comes in. Think of Kanban as a beefed-up to-do list for people who need to track their progress throughout the day, week, or even month. It’s great for managing and tracking a steady stream of assignments to do, and Kanban only takes a few minutes to set up a physical board. All you need is a poster board and a few sticky notes. Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Draw three columns on your poster board
  2. Label your columns from left to right: “to do, in progress, and done”
  3. Write the names of the tasks you have to do on sticky notes, then stick each note in the column named “to do.” Note: every sticky note should have only one assignment written on it
  4. As you start an assignment, move the sticky note for that assignment from “to do” to the column named “in progress”
  5.  When you complete an assignment, move that sticky note from “in progress” to the “done” column

This will help make it easier to manage your to-do list. If there’s ever a task that you can’t complete at the moment for whatever reason, you can leave it in the “to do” column and begin a new task. This strategy is a great way to stop yourself from becoming overwhelmed by making it easier to track your assignments.

4. Engage in mindfulness exercises

Another way to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed is to engage in mindfulness exercises like guided meditation or active listening. The idea is to bring your thoughts to the present so you’re not preoccupied with things that have already happened or could happen in the future. Mindfulness exercises work because they reduce some of the elements that trigger stress or zap away your mental energy––both of which can lead to feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. 

“To keep myself from being overwhelmed, I practice yoga and Vedic meditation,” said Michael Miraflor, SVP at MediaLink. “It helps me reduce stress and to keep my ideas fresh and flowing.”

If you’d like to read more on how to be mindful at work, we’ve got an article that can help you get started. Also, be sure to check out our post on music for productivity and mindfulness to help you get in a productive headspace. If you’re interested in mindfulness meditation but don’t know where to start, here’s a post about that too.

5. Ask for help

If you’re trying everything it takes to mitigate overwhelming experiences at work and you’re still getting overwhelmed, ask your supervisor for help. According to research, 65% of executives found overwhelmed employees to be an urgent problem.

From this, we can surmise that most supervisors understand the effects that being overwhelmed can have on your job performance and your health–and chances are they’ll work with you to help you feel more comfortable in the workplace. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

6. Take a break

Brianne Kimmel, Founder of VC firm Work Life Ventures, says that sometimes the best way to break from feelings of overwhelm is to push pause on work completely and mentally reset. 

“When I’m overwhelmed at work, I like to schedule what I call an ‘outbox’ day. During these, I check in with old colleagues, cold email someone outside my immediate network, and focus on generally being proactive vs. reactive,” she said.

With a fresh mental slate, you can dive back into a prioritized to-do list and knock things out more easily.

Get to the root of overwhelm at work

We live in a fast-paced world where we’re constantly bombarded with messages, reminders, and other notifications. If you’re already feeling the pressure from your workload, constant updates from your smartphone and work computer can push you over the edge, sending you into a state of major overwhelm.

The good news is that removing some of the unnecessary chaos in your workplace environment can help you cope better. Turn off notifications for certain times during the day, only check emails in two-hour intervals, and/or plan ahead so you can focus on one task at a time. This will stop the barrage of information that leads to sensory overload, and will also help you feel like you’re in control of your workload­­ so that you don’t get overwhelmed as easily.