Overcoming ‘overwhelm’

Feeling overwhelmed from too many tasks, information overload, and social obligations? Overwhelm can come from a number of sources: taking on too much, time pressures, fear of failure and looking bad to others, highly critical self-talk, and setting unreasonably high standards for ourselves.

But it’s not just what we have to do, also how much time we spend thinking about what we have to do pushes us into the Abyss of Overwhelm. According to Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, experts say that there’s a huge gap between the idea in our head of what we can do and what we can actually achieve.

In my experience, one of the main problems with overwhelm is that it blocks our feelings of accomplishment and dampens the expression of our creative selves that enriches our lives on all levels — not just at work.

We need to reduce overwhelm so that we can work better and feel more in control of our schedules and brainpower. Let’s look at a few ways to begin to alleviate overwhelm so that we can improve our work lives.

Delegate and dismiss

My favorite new way of fighting overwhelm is to delegate. I recently hired a personal assistant on a contract basis, and I love how much more I’m getting done. The best part: It’s not expensive! There are great online services like TaskRabitt, Fiverr, and oDesk that will help with services from picking up dry cleaning to transcribing audio files to text.

These days, dismissing is the new hotness, and the mantra is: it’s not what you read, but what you ignore. Make a conscious choice to filter what information comes in to you and goes out from you. If you are overwhelmed by email, for example, make a separate folder for all emails you’re CC’d on so that you can read them later. Set a time during the morning and the afternoon where you will read and respond to email. Finally, make it a point to send short and sweet emails by keeping your emails to five sentences or less. You’ll save time and your email recipients will appreciate it too!


If your sense of overwhelm comes from unreasonably high expectations of yourself, you may find comfort in the new practice of “satisficing.” A combination of the words “satisfactory + suffice”, satisficing encourages you to do that which is acceptable and no more.

Face it, that extra time and energy spent on making something absolutely “perfect” is rarely necessary (especially if your standards are sky-high!) Allowing your projects to get done and then sharing them sooner to get feedback to iterate upon will save you time, energy and sanity.

Get clear; Let go

As a recovering perfectionist, I know that some of my own sense of overwhelm often stems from a fear of looking bad to other people. If you’re like me, remember to counter this source of overwhelm by actively working to “let go”: dismantle your sense of self from other’s opinions about what you produce and your performance.

When your feeling of overwhelm is from not knowing exactly what is expected of you, then make a special effort to ask questions and find out what is wanted and needed. Even though the prospect seems nerve-wracking, keep in mind that asking detailed questions actually helps managers become better leaders and helps your clients to get exactly what they want. Everybody wins.

Focus on one thing at a time

My last recommendation is more Zen in nature: Be more mindful. Instead of falling into the habit of multitasking, try single-tasking: focusing completely on the task in front of you. Paying close attention to what you are doing — particularly focusing on noticing anything interesting or unusual — not only keeps you on task, but may put you into a Flow state as a bonus.

For most of us, the ultimate goal is to not just improve the way we work, but to improve our lives overall. In The late Dr. Maya Angelou set an example of living an extremely rich life full of passion and creative expression. I leave you with her words: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.”

Use these suggestions to overcome overwhelm to improve the way you work and live. These tools will help you to not just survive, but to thrive.

Denise R. Jacobs is a speaker, author and “Creativity Evangelist” who speaks at conferences and consults worldwide. This article originally was published on June 2.